Wes Welker was one of the most productive wide receivers in the NFL last season, making him a popular fantasy football draft target heading into 2012. However, an increased role for Julian Edelman immediately raised flags about his potential production.
Now it appears owners of the New England Patriots wideout can rest easy, at least for awhile. An injury to tight end Aaron Hernandez, one of Tom Brady's favorite targets, should open up more opportunities for the reliable Welker in the short term.
Through two games, the 31-year-old receiver has just eight catches for 109 yards. Those are the type of numbers he was putting up on a weekly basis last year, and certainly isn't enough to justify the hype he was getting as a No. 1 fantasy receiver.
The main reason for his lack of production was a clear shift in New England's offensive approach. Brady got a new weapon in Brandon Lloyd and has been targeting him a lot. Lloyd has 21 targets so far, tied for fifth most among receivers.
When you include Rob Gronkowski, Hernandez and the suddenly in-favor Edelman, Welker simply lost his role as a key contributor in the offense. If Hernandez didn't get hurt, Welker was on pace to become a massive fantasy disappointment.
But Hernandez did go down with an ankle injury in Week 2, and the Patriots still haven't released a concrete timetable for his return. Until he does get back to full strength, Welker should reassert himself as a fantasy star.
He has always had good chemistry with Brady. When given a normal amount of snaps after Hernandez was forced to exit, Welker's production predictably increased. The drop-off was due to the scheme, not health or ability.
How should Welker owners feel about his 2012 outlook?
With one of the dynamic tight ends out, Welker should see more playing time and that should equal a spike in production. It will make him a must-start option once again.
Looking ahead, it wouldn't be a bad idea to shop Welker on the trade market, especially if he strings together a couple big games in the next few weeks. Once Hernandez returns, Welker might become the odd man out again.
All told, the situation probably won't remain stable for any extended period of time throughout the season, and inconsistency is a fantasy owner's worst nightmare. So if there's a fair offer available, don't hesitate to make the deal.
Otherwise, owners will have to monitor the situation on a weekly basis. Once Hernandez returns to the Patriots lineup, Welker probably won't be the lineup stalwart he was expected to be when he was drafted a couple weeks ago.
For now, Welker should return to the level of production owners expected when they spent that early pick on him.