5 Signs Wes Welker's Days with New England Patriots Are Dwindling
Welker remains an important part of New England's offense, a playmaker who can fill a variety of roles, and one of Tom Brady's favorite and most reliable targets…for now.
That said, there are reasons for all the discussion surrounding the possibility of a dwindling role for Welker in the Patriot offense. More targets and better performances in Weeks 3 and 4 have silenced many of the conversations about phasing him out of the offense that followed his sparse usage in Weeks 1 and 2, but there are also reasons to believe his return to prominence could be only temporary.
Here are five signs that indicate that Welker's days with New England could be coming to an end sooner rather than later.
Age and Contract
Gronkowski and Hernandez's new contracts indicate that they are the offense of the future.
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This point is really just common sense: at 31 years old, Welker is making over $9.5 million on a contract that expires at the end of the year. When compared to the Patriots' other top four receivers, it is fairly obvious who New England plans on keeping around.
First and foremost are Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. At 22 and 23 years of age, Hernandez and Gronk are locked up through 2018 and 2019, respectively. The Patriots love the two tight end set they have developed around these guys, so they are not going anywhere for a long time.
Brandon Lloyd is Welker's age at 31, but his contract is two years longer for about half the price of Welker's single season. Fiscally, keeping Lloyd around simply makes more sense.
Like Welker, Julian Edelman's contract expires at the end of this season. He's only 26, however, and everything about him hints at him being Welker's replacement. Prior to being sidelined by a hand injury halfway through Week 3, Edelman was started over Welker in Week 2 and was on the field for 75 snaps compared to Welker's 63.
Those four guys form a solid receiving corps by themselves when healthy, so it is unlikely that the Patriots would feel the need to continue to keep a fifth high-profile receiver around to the tune of $9.5 million per season.
Correlation Between Productivity and Others Injuries
An injury to Hernandez may have bought Welker some time.
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Welker's Week 1 performance consisted of a measly three catches on five targets for 14 yards.
Though he finished Week 2 with five grabs for 95 yards, Welker did not get the start and did not even come onto the field until Hernandez (who has yet to return) went down with a major injury on the second drive of the game.
Welker's productivity went up once again in Week 3, in which he had eight catches, as Edelman was knocked out of the game by halftime.
With both Hernandez and Edelman out of the lineup in Week 4, Welker notched a season-best nine catches.
Clearly Welker is still ready and able to perform at a high level—when he is given the chance. His productivity has risen steadily all season, but so has the number of other Patriots receivers sidelined by injury.
Is it not intuitive to think that when they return, Welker's productivity will dip again?
Could Welker be out of New England by the Oct. 30 trade deadline?
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After Week 2, Mike Freeman of CBS Sports reported "more than some remote possibility" of the Patriots trading Welker, citing several league sources.
Naturally, as Welker's play picked up over the following two weeks, that noise died down.
But when Hernandez and Edelman have returned to the field, wouldn't that make some sense? There are certainly teams out there that would love to have Welker, and if they would be willing to shell out some draft picks for him, we all know how much Belichick and the Patriots love those.
If Hernandez and Edelman are healthy and effective prior to the Oct. 30 trade deadline, be ready for some rumors to resurface.
Lloyd recorded his first touchdown as a Patriot last week in acrobatic fashion.
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Coming into this season, we already knew about the dominating tight end combination of Hernandez and Gronk. We also knew about Edelman and his similarities to Welker. And we knew that the Patriots picked up Lloyd, whom we hoped would be fantastic.
But we had no way of knowing for sure how Lloyd would turn out. Well, a quarter of the way through the season, it's looking pretty good.
After four games as a Patriot, Lloyd has seen more targets (40) than any other receiver, and is tied with Welker for the team lead in receptions (25). Brady likes going to him, and Lloyd has capitalized.
That means that the Patriots have another quality receiver, which means Welker's value decreases. And as noted earlier, Lloyd's contract includes three times the longevity for about half the price. Again, it's simply a case of what makes sense.
The Emergence of a Running Game
Ridley has been solid out of the backfield for the Patriots so far this season.
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Don't look now, but the normally pass-heavy Patriots are eighth in the league in total rushing offense, ahead of teams like Houston and Minnesota that feature some of the most high-profile running backs in the league.
Last week's game against the Bills saw not one but two New England rushers eclipse the 100-yard mark: Stevan Ridley, who has had a very solid start to the season, and Brandon Bolden, who has suddenly exploded onto the scene with an average of 6.6 yards per carry. With Danny Woodhead in the mix as well, the Patriots suddenly have quite a few options in the backfield.
This simply means that the Patriots become a little bit more multifaceted, and that Welker becomes a little bit more expendable.
Again, none of this is to say that Welker's days in New England are done, or even close. But they certainly may be dwindling, and there is a decent amount of evidence to support that claim.