Sorry Patriot Nation, but the Wes Welker Era in New England Is Coming to an End

Mike MattesContributor IIISeptember 13, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 01:  Wes Welker #83 of the New England Patriots answers questions from the press during a media availability session for Super Bowl XLVI at the University Place Conference Center & Hotel on February 1, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

There has been quite a bit of chatter this week regarding the limited action that Wes Welker saw in the team's season opening victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, yet nobody seems to know exactly what it means for the star wide receiver or his role in the Patriots offense going forward.

Of course, it could mean absolutely nothing, and Welker could get right back into his groove with a great performance against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2. After all, everyone is entitled to a bad day every now and then, right?

Most analysts seem to champion this belief and they feel as though Sunday's output was simply an aberration. They have tried to calm the masses and assure everyone in Patriot Nation that they do not yet need to worry about the future of their beloved No. 83 after only one game.

Yet, when you also look at all of the other outlying factors concerning Wes Welker and his future with the team, perhaps there is a bit of cause for concern.

First, let's take a look at Welker's current contract situation, which was one of the most prominent issues concerning the team since the end of last season. Welker, who is currently playing on a one-year, $9.5 million franchise tender, has been trying to secure a long-term deal from the team for quite some time now, but for some reason, neither side has been able to come to an agreement.

For a guy who has more catches than anyone else in the league since 2007, it would seem like resigning him for the long-term would be top priority for the Patriots. 

It's obviously not an issue of not having enough money to do so. The team proved this after resigning both of their superstar tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, to lucrative long-term contracts this offseason. Rather, it is an issue of not wanting to commit the amount of dollars that Welker commands to a 31-year-old wide receiver that is just over two years removed from a serious ACL injury.

Furthermore, Welker is entering the stage of his career where most of those at his position usually start to decline, and the Patriots are simply moving away from him being the focal point of the team's offense.

The amount of snaps that Welker saw in the season opener only illustrates this point. Welker was on the field for just 43 of the team's 67 offensive plays, which amounts to only 64.3 percent of the total snaps. This would actually be a pretty solid percentage for most players, but for a guy who was featured in 89 percent of the team's offensive plays last season, this was actually a pretty significant drop-off.

So the fact that Welker only had three receptions is not the important thing to note here. As Field Yates of ESPN Boston points out, Welker has finished with three or fewer catches eight other times during his tenure in New England. Rather it is the fact that he was not even on the field for three-quarters of the team's offensive plays that truly stands out.

Again, this could mean absolutely nothing, and perhaps the game plan against the Titans did not call for Welker's services as much as some other matchups.

But why in the world would a guy who led the entire league in receptions last year—a player who has been such a vital part of the team's offense throughout the last five seasons—see such a significant cut in playing time against any respective opponent?

The answer is simple: the Patriot offense simply does not revolve around Welker any more.

The Patriots employed at least two tight ends during every single offensive snap against the Titans, and even included a third tight end in ten of these snaps. They are now a team completely and utterly centered around the play of Gronkowski and Hernandez, with a few other role players expected to assist Brady and his dynamic duo of tight ends along the way.

This new offense really began to hit its stride last season, and all signs since the end of last season seem to indicate that the Patriots will not only continue to employ this type of personnel in 2012, but they will do so with even greater force.

Furthermore, the Patriots finally seem to have some severance of a running game this year with second-year running back Stevan Ridley.

Ridley followed up an impressive rookie campaign—during which he averaged an impressive 5.1 yards per carry—with a breakout performance in the team's season opener, finishing the game with 125 rushing yards and one score. If Ridley can continue to live up to his promising potential, the Patriots may have the running game that they've been searching for since the days of Corey Dillon. This would only further devalue Welker's role in the team's offensive attack.

Look, there is no denying Welker's incredible talent, and there is no reason to believe that he won't put up solid numbers throughout the rest of the season. Brady has even come out this week in defense of Welker, and claimed that he is still one of the most important elements to the team's offense. 

There is no doubt that the team is better off with Welker than without him, but all signs seem to indicate that he will no longer be Brady's top option going forward. The days of Welker totaling over 100 receptions seem to be numbered, and perhaps we are simply coming to the end of yet another historic era in Patriots history.

As they say, "football is a business," and the current situation with Welker is no more personal than any other scenario regarding the decisions that teams are forced to make regarding their aging superstars.

That is why Patriots Nation should enjoy the presence of Welker as much as they can for the time being. To be quite honest, they could end up losing him much sooner than originally anticipated—perhaps even before season's end. Seriously, do not rule out the possibly of a trade this season if the right offer happens to present itself. After all, this is Bill Belichick we're dealing with here, and crazier things have happened.

In all likelihood, Welker will finish out the 2012 season in a Patriot uniform, and it will not be until next offseason that we will see his ultimate departure.

But let there be no mistake about it, there is a new era of Patriot football being ushered in this season, and unfortunately, our beloved Wes Welker is going to suffer as a result.