Player Points - Wes Welker
By Chase Stuart
May 25th, 2010

Note: This article was written in late May, with Wes Welker's status for the 2010 season still very uncertain.

Wes Welker has 346 receptions over the last three seasons, by far the most in the league over that span. With their 2009 performances, Welker and Brandon Marshall joined Marvin Harrison, Jerry Rice and Herman Moore as the only players to ever record three consecutive 100-catch seasons. Welker tore his ACL and MCL in the regular season finale, however, an injury that could take a full year or longer from which to recover; he also had rotator cuff surgery in the off-season. As it stands, it looks like Welker -- perhaps the most irreplaceable cog in the Patriots offense -- might miss a significant chunk of time in 2010. At a minimum, he is unlikely to play at an elite level for most of 2010.

So what does this all mean? How irreplaceable is Wes Welker? Since coming to New England, Welker has only missed four games, all during last season. Against the Jets in Week 2, Tom Brady had one of the worst games of his career (23 of 47, no touchdowns, one interception and just 4.6 yards per pass attempt); New England scored just nine points. In the rematch in November, Brady and the Pats offense looked much stronger when Welker caught 15 passes for 192 yards.

Welker also missed the Week 3 game against Atlanta. Randy Moss was the main target in that game, catching 10 passes for 116 yards on 16 targets. The Patriots running game carried the day, though, and New England uncharacteristically settled for four short field goals in five red zone trips. Brady had -- for Brady -- a subpar day.

In Week 17, Welker played just four snaps before tearing the ligaments in his knee following a 12 yard catch and run. The game was a meaningless one for the Patriots -- Brady only played two-thirds of the game as New England had the division title wrapped up. But the performance wasn't a very Brady-like one: even with Julian Edelman filling in for Welker (10 catches, 103 yards), Brady threw for only 186 yards (26 attempts) with no touchdowns and 1 interception.

The last non-Welker game was the ugliest one. Brady went 23-42 for only 154 yards, throwing three interceptions (along with 2 TDs) in an ugly home playoff loss to the Ravens. Below are Brady's numbers on a per-36-attempt basis from 2007, 2009 with Welker, and 2009 without Welker:

Year
Comp
Att
Yds
TDs
INTs
2007WW
24.8
36.0
299.3
3.1
0.5
2009WW
24.5
36.0
297.5
2.2
0.9
2009WO
20.2
36.0
191.0
0.7
1.1

The '09 numbers without Welker are based on a small sample size, against two tough defenses and include one essentially meaningless game. But it's hard to argue that the Patriots offense can "get by just fine" without Welker (especially since in 2008, Matt Cassel averaged 22.8 completions, 257.7 yards, 1.5 TDs and 0.8 INTs per 36 attempts with a healthy Welker.) While Brady is certainly the most valuable player on the Patriots offense, Welker might be the straw that stirs the drink.

On the other hand, Welker seems like the sort of player who can be replaced in many ways. Despite being "irreplaceable" in certain ways, he's one of the easiest players to replace in another sense. I can think of at least four different routes New England could follow in an attempt to replace Welker.

  1. Find a Welker clone. The most obvious approach would be to find another player (Julian Edelman, perhaps?) to run the same routes Welker runs. If that player can mostly do what Welker does -- make the tough catches over the middle, move the chains and be Brady's hot receiver on blitzes -- the Patriots offense should run smoothly in 2010. But while Edelman posted solid numbers in the non-Welker games (27 catches, 265 yards and 2 touchdowns), the Patriots offense didn't look nearly as competent as it did with Welker playing. But it's worth remembering that Edelman was a rookie and converted quarterback from Kent State in 2009; he may be much better in 2010 with the valuable experience he's since learned.

  2. Find a more athletically gifted receiver to play opposite Randy Moss and run a more explosive, vertical offense. New England drafted receivers in the third rounds of the past two drafts (Brandon Tate '09, Taylor Price '10) who seem to fit this bill. Price's 4.41 40-yard dash at the combine was the second fastest time among receivers. Tate was an equally fast receiver at North Carolina before tearing his ACL in '08 and essentially redshirted for the Pats last season. One of these two speedsters, opposite Moss, could steal the starting spot and change the dynamic of the Pats offense, relegating Edelman to a less vital third receiver role.

  3. Run the ball. A lot of Welker's receptions were just long handoffs, and a strong running game would help the Pats offense stay strong without Welker. If New England added a strong runner, that player would keep the defenses honest against Randy Moss and could become a first down machine, working as a nice substitute for Welker. But New England didn't draft a single running back (although they signed Pat Paschall, an impressive running back at North Dakota State, after the draft); they appear content to enter the season with the same lackluster quintet of Fred Taylor (34 years old), Kevin Faulk (34), Sammy Morris (33), Laurence Maroney and BenJarvis Green-Ellis. While this route makes sense, it doesn't appear to be the one the Patriots plan to follow.

  4. Aaron Hernandez. Absent the Patriots signing a stud running back in the coming weeks (or Laurence Maroney having a breakout season), #3 seems out of the question. And while Tate and Price have potential, it may be too much to expect either of them to be ready to take the NFL by storm in 2010. The first option would be the cleanest, but Wes Welkers don't grow on trees and Edelman may not ever be able to replace his production. That brings me to #4, Aaron Hernandez. He's one of my favorite sleepers for the 2010 season.

Hernandez led the Gators in receptions in 2009: he was Tim Tebow's favorite target and his safety valve. In the Gators' three biggest games, Florida leaned heavily on Hernandez. In Florida's three-point, come from behind win against Arkansas, the SEC Championship Game and the Sugar Bowl, Hernandez had 24 receptions for 288 yards. Many have noted the similarities between the Urban Meyer's offense and New England's spread attack, and Hernandez often played the "Welker" role for Florida. New England was the perfect landing spot for Hernandez, who fell to the fourth round due to questions about his blocking ability and marijuana use. Neither of those issues seem likely to prevent Hernandez from mimicking the production that Indianapolis gets from their tight end, Dallas Clark.

In reality, none of the above options need to be the exclusive remedy to replace Welker; the Patriots will likely run more often, throw downfield to Price and Tate, and use both Edelman and Hernandez as Welker's replacement. Heck, maybe Welker will make a fast recovery and make all of this moot. But I'll be keeping an eye on Hernandez, who can a super deep sleeper with high upside in 2010. If Brady and Hernandez start developing good chemistry in training camp and the preseason, Hernandez will be a guy I'm going to roster in as many leagues as I can.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to stuart@footballguys.com.

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