Posted June 14, 2013

Declining Player to Watch: Wes Welker

New England Patriots, Players To Watch
After a falling out with the Patriots, Wes Welker quickly latched on with the Broncos. (Ed Andrieski/AP)

After a falling out with the Patriots, Wes Welker quickly latched on with the Broncos. (Ed Andrieski/AP)

As we power through the summer toward training camps, Chris Burke will highlight players that interest him this season for various reasons. This week, he’s looking at three players who might regress in 2013.

It seems almost comical now (and it was a bit at the time, too), but the New England Patriots went through a brief spell early in 2012 when they seemed ready to phase Wes Welker out of their offense. Welker played sparingly in a Week 1 win over Tennessee, then opened Week 2 on the bench in favor of Julian Edelman.

Welker wound up reclaiming his usual role as Tom Brady’s go-to receiver again, of course, en route to a team-leading 118 receptions and fifth consecutive Pro Bowl honor. But the Patriots barely made a squeak when Welker hit free agency, allowing him to leave for the rival Broncos on an affordable two-year, $12 million deal that Patriots could have easily matched.

Which leads us to this question: Did Welker thrive simply because he was part of the Patriots’ system?

Either way, Welker’s situation is very different in 2013. And unlike in New England, when he remained Brady’s safety net even after the arrivals of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Welker is a complementary piece in Denver.

Even Welker, who averaged 112 receptions per year during his time with the Patriots, seems to know that.

“If I have to catch 112 balls,” Welker told the Denver Post, “that probably means we’re in trouble.”

A quick rundown of the players Welker might have to share the ball with:

Demaryius Thomas: Denver’s first-round pick in 2010 broke loose in Manning’s first Broncos season. Thomas led the team with 94 catches (62 more than he had in 2011), for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns. He will enter the year as the unquestioned No. 1 receiver on Denver’s depth chart.

Eric Decker: Taken two rounds after Thomas in the draft, Decker nearly matched him reception for reception last season. The former Minnesota Golden Gopher finished with 85 catches, nearly 1,100 yards and a team-high 13 touchdown grabs. The Broncos must continue to feed him the football.

Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen: While this duo may not be Gronkowski-Hernandez, it still combined for 93 receptions and seven touchdowns in 2012. Manning always has kept his tight ends involved, and 2013 does not figure to change that.

Willis McGahee and Montee Ball: The Broncos have no fewer than six options at running back currently on the roster, but it’s McGahee (a team-leading 731 yards rushing in 2012) and Ball (2013 second-round pick) who should go 1-2. Ball’s presence alone might mean more run plays for the Broncos, a year after they struggled to balance out their offense.

With all of those talented weapons around him, Welker will be hard-pressed to even approach the stats he posted from 2007-12.

So, while his recent production indicates that he still has plenty left in the tank, Welker’s regression in 2013 may not be so much from a physical standpoint as it is a team-assisted drop. Granted, moving from playing with Tom Brady to Peyton Manning is like trading in your Lamborghini so you can buy an Aston Martin, but the Broncos figure to ask less of Welker than the Patriots did.

And that’s why the question about the role of New England’s system in Welker’s repeated brilliance is a bit backward. Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots constantly have reconfigured their offense to best fit their pieces. When Welker and Moss were paired at receiver, Brady let it fly; when Gronkowski and Hernandez raised their games, the Patriots played down the seams; and Stevan Ridley’s emergence allowed them to pound the rock more in 2012.

Sure, Welker benefited from landing in a pass-happy system with a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. His unmatched skills out of the slot, though, forced the Patriots to build a large part of their offense around him.

The Broncos are highly unlikely to follow in those footsteps — last year, slot receiver Brandon Stokley caught 45 passes. Welker represents an improvement at the position, but the 32-year-old receiver is far from the top dog in Denver.

Welker, should he stay healthy, might not show signs of slowing down for another two or three seasons. But that does not mean that he will be able to replicate his Patriots successes in a new uniform.

8 comments
gary41
gary41

The title of this article is designed to get readers to tune in, but the content, based mostly on numbers, is nothing new and the conclusion is unfair.  When it comes to making that 3rd down reception to move the chains, Welker is the guy. If anything, the Patriot passing offense is a little more diversified, because they've been using more TE sets for short and intermediate yardage over the middle.  The QB's are very similar.  Welker simply gave up some money to play in the next best system he could find. 

drtacp
drtacp

This is quite the inflammatory article. To say that the most prolific WR in the NFL for the past 5 years is now on the snide when in the company of 2 other of the MOST prolific receivers is a 'Duh' revelation by this writer. Kraft and Co. are S**theads for letting him go. PM totally appreciates WW's presence in DEN and his football acumen and talent. This writer is on the wrong side of this equation. Wes Welker is totally NE's loss and DEN's gain. His acknowledged loss of stats sounds like Welker is a team player and not the declining player this writer intends to portray.

LeilaniHernandez
LeilaniHernandez

the article should have been peyton manning, a player that is clearly overrated and is out of it.

dbum
dbum

"welker presents an uprgade at the position" is an understatement. stokley in his prime wasn't close to as good as welker, and he still caught 68 balls for 1077 yards and 10 tds from peyton ('05). he may not catch as many balls but i wouldnt be suprised if he far outplays his usual yards per reception and td total. the broncos offense will be fun to watch.

pvs
pvs

@drtacp Welker is the best slot receiver but because Brady relied on him too much with the short passes over the middle, the offense lacked the big plays. Brady may be a more dangerous QB without his security blanket to dump the ball off to. Instead of focusing on the short middle of the field plays, the Pats will now open the entire field making it harder to defend. While I enjoyed watching Welker catch passes from Brady, the Pats offense will be more dangerous and explosive. Every defense knew Welker was not a deep threat and his production numbers indicated he a a short middle of the field slot receiver. He averaged 11.5 yards per catch and less than 6 YAC in 2012. There will be more big plays for larger gains with the Pats offense. 


Manning will not rely on Welker like Brady did and he will not catch 90 passes this season.

strayon
strayon

@LeilaniHernandez Can't agree with that one. I am a Pats fan, but Peyton Manning scares me more when he has the ball than Tom Brady right now - especially late in the game when the game is on the line. "Tom Terrific" has become "Tom Average-or-Less" when the Pats are down by four and a minute-something left in the game. I like having TB, but I'm afraid of PM late (though I am not sure what the stats will show)

rrrlas
rrrlas

@LeilaniHernandez you must be a tebow fan as he is totally overrated whereas Manning is going to the HOF regardless of whether you like him or not or whether he wins another game in his career.