Even before Aaron Hernandez went down, we all were wondering why it seemed like Wes Welker was being slowly phased out of New England's offense.
Now, in light of the fact that the tight end is probably going to miss up to four weeks with an ankle sprain, according to CBSSports.com, it seems even crazier to continue diminishing Welker's role.
There are a lot of conspiracy theories surrounding exactly what Bill Belichick is doing with Welker. For a glimpse at many of them, click here. Some claim that Welker simply isn't as necessary anymore, now that the tight ends have become such a key component of New England's offensive attack.
Some have suggested that Belichick is test-driving Julian Edelman to see if he can cover Welker's workload when the Patriots inevitably decide to let him walk at the end of the season because they don't want to pay him.
Whatever Belichick and his staff has been doing with Welker—whatever reason they had for starting Edelman ahead of him in Week 2 against the Cardinals—it's time to backtrack. Now that Hernandez is out, there is no longer any room for creativity as far as this offense is concerned. If there was ever a time to be conservative, it would be now.
And in the case of the Patriots, being conservative means putting Welker back atop the depth chart and reestablishing him as one of Brady's primary targets. It's all good and well that the Patriots brought Kellen Winslow aboard to try to compensate for Hernandez's absence, but by the time Hernandez returns, Winslow will just be getting a feel for New England's system. He's a good enough Band-Aid for the problem with this offense, but he won't solve it.
And neither will Edelman.
On Tuesday, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss posted a must-see breakdown of the numbers from Sunday's game, as far as Welker and Edelman are concerned. He discusses the idea that perhaps Edelman saw increased opportunities against the Cardinals because of his superior run-blocking abilities. He also wonders whether we would have seen as much of Welker on Sunday if Hernandez hadn't gone down in the first quarter.
The truth is that nobody knows why Welker isn't being utilized the way he used to be utilized on this team. The idea that he's not as necessary to this offense given the emergence of Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez, however, is the one that makes the most sense.
Therefore, now that Hernandez is gone, that offense is no longer intact. Now that Hernandez is gone, the Patriots need to adjust the game plan so that Welker is just as much a part of it as he was in the pre-Gronk days, like in 2008-09, when he totaled 2,575 yards.
Edelman, by comparison, is unproven. In the past two seasons, he's totaled 142 total receiving and rushing yards with zero touchdowns. In that sense, it's easy to see why Belichick could be forcing him to prove himself in the early going this season: He needs to see what Edelman can do once Welker is gone.
It would be a lot easier to justify that decision if New England's mighty tight end tandem was still healthy, but it's not. So it's time to scratch that idea and go back to what has proven to be effective.
The Patriots have a history of letting their best players walk when they get too expensive. New England's defense is still attempting to recover from the loss of Richard Seymour four years ago. When Welker refused to sign a long-term deal this offseason, he put his future with this team in jeopardy—everyone knows that. He knows that.
But next season can be addressed once this one is over. Edelman's role can be addressed once Welker is out of the picture, if that day should come. Right now, as Belichick likes to say, the best players need to be the ones on the field.
It's early in the season, and it's too early to predict which teams are going to be the ones left standing in January. But the Patriots can't keep losing games. The rest of the AFC is too strong, and they will fall behind very, very quickly if this Edelman vs. Welker experiment goes awry.
So stop the experiment, if that is what's going on. The risk outweighs the reward. For now—at least until Hernandez is healthy again—New England needs to turn to the Pro Bowler who's already proven himself to be a tremendous asset to this offense.
Welker may not be in New England for much longer, but right now, he's the best option.