The Welker Situation
I don’t make a habit out of questioning Bill Belichick. When the best head coach of the last ten plus years does something that surprises me, I usually look within and analyze why I am surprised. I generally just assume that the Patriots’ biggest brain knows something that I don’t. I think most football fans and media would be wise in doing the same. Having said that, I am not prone to blind faith--even with a great mind like Belichick. And, quite frankly, I doubt that the man in charge is in the dark here. Still, in the case of Wes Welker 2013, I wonder if New England might finally be on the verge of a pennywise pound foolish decision.
Wes Welker is a Belichick guy. Some might even say that the coach made Welker. He paid him like a top player when it was not fashionable to do so. As is often the case, Belichick proved to be smarter than the pack. Nothing new. Now, after getting more out of Welker than anybody could have reasonably expected, Belichick and the organization are hesitant to pay Welker, perhaps due to the mileage he’s logged. It would stand to reason that Belichick knows this player and that his judgment is sound. In some ways I think it is. Still, I can’t help but wonder if playing tough with Welker makes more sense in a vacuum than in real life.
The Patriots are not the only team that likes to use a lot three-wide sets these days and though the general consensus seems to lean towards Welker being a product of the Patriots’ scheme, we have our doubts. That is to say, we think a lot of teams would like to have Wes Welker in their scheme. It says here that he’d look pretty darn good in Chip Kelly’s spread attack that is playing in Philadelphia now. How about as an upgrade to Brandon Stokley in Denver? Do you think Peyton Manning might find Welker underneath often with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker drawing coverage downfield?
Belichick has dumped many quality Patriot players at just the right time. We all know the names. Giving up on players too soon is not a common mistake in New England. Here’s where the potential loss of Welker concerns me. The Percy Harvin trade puts the Vikings in front of the Patriots twice in this year’s draft. Common wisdom says that they will take Tavon Austin off the board before the Patriots have a chance to draft him. I agree with common wisdom on this one. I also think Austin is one of the few guys I’d be willing to go with over Wes Welker in the Patriots’ scheme. He’s young, exceptionally talented and he’s dent-free. Austin is now a player that they’ll need to move up for if they want him. With only five picks this year, that may be tough to do.
Let’s assume that Austin is a non-option for now.
So, if the Patriots play hardball with Welker and a team like say Denver decides to cut Elvis Dumervil and use the savings to give Peyton Manning a new high-end slot toy, what does New England do? That is, apart from worrying about covering Welker in next year’s AFC Championship Game. As much as I trust the Patriots to have a plan, I wonder if they are losing site of what makes Welker special. Let’s look at some of the potential replacements.
On the surface, this could easily be seen as an upgrade. Amendola can rule the slot and makes the tough catches look easy. He’s younger and bigger than Welker and he’ll probably come cheaper too. The upside Amendola brings is real, and he gives you that always-on tough guy that Welker has always been. Now for the rub. Amendola can’t stay healthy. It makes sense too, when you consider how he throws his body around. This brings me to perhaps the most amazing thing about Welker. He takes hits like few ever have and he gets up. Welker is among the toughest most durable receivers in the history of the league. The difference between the two players, as far as durability is concerned, is impossible to ignore. It’s a big risk, if New England opted to go that way and effectively swap Welker for Amendola.
Edelman is surely a favorite of knowledgeable New England fans. The head coach likes him too. This much was clear last year when he started taking snaps from Welker for the purpose of getting Edelman on the field. Belichick’s confidence was rewarded too. Edelman looked very much up to the task as an option from scrimmage. If he’d been able to stay healthy, he might have become a household name last season.
Edleman injured his hand in Week 3 on a receiving touchdown. He was lost for three weeks and was probably not fully healthy for 5-6 weeks. Then, in Week 11, Edleman started to heat up again. He found the end zone in both week’s 11 and 12 but was lost for the season Week 13. So, like with Amendola, we have a player who could probably replace Welker when healthy, but is there any chance he can stay healthy for sixteen games? I would be hesitant to make that bet.
Wes Welker has missed just three games in the last eight seasons. Now let’s consider the injury history of the other key components in the Patriot passing game.
Rob Gronkowski is coming off of three surgeries to the same arm. This has got to be of at least some concern, when you consider how hard Gronk plays. Don’t forget, the only reason Gronkowski was available as a second rounder back in 2010 was because he’d had back surgery in 2009. He also had ankle surgery last February. As great a talent as he is, it’s hard to just assume that he will stay healthy when his past and style of play are factored in.
Aaron Hernandez is also an exceptional talent, but his history of missing games is even more significant than Gronkowski’s. He’s missed ten games in his three professional seasons with various maladies. To assume that you’ll get sixteen starts from Hernandez is to discount well established history.
So what would we make of a Patriots offense that revolved around Gronkowski, Hernandez and either Amendola or Edelman? On paper they would be fine. I’m assuming that they do the best they can on the outside through the draft and free agency and that they may cut and replace Brandon Lloyd.
The engine of the Patriots offense, other than Brady are the tight ends and the slot. That’s where Tom Brady gets his reads from. That’s where they set up their mismatches in the post-Randy Moss era. Over the last few years, Welker’s durability has been very important due to the games missed by Hernandez and Gronkowski.
What happens when the injury bug hits and you don’t have an indestructible slot guy? Are the Patriots wise to play those odds?
I have read in a few places that the team has all the leverage here. That may be true, but it only takes one other team to disrupt that dynamic. Being fiscally responsible has served the Patriots well for a long while, but so has Wes Welker.
Maybe I’ll be inclined to do some self analysis if Belichick decides to let Welker go, but I’m not sure.