Early in the 2012 season, it looked like the Patriots were ready to phase Wes Welker out of the Patriots’ offense.
He started Week 1 against the Titans, but played just 42 of 67 snaps. Then Julian Edelman started over Welker in Week 2 and received more snaps than the All-Pro slot receiver. Edelman was on pace for more snaps again in Week 3 against the Ravens before he left the game with a hand injury.
It’s a running joke now that the Patriots were “phasing Welker out” because at the end of the season he finished with 118 receptions for 1,354 yards and six touchdowns, but it was happening. Injuries to Edelman and tight end Aaron Hernandez slowed those plans, and it failed.
Because it failed is the reason the Patriots need to keep Welker and possibly sign him long term. Over the last five seasons, only two receivers have played in the top 60 percentile of slot snaps, according to Pro Football Focus — Welker and Eagles receiver Jason Avant. Welker has been far and away the most productive slot player the last five seasons, and he’s been the most durable too — and that’s no easy feat.
Just look at Edelman as an example. Edelman could replace Welker in the slot. He may not be quite as dependable or productive, but for the value, he would be a quality replacement. But because of the nature of the position, he can’t stay healthy. In 2012 alone Edelman suffered a hand injury, a concussion and a season-ending foot injury.
Plenty of people will point to Danny Amendola as a possible replacement in the slot for Welker, as well, but he’s even less durable. In the last three seasons Amendola has started just 15 games and played in 28. Slot receivers are typically smaller, shiftier players who are constantly asked to travel over the middle and take on the biggest hitters in the league — linebackers and safeties. Somehow Welker can take that punishment at his size while other players can’t.
With such a high-efficiency offense, the slot receiver is an extremely important part of the Patriots’ offense. The goal is to move the ball, move it fast and still manage to eat clock. A player like Welker is perfect for that role. And his durability gives the Patriots a major advantage compared to other teams.
There aren’t a lot of players like Welker out there that can line up in the slot, play almost every down and put up astronomical stats. Over the past five years, only Avant, Nate Washington, Donald Driver and Anquan Boldin have been able to put up stats even close to Welker’s. Driver and Boldin are great players, but they’re not Welker, and there’s just as good of a chance that you’ll find a player like Steve Smith (the former Giant version), Austin Collie, David Nelson or Jordan Shipley, who can only be productive for a season at a time before injuries or skill catch up to them.
In the past five seasons Welker has missed just three regular season games. Among regular slot receivers in that span, only Washington has played in more games. Because Welker is turning 32 before the 2013 season starts, that durability and consistency may not last forever, but at least there’s a history that suggests it will.
There are some solid slot guys out there in free agency — and even more in the draft — but none can be guarantees like Welker is. Nelson, Victor Cruz and Emannuel Sanders are all restricted free agents, while Collie, Amendola, Smith, Brandon Stokley and Roscoe Parrish are unrestricted. If the opportunity arose to pry Cruz away from the Giants, it may be worth it to let Welker walk, but he’s the only one that can match Welker’s value. The rest could be had for less money, but with that comes less durability and reliability.
In the draft, West Virginia has two impressive slot prospects in Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. Other intriguing slot options in the draft are South Carolina’s Ace Sanders, Michigan’s Denard Robinson and Texas A&M’s Ryan Swope. If the Patriots could grab one of those players, it may be worth it to slap the franchise tag on Welker and try to go through the “phase out” process again. That way, if one of those young players proves themselves to be productive and reliable enough, Welker could walk in 2014 rather than 2013.
Durability should be a major concern within New England. As great of a player as he is, Hernandez has shown an inability to stay healthy for a full 16-game season. As much as everyone hopes Rob Gronkowski‘s two forearm breaks were isolated incidents, there does exist the possibility that they weren’t and that could be a concern for years to come.
Beyond Gronkowski and Hernandez, the Patriots have just Brandon Lloyd and their running backs as dependable targets for Tom Brady that are currently signed for 2013. Lloyd is no guarantee to be back in 2012 and you can’t rely on running backs as primary options in the passing game.
Obviously Bill Belichick will look to add to his arsenal of receivers in the draft and free agency, but it’s nearly impossible to replace Welker’s production, even with multiple players. The more Hernandez and Gronkowski get the ball, the more prone to injuries they will be, and you can’t expect a free agent to come in and grab 150 targets per season.
The Patriots will eventually have to plan for life without Welker, just as they will some day without Brady or Belichick. But that time isn’t now for any of those three, and whether it’s with the franchise tag or a long-term contract, Welker needs to be back in 2013.
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