The Patriots’ Wes Welker Conundrum
While the image of Wes Welker dropping what most likely would have been a Super Bowl clinching catch just 3 and half months ago is probably still seared into the minds of Patriots (and Giants) fans, there are plenty of reasons to think that Welker will be in a position this year to atone for his drop (on an admittedly tough, but catchable, pass). After all, the Patriots have only gotten stronger on offense and their secondary has nowhere to go but up. Chances are good that Welker and the Patriots will be once again playing big games in January and, perhaps, February of 2013. However, what happens to the diminutive WR after that is a mystery.
Currently, Welker is franchise tagged and (unlike teammate Logan Mankins) decided that signing his franchise tender and getting into camp on time was a good way to ensure a good season and a potentially lucrative extension. Welker has reportedly turned down a 2 year, $18M contract which was rumored to have been fully guaranteed. Presumably, he is looking for a longer deal. The question is: is Wes Welker really worth re-signing for more than 2 years? If Tom Brady had his way, Welker would probably ride off into the sunset with Brady and Belichick in 3-4 years after winning another Lombardi trophy. While some Pats fans might not want to admit it for fear of sullying their image of Belichick the cold-hearted mastermind, Brady’s desires probably do have a little clout in the minds of Belichick and player personnel man Nick Caserio. After all, Tom Brady is not a QB who finds (or can create) chemistry with the average receiver – despite making plenty of average receivers look pretty good. Part of the Pats’ struggles to develop a young WR have come from Brady not trusting anyone other than Welker, Branch and his young TE’s. Keeping Brady happy is certainly a selling point for Welker and there is no denying that, with the exception of that one (very memorable and significant) pass in February, no one works as well with Brady as Welker does. In fact, were it not for the Brady/Welker chemistry, it is likely – or even probable – that this would be Welker’s swan song in Foxboro. As it is, he’s likely to end up with a contract extension in New England at some point between now and September of 2013.
The problem the Patriots have, and it’s a certainty that their front office knows it, is that Welker is small, takes a lot of vicious hits over the course of the year and is at the point of his career where small WR’s break down rapidly. Take a look at the yearly reception totals of the top 15 non-Welker WR’s 5’10 or shorter since 1990:
How many of those guys were worth big money after the age of 32 (which Welker will reach in 2013)? Mason, certainly. Steve Smith likely. The rest? Not so much. While Mason lasted forever and Smith looks to still be highly productive consider this:
Touches (receptions, rushes, punt returns, kick returns) through age 30:
Derrick Mason – 737
Steve Smith – 891
Wes Welker – 1063
Welker has 326 more touches than Mason did by the time each receiver got through their age 30 season. Even the 172 touch differential between Welker and Smith is nearly 2 full seasons worth.
None of this is to say that Welker cannot be productive beyond the next two years. However, most Patriots fans can attest to the fact that he gets knocked around pretty badly through the course of the season. As did Wayne Chrebet, whose style was more similar to Welker’s than Mason or Smith (the latter two being more frequently used on the perimeter than Welker). He disappeared into oblivion quickly due to injuries and concussion problems. Like running backs, small WR’s tend to age very poorly and the Patriots’ (well deserved) reputation for preferring to get rid of guys a year too early rather than a year too late seems to indicate that they will hesitate to keep Tom Brady’s security blanket in town for too many years.