It's not often we talk about slot receivers in the context of them having the potential to alter the landscape of a conference. That discussion has taken place for months with regards to the New England Patriots' decision to move on from historic slot receiver Wes Welker to the younger, up-and-coming receiver Danny Amendola.
When it's time to look back on the 2013 season, the exchange of receivers—not just from the perspective of what the Patriots gained from Amendola, but potentially what they'll be missing out on without Welker—will shape our discussion of the Patriots, the Denver Broncos and possibly the rest of the AFC.
That discussion will go beyond just the production of the two receivers, but will be tied to the success of the two teams.
With 672 receptions over the past six years, and a record-setting five seasons over 100 receptions, Welker has forever changed our perception of the slot-receiver position. Many teams have tried—mostly in vain—to find receivers with similar traits.
Now, we watch as the most prolific slot receiver in recent history is swapped out of the Patriots offense for a younger model. These occurrences are commonplace in Foxboro, but rarely with players of this caliber.
Now, we're left to wonder whether Amendola is capable of replicating Welker's production.
Amendola's injury history makes that a risky proposition.
He has missed 20 games over the past two seasons, including 15 games in 2011 after a gruesome injury in Week 1.
In a bizarre sequence of events, Amendola slipped and planted his hand to prevent his fall, only to have his arm give out from underneath him.
That wasn't the last of Amendola's injuries.
He missed three games when he suffered a dislocated clavicle, in an injury which could have been life-threatening under different circumstances.
These two injuries look more like freak accidents than sure signs of an injury-prone player. It's not as though he has nagging hip and hamstring issues, the result of poor maintenance. His bones snap when people (himself included) land on him awkwardly.
The same hasn't held true for Welker, who has missed just four games (three in the regular season, one playoff game) over the past six years, but that could be put to the test at 32 years old, especially if Peyton Manning is delivering some of his patented throws over the middle, with which he leads his receivers right into devastating blows from defensive backs.
Like the one above. Or the one below.
There are no guarantees that either Amendola or Welker stays healthy, but given the relative durability of Welker compared to Amendola's fragility, an injury to one or the other will certainly advance the narrative.
For one, Amendola has shown similar upside to Welker in his pre-Patriots career, with an even better stat line than his counterpart—a full 100 more receptions, 606 more yards and six more touchdowns.
More importantly, Amendola is proficient in on-field aspects similar to those of Welker: short-area quickness, sure-handedness, and the ability to both find the soft spot in coverage before the catch and to run after the catch are all strengths of both receivers.
One are in which Amendola surpasses Welker is in his ability to line up outside the numbers as a downfield threat. From colleague and X's and O's expert Alen Dumonjic:
Although Amendola plays in the slot like Welker, he's not necessarily confined to the first 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. He has the ability to work vertically...as well as in the underneath area.
[...]He's not going to catch the same amount of passes even if he is healthy, but there's a possibility that he's a more efficient and explosive receiver. The Patriots sorely need more vertical options in the offense and Amendola could provide that to a degree.
It will not take long for us to see exactly how the Patriots plan to use Amendola—similarly, differently or some combination—compared to Welker. If Amendola can catch more deep passes than Welker, though, he'll be providing what has been a missing component of the Patriots offense.
At least last year, the numbers show that the two receivers have been used quite similarly, as outlined by ProFootballFocus.com in the chart above (click here for a full-size version).
One thing the numbers don't show, however, is the synergy between the quarterback and his receiver.
Only the plays themselves can show that.
For example, lined up in the slot on 2nd-and-7 against the Broncos, Welker ran a five-yard out route against man coverage with wide receiver Brandon Lloyd running a go route on the outside.
The route combination is designed to get the slot receiver open in the flat with enough space in front of him to complete the pass.
Welker put his quickness on display to create the necessary separation from Broncos cornerback Chris Harris, and quarterback Tom Brady threw the pass before Welker had even turned his head. Welker knew the ball was coming and quickly turned his head for the catch, then ran an additional few yards yards to pick up the first down.
On 3rd-and-5 against the San Francisco 49ers, Amendola ran the same route with the same combination as the one by Welker and Lloyd above. Also facing man coverage, St. Louis Rams receiver Austin Pettis ran a deep route while Amendola ran a five-yard out.
He even adjusted the route off the line of scrimmage by breaking toward the sideline ever so slightly, to gain early outside leverage on the cornerback.
A closer look at the phases of the route and throw shows an eerie resemblance to the one we just discussed. Amendola had yet to turn his head by the time quarterback Sam Bradford released the ball.
Brady and Amendola will have to build rapport to make this trade-off really work. It didn't take long after the Patriots signed Amendola for him and Brady to get together for private workouts, but plenty of receivers have joined the Patriots with more pomp and circumstance than Amendola and have come up way short of expectations, as a result of their inability to learn the playbook and to build chemistry with Tom Terrific.
In that sense, while there's some pressure on Amendola, there's also a good amount of pressure on Brady to prove that he can successfully incorporate a new receiver into the offense. Talented receiver plus talented quarterback has not always equaled instant success in New England.
Likewise, Welker has been one of very few constants in the offense over the years, but if there's one promising anecdote, it comes from the very season Welker joined the team.
In 2006, the Patriots fielded a ragtag group of receivers led by Reche Caldwell, who finished with 61 receptions for 760 yards and four touchdowns, all of which were career highs.
The Patriots receiving corps changed almost entirely from 2006-2007, with Jabar Gaffney the lone holdover. Brady was able to quickly get on the same page with them and went on to set the record for touchdown passes in a season.
Head coach Bill Belichick said his team has gone through a "re-do" at receiver, but it goes beyond that. Not only have they lost Welker, Brandon Lloyd and others, but they've lost tight end Aaron Hernandez as well.
Like Welker and Amendola, Hernandez did a lot of his work in the receiving game out of the slot. Now, the defense will be even more honed in on Amendola over the middle, which could put the aforementioned injury history to the test.
This year's group of Patriots receivers more closely resembles '06 than '07.
No one is expecting Brady to repeat the '07 anomaly, but the anecdote itself serves as proof that even when a lot is changing, the Patriots offense can still be effective.
It will be up to Amendola and the rest of the receivers to make the transition as smooth as possible, but Amendola's talent, experience in the NFL, skill set and knowledge of Josh McDaniels' offense make him the focal point for a ragtag group of pass-catchers otherwise similar to the group Brady struggled with in '06.
This is about more than just Brady, Amendola and the Patriots offense. ESPN's Adam Schefter tweeted the following immediately after Welker had signed with the Broncos:
With one decision, Wes Welker can help shape the balance of power in the AFC.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 13, 2013
This was tweeted before Amendola had signed with the Patriots, but Amendola's signing only thickens the plot: If Amendola underperforms Welker and the Patriots underperform the Broncos, the masses will put two and two together relatively quickly.
That's especially true if the Broncos advance further than the Patriots in the playoffs.
While Welker could prove to be the missing piece to a deep run in the playoffs, Peyton Manning's postseason penchant for momentum-crushing interceptions and Welker's recent taste for timely drops on the biggest stage could marry for an ugly ending to Denver's season.
Likewise, while moving on from Welker to Amendola could be the wise long-term decision for the Patriots, that determination hinges on many factors.
Between Amendola's health, the chemistry between Amendola and Brady, the offense moving on from Welker, and Welker's performance with the Broncos, it's clear that Amendola's season will be one we'll talk about for years to come, good or bad.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all stats obtained from the Sports-Reference.com network and all quotes obtained firsthand or via team press releases.