Does Wes Welker's Reduced Role Mean New England Patriots Are Moving On?

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer ISeptember 11, 2012

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:   Wes Welker #83 of the New England Patriots warms up prior to playing against the Baltimore Ravens in AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The New England Patriots have never been shy about moving on from a player, regardless of how much he has meant to the team in the past. Thus, with the Patriots reducing the role for wide receiver Wes Welker in Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans, it didn't take long to spark the speculation that the Patriots may be preparing for life without the slot receiver.

Sure, it's easy to see the corollary between the Patriots' handling of Welker and of wide receiver Randy Moss at this point two years ago.

The numbers certainly hold that comparison true—Welker was targeted an average of 10.2 times per game in the regular season and playoffs in 2011, but he saw just five passes thrown his way in Week 1. 

It's important to note, though, that the needle hadn't even moved on Moss trade rumors until Week 4 against the Miami Dolphins. In that game, Moss was targeted just one time and was held without a reception, but more importantly, he then proceeded to get into a blowout argument with offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien over his lack of involvement in the offense.

That incident likely had more to do with the trade than the Patriots shifting the offense away from Moss. They likely would have loved to keep him around if he were a willing decoy to take the focus off the middle of the field, but when his character became a concern, the Patriots cut bait.

Perhaps the reason why it took until then for anyone to suspect a trade was because the Patriots simply didn't have another receiver like Moss. On Sunday against the Titans, it looked like they were beginning to work in wide receiver Julian Edelman in a Welker-esque role.

The fourth-year pass-catcher ran several short and intermediate routes, primarily from the slot (Welker's typical spot), and hauled in one reception for seven yards on two targets and 23 snaps. So, while Welker wasn't much of a factor in the game plan, neither was the other guy who played his role.

Perhaps the Patriots' game-plan-oriented offense simply didn't call for much from the slot receivers against the Titans. The "Boston TE Party" of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski got involved early and often, with each hauling in six receptions and a touchdown. Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd got worked into the offense with five receptions for 69 yards.

Perhaps Welker's reduced role had something to do with New England's desire to get everyone involved. Beyond the passing numbers, just look at the balance—the Patriots ran the ball 35 times and dropped back to throw 32 times. 

The two tight ends are the future of the offense, and the Patriots offense was rolling with Lloyd, running back Stevan Ridley and the two tight ends playing a significant role. In other words, the Patriots haven't had this many weapons on offense in awhile. 

Perhaps they're just easing Welker into it after a limited preseason. He played just one game in the preseason, missing the second game along with the rest of the starters and missing the final two games for what was referred to as "personal reasons." 

Perhaps the Patriots are keeping the load light for Welker in hopes of keeping him at full health for the end of the season and the playoffs. A healthy and energized Welker in Week 17 and beyond is important, as anyone who saw the Patriots come unraveled in the playoff loss to the Ravens in 2009 can tell you.

Or perhaps, as Nick Underhill of CBS Sports points out, we are simply not looking closely enough at the snaps he didn't play.

Went through the 24 snaps Welker didn't play to see if there was a pattern. 14 were runs, two on the goal line, one a knee. #Patriots

— Nick Underhill (@Nick_Underhill) September 11, 2012

With so many "perhapses," perhaps we should wait a bit further than Week 1 before we start postulating on the potential for an unprecedented trade of the NFL's most productive pass-catcher over the past five years.


Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.