Welker is coming off his worst season since 2005, catching just 49 passes for 464 yards and two touchdowns. He suffered multiple concussions during the season, and while he has been medically cleared by a renowned concussion doctor, it seems his next one could be career-threatening. Welker is still a very solid possession receiver, but the injuries have added up, and it seems highly unlikely he ever gets back to the 100-reception level he maintained during his time with the Patriots.
The 33-year old Welker is coming off an odd season where he scored the most touchdowns of his career on the fewest catches since 2006. In addition, despite playing in the most prolific passing offense of all time, his per-play numbers (7.0 YPT, 10.7 YPC) declined to levels not seen since he was coming off major knee surgery in 2010. Welker did miss three games at the end of the year due to a concussion, bringing down his season totals, but his 16-game pace was 90 catches on 137 targets for 958 yards and 12 scores. Compare that to his average from 2011-12 (120 catches on 174 targets for 1462 yards and 7.5 scores), and you can see the steep drop-off aside from the TDs. At 5-9, 185 and with only average speed, Welker makes his living on his quickness, ability to read defenses and crisp routing running. While Welker usually has reliable hands, he dropped 10 of his 111 targets last year (T. 2nd). That apparently didn’t deter Peyton Manning from targeting him when the team got in the red zone – Welker saw a whopping 24 looks there, second only to Calvin Johnson’s 26. And Welker had 14 looks inside the 10 (2nd) and nine inside the five (1st) even though he missed three games. While few small receivers see significant red-zone work, the Broncos took advantage of Welker’s quickness over short distances to find him near the goal line, and it was successful – he caught all 10 of his TDs from inside the red-zone and converted eight of his 14 inside the 10. Heading into 2014, the Broncos will be without Eric Decker, the league’s third most highly targeted red-zone receiver, so Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas could absorb some of those opportunities. Keep in mind, however, the Broncos offense will almost certainly regress after setting an all-time record, Welker’s age and per-play numbers signal a significant decline from his peak and Denver signed Emmanuel Sanders and drafted Cody Latimer in the second round. In addition, Welker suffered a concussion during the team's third preseason game, which was his third in the last calendar year, and then as Week 1 approached he was suspended for the first four games of the season.
Leaving an ideal situation is usually the death knell for a 32-year old wideout's career, but Welker's trip to Denver might be an exception.
While Welker will have to contend with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker for targets, it might not have been too different in New England with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski (until the former was released following his arrest). Denver has tight ends of its own, but they're bit players, like the other Patriot receivers last year. And while it might seem like Welker's long-forged rapport with Tom Brady will be hard to duplicate, keep in mind Welker caught 112 balls during his first year in New England. Moreover, Welker is already working out with Thomas, Decker and Manning this spring.
It's wise to bet on some age-related decline, however, and even in New England, Welker would have been hard pressed to see another 175 targets or more than a handful of scores. But a significant role and high catch rate should make Welker highly useful in PPR leagues and consistently productive even in standard formats.
Another year removed from knee surgery, and it sure looked like Welker was all the way back. Welker led the NFL by a mile with 122 catches, was second in yards (1,569) and set a career-high with nine touchdowns. He also set Patriots career highs in YPC (12.9) and YPT (9.1) and led the NFL in yards after the catch with 751. He even tied for third in the league in red-zone targets with 22, though only six were from inside the 10. At 5-9, 185, Welker isn’t scoring on fade routes, but instead using his lateral quickness to get open underneath and dart into the end zone between defenders. Of some concern for Welker was his drop-off during weeks 9-16 when he averaged 76.1 YPG on 10.9 YPC compared to 120 and 14.5, respectively, during the season’s first half. Moreover, the emergence of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as Tom Brady’s more frequent goal-line targets, and the signing of Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney could cut into Welker’s work in 2012. Finally, the Patriots placed the franchise tag on Welker this winter, and while he’s not happy about it, he signed the tender in May. As the Patriots typically don’t pay for past performance, the 31-year old Welker might not get the payday for which he’s hoping, but it shouldn’t affect his status for the season.
Considering he had ACL repair surgery in February of 2010, it's fairly amazing Welker amassed 86 catches and scored seven touchdowns. But looking beneath the cosmetic numbers, Welker was clearly not himself, leading the league with 13 dropped passes, averaging a career-low 9.9 YPC and by far a career low 6.9 YPT (24th among the league's 31 100-target receivers), despite having a healthy Tom Brady as his quarterback. Heading into 2011, Welker should be healthier, but it remains to be seen how much of his decline was due to the injury and how much was due to not having defenses account for Randy Moss. Deion Branch did a nice job in Moss' place, but he's simply not going to draw that kind of defensive attention. While we suppose the addition of Chad Ochocinco could cost Welker a few looks, a healthier knee could give the Pats' "slot machine" some of his all-important quickness and agility back. One positive aspect of Moss' absence was Welker's 23 red-zone and 13 inside-the-10 looks (both tied for 3rd). Welker's too small for fade routes or jump balls and too slow to get behind defenders downfield. But his excellent lateral quickness and Tom Brady's accuracy give him a chance to score on quick out patterns from in close if the Pats use him in that area again.
Welker had a season for the ages despite
missing the better part of three games due to
Welker hauled in 123 receptions (tied for
2nd all-time) on just 162 targets — a whopping
76 percent catch rate. In fact, Welker had
double-digit receptions in seven of the 13
games in which he saw significant action,
making him an absolute monster in PPR
leagues. And despite being a possession
receiver, Welker averaged a respectable 8.3
yards per target and led all wideouts by a sizeable
margin in yards after the catch.
At 5-9, 195, and with limited long speed,
Welker’s strength is his elite quickness, route
running and hands, and an excellent rapport
with quarterback Tom Brady. Welker isn’t much
of a red-zone threat — just 16 of his 162 targets
were in that area, and only four of those from
inside the 10 — and he’s not a downfield
weapon, either — just eight catches of 20 yards
or more all year. So he’s never going to be a
great source of touchdowns.
Of course, the biggest issue with Welker is
the torn ACL he had repaired in February, and,
to a lesser extent, a torn rotator cuff. At press
time, he had been jogging and playing catch
with quarterback Tom Brady, but he’s likely to
miss some time in 2010, and it’s unclear when
or in what capacity he’ll return.
The smaller, quicker, paler answer to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Welker is the league’s other dink and dunk specialist, moving the chains and catching nearly everything that comes his way.
In fact, Welker again led the league with a whopping 74-percent catch rate, nearly matching his 77-percent mark during Tom Brady’s career season in 2007. As a result, he’s caught 223 balls over the last two years, far and away the most in the league.
Like Houshmandzadeh, Welker won’t do any damage down the field – just 13 of his receptions went for 20-plus, and just one went for more than 40 yards. Unlike Houshmandzadeh, Welker doesn’t have the size to operate effectively in the red zone. While Welker saw 21 looks from inside the opponents’ 20, only three went for scores, in part because he usually caught the ball short of the goal line. At 5-9, 185, Welker is the same size as most cornerbacks and smaller than every safety, but he uses his exceptional quickness and cutting ability to find open space and his reliable hands to corral the ball.
Even with Tom Brady returning we don’t expect major changes to Welker’s output which was nearly identical in 2008 to his 2007 breakout, with one notable exception: touchdowns. But as we said last year (before we knew Brady would be out for the year): “We’d rather not count on a receiver without red-zone skills scoring that many touchdowns from in close again. And because that’s the only way Welker’s going to score, consider 2007 his ceiling.”
We're pretty sure Welker enjoys playing with
Tom Brady and Randy Moss.
Welker averaged only 10.5 yards per catch,
but he caught an amazing 77 percent of his targets, an unheard of number for a wide receiver
and easily tops in the NFL among 70-target
receivers. Of course, he ran short routes, but
his ability to separate from defenders with his
tremendous quickness helped, as did having
one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the
league. And Moss' presence made sure there
was never more than one player covering Welker.
The end result was a league-leading 112 receptions
and eight touchdowns.
At 5-9, 185, Welker's a small receiver, and
he's more quick than fast. He runs good routes
and isn’t afraid of contact over the middle,
though he's unlikely to break many tackles.
On one hand, Brady was far and away the NFL leader in passing attempts from inside the red zone, and the Patriots have been near the top of the league in that department the last three seasons. On the other, New England is likely to run the ball more this season from in close given all the running-back injuries it had a year ago. In the end, we'd rather not count on a receiver without red-zone skills scoring that many touchdowns from in close again. And because that's the only way Welker's going to score, consider 2007 his ceiling.
Though the additions of Randy Moss and Donte’ Stallworth may have drawn more attention this offseason, Welker has a chance to make a big impact in the passing game as well. Look for him to catch plenty of passes in the slot and while his cohorts may rack up more TDs and make more big players, Welker figures to be a steady source of production, especially in leagues where receptions count.
"Serviceable" describes Welker's contributions as a kick and punt returner. He's competing to retain that job, but the Dolphins are looking for someone more explosive who can also fill Welker's shoes as a viable No. 3 receiver. Hagan figues to win the third receiver job, but Welker will probably stick around for another season while the Dolphins find out what the likes of Derek Hagan, Devin Aromashodu, and even Marcus Vick can do.
Welker will officially make the roster as the #6 WR on the depth chart, but only has value in the return game. Welker should serve as the primary KR and PR in 2005, and has the explosiveness to find the end zone a few times. Don't be afraid to ride Welker's coat tails as an individual return specialist or in choosing the Dolphins in leagues with team defenses/special teams.