Denver Broncos: Wes Welker a Piece of the Puzzle, Not the Key to Success

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Denver Broncos: Wes Welker a Piece of the Puzzle, Not the Key to Success
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

When free-agent slot receiver Wes Welker signed a two-year, $12 million deal with the Denver Broncos in March, there was much buzz about the receiver pairing up with quarterback Peyton Manning.

Welker is getting the chance to do something few have done, playing with both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning before hanging up his cleats.  But while he will be a valued addition to Denver's offense, he is not the key to get them over the top, he is merely another piece of the puzzle.

As NFL.com has noted, Welker averaged 112 catches per season during his six years with the New England Patriots.  But now in Denver, even Welker knows that is an unrealistic number to aim for in 2013.

"If I have to catch 112 balls, that probably means we're in trouble," Welker recently told the Denver Post's Mike Klis.

Welker made such a statement because he knows he will be joining Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker in Denver, the two players who have already established themselves as Manning's top targets.

Welker will be added to the mix, make no mistake, and he will likely fulfill his role to perfection, but some seem to have a misconception of what Welker's role is.

The Broncos used three-receiver sets on 64 percent of their snaps in 2012 (expect that number to increase this fall), continuing a trend that Manning set during his time with the Indianapolis Colts.  Throughout his career, Manning has featured an X and Z receiver (think Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne) and one slot man (Brandon Stokley).

That will likely continue to be the case in 2013, with Thomas taking the place of Harrison, Decker the place of Wayne and Welker the place of Stokley.  If that does end up being the case, Welker can expect to see his numbers drop this season.

This was one of Denver's favorite formations last season. This season, expect Welker to line up in the slot (between the left tackle and outside receiver in the picture above).

Last season, Manning targeted Thomas 141 times, Decker 123 times and Stokley 58 times.  The results were 94 catches for Thomas, 85 catches for Decker and 45 catches for Stokley.

Stokley ended the season with 544 yards and five touchdowns and while he had half the catches of Thomas and Decker, he was arguably more productive when given opportunities, catching over 77 percent of his targets (compared to Thomas' 66 percent and Decker's 69 percent).

What these target-to-catch ratios show is (a) Stokley was reliable and clutch and (b) he was not targeted often, but when he was, they were often high completion throws.  Eight times out of 10 a slot receiver—at least a reliable one—will catch a slant route on 3rd-and-short.  However, the percentage of a fade route being completed to deep threats (like Thomas) is lower, simply because it is a harder pass to complete.

So with Stokley being targeted the least of Denver’s top three receivers, it made sense for him to have the lowest catch count among them, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t being productive.  Stokley was doing his job—perhaps better than any other receiver on the team, earning the best target-to-catch ratio.

In 2013, the story will likely be the same for Welker.

He may not have 100 catches (in fact, I’ll put money on it that he won’t), but as Manning’s slot receiver, he won’t have to.  Welker is simply a younger (by four years) version of Stokley.

Welker was brought in to replace Stokley and to fill his role going forward, not to be Manning’s top receiver in 2013.  The Broncos do not need Welker—they had the No. 5 passing offense in the NFL last season—he is simply an upgrade to the slot position.

The sooner fans figure that out, the better.  Otherwise, some may be confused why Welker doesn’t emerge as the team’s top receiver in 2013.

If Welker doesn't lead the team in receptions in 2013, does that mean his signing was a bad move by Denver?  No, it probably means Welker is doing his job, just like Stokley did.

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