In the Patriots' Week 1 win over the Tennessee Titans, according to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com, Welker only took the field for 43 of 67 snaps (64 percent). Fourth-year receiver and quarterback-convert Julian Edelman was on the field for 23 of 67 snaps (34 percent). By comparison, in 2011, Welker was on the field for 89.2 percent of the Patriots' offensive snaps.
In their Week 2 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Welker took part in 63 snaps—but Edelman was on the field for 75 snaps and, in fact, started the game at wide receiver, while Welker was on the sidelines for the first offensive snap of the game.
Why did that happen?
Here are a few possible explanations.
Welker missed some time in training camp because of family issues. Mike Reiss has suggested that in the Patriots' preseason trip to Tampa, Welker might have suffered a concussion.
That might explain his limited work in Week 1, but it doesn't explain why the Patriots would be having Edelman start over him in Week 2. Moreover, Welker himself feels that it's not an injury issue (via Karen Guregian of The Boston Herald).
In any case, even if this had been the issue, it seems unlikely that, if Welker's snap count in Baltimore continues to be reduced, a nagging injury will be a factor.
Some Patriots fans on various message boards have suggested that the Patriots might have already decided to move on from Welker and are considering trying to trade him.
They do have at least one example they can point to: Randy Moss.
In 2010, after it became clear that Moss was no longer buying into the Patriots' system, the Patriots did drastically reduce his playing time in his last game as a Patriot before shipping him off to the Minnesota Vikings for a third-round draft pick.
That said, this seems unlikely for a couple of reasons.
First off, Moss was only targeted three times in his final game as a Patriot (although his two catches both went for touchdowns).
Welker, on the other hand, has not seen his playing time drop that dramatically. Moreover, Tom Brady still trusts Welker.
Moreover, if Welker actually has any issues with the Patriots, he has, at least since the start of training camp, been remarkably quiet about them. Compare this to Moss, who had a massive feud with then-offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien.
Secondly, the Patriots are a better team with Welker than without him, and it seems highly unlikely that the Patriots could get enough in return to justify trading him. (Any team that would trade for Welker would have to take on his franchise-tag salary of over $550,000 per game and could not extend him until after the regular season.)
When the Patriots opened their season against the Tennessee Titans, they had five wide receivers on their 53-man roster: Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Julian Edelman, Matt Slater and Greg Salas.
Of those five, Salas has yet to dress for a game, while Slater is a receiver in name only—if the NFL allowed "Special Teams" as a true designation, that would be Slater's.
In other words, the Patriots have only had three wide receivers in games this season: Welker, Lloyd and Edelman.
Of those three, only Lloyd is currently signed for next season (through 2014, as are Slater and Salas). Edelman's rookie contract expires after this season.
It's quite possible that the Patriots need to know whether or not Edelman can be an effective replacement for Welker in 2013 and beyond. If so, then the Patriots can sign Edelman to an extension and allow Welker to walk, knowing that they have a cheaper replacement waiting in the wings (and an understudy to Edelman in Greg Salas). On the other hand, if Edelman can't handle the job, then that gives Welker more leverage in any negotiations that might take place.
So far, the results have been somewhat mixed. Through two games, Edelman has a total of six receptions for 57 yards. That may not seem like much, but that's already more than his entire 2011 output.
When Josh McDaniels returned to New England as offensive coordinator this season, it was an open secret that WR Brandon Lloyd wanted to stay with McDaniels.
Lloyd has thrived under McDaniels the last two seasons, and he took a below-market deal to come to New England.
Some Patriots fans think that McDaniels might be trying to feature Lloyd, along with—eventually—the other players he brought over from the St. Louis Rams, WR Greg Salas and TE Michael Hoomanawanui. Thus, Welker's stats have dropped.
That said, this theory doesn't really work well since Welker's targets haven't declined precipitously (he was targeted 11 times against the Cardinals) and it's Tom Brady who decides where the ball ultimately goes (he can change the play at the line if he doesn't like what he sees from the defense).
Although, it's definitely a theory worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.
The most likely reason, in my opinion, for Welker's reduced snap count is simply making sure he stays "fresh" down the road.
Patriots fans saw some wear and tear with both Welker and Deion Branch throughout 2011. Both had significantly better stats in the first half of the season than in the second half (Welker had over 900 yards in the first eight games, but just over 600 in the last eight).
Given that Welker is 31, the Patriots may be trying to limit his stats early so that he'll be in better shape later in the year.
Of course, given the injury to Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez, "may be trying" might be better phrased as "were trying." It remains to be seen what will happen to Welker's role in the likely case that Hernandez misses a significant chunk of time.
It's more likely that $100 bills will fall from the sky than it is that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick or offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will explain what's going on with Welker's playing time.
If I had to put some of those $100 bills on the theories I've outlined, here's where I'd put them:
- The Pats are planning to trade Welker: close to zero percent
- Welker injury: about five percent
- Evaluating Edelman: about 35 percent
- McDaniels trying to feature Lloyd: about 10 percent
- Snap count for the playoffs: about 50 percent
What do you think?