When the Denver Broncos signed slot receiver Wes Welker away from the New England Patriots in 2013, the move received high marks across the board. It also seemed to pay off in a big way because the Broncos had a record-setting offense in 2013.
As part of his two-year, $12 million contract, Welker has $6 million in cash coming his way in 2014 and has a cap number of $8 million, according to Over the Cap, but he’ll be a free agent in 2015. Welker is also 33 and has a history of concussions that cast a shadow on just how long he’ll continue to play.
With the exception of the opportunity-based touchdowns, Welker’s numbers are also in decline. It’s now worth wondering if 2014 could be the final act of Welker’s great career.
The Broncos even started preparing for life without Welker in 2014 by signing veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders and drafting Cody Latimer in the second round of the draft. These moves serve a dual purpose in 2014 because they also will help make up for the loss of Eric Decker.
If Welker hits free agency in 2015, chances are he won’t find a team courting him with a quarterback like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Slot receivers haven’t been in high demand in recent years, with Pro Football Talk reporting, per a source, that they were “getting screwed” prior to Welker’s signing last year.
The Broncos essentially committed the money they have been paying Welker to Sanders in 2015 and 2016. Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas will eventually get contract extensions that eat up a significant portion of the budget for pass-catchers in Denver.
There’s always the chance Welker has an amazing 2014 season, but just about every statistical measure of a wide receiver suggests that it’s unlikely. Welker could even see a reduction in opportunities, with or without a further decline in his production.
In 2011 and 2012 combined, Sanders ran 66.4 percent of his routes out of the slot, according to Pro Football Focus data (subscription required). After losing Welker to the Broncos, the Patriots made an offer to then-restricted free agent Sanders that the Pittsburgh Steelers matched.
Sanders played less in the slot in 2013 but still has a career slot percentage north of 40 percent. The fact that Sanders can also play outside makes him a more versatile option than Welker. If Latimer develops into a good option outside, the Broncos really won’t need Welker’s services anymore.
|Sanders in the Slot|
Welker seems to be taking the additions of Sanders and Latimer in stride, but he also seems to understand that he’s getting older, he’s in the final year of his deal and the team has added players who will eat into his opportunities.
“I don’t really don’t think about it like that anymore. I want us to be the best team we can be. So whatever that means, you know, that’s what it is,” Welker said via CBS Denver. “Trust me, I understand that I’m 33 and going in my 11th year, and I want us to be the best team possible, and whoever that takes being out here, that’s what I’m about.”
The fact Latimer lined up with the starters at times during minicamp should be a clear sign that the Broncos plan to use the rookie in 2014. Welker is not going to disappear, but he could definitely see his role reduced in 2014 even if his production doesn’t slip.
Since 2010, Welker hasn’t exactly been a sure-handed slot man. Welker dropped 13.13 percent of the catchable balls thrown his way that year, according to Pro Football Focus. Welker dipped below 10 percent once in 2011 but has otherwise been north of 11 percent in drop rate.
Welker’s struggles with drops seem to coincide with his return from a torn ACL, but it’s worth wondering if multiple concussions have also played a role. Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post suggested Welker should consider retirement in 2014, and prominent sports writer Jeff Pearlman said he should retire midseason last year.
Drop rate just doesn’t seem like something that should increase with age or jump up and stay there. There isn’t really a comparable slot receiver or enough data to say for sure, but it’s certainly concerning.
Teams will live with drops if a player is otherwise productive. Welker has been more than productive enough to overlook the drops, but the day could be coming where that’s no longer the case.
The drops are probably one of the factors contributing to the growing divide in his ratio of receptions to targets per game. Although it’s a subtle decline, Welker is catching a smaller percentage of his targets just about every year.
In 2013, Welker only caught 66.97 percent of his targets. It was the first time Welker dipped below 70 percent since he was traded to New England in 2007. This ratio has been on a linear decline for years, so it’s hard to believe that Welker will be able to reverse its decline or that it was just due to switching teams.
Another way to look at the same data is using a statistic called yard per route run (YPRR) created by Pro Football Focus. This measures a receiver’s productivity on a per-route basis. As the chart indicates, Welker’s YPRR is also on the decline overall.
Welker’s productivity has been volatile, but unlike previous years, he didn’t bounce back in 2013. There is a similar trend if you look at Football Outsiders’ proprietary DYAR statistic that measures a player’s total value.
It’s worth noting Welker did bounce back in Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic that measures value per play but not nearly as much as in previous years. This all could be the effect of switching teams and no longer being the primary option, but it is probably a sign that Welker is on the decline.
It’s smart of the Broncos to address the position before Welker’s production drops off. A slow transition is certainly better than needing an emergency fix. If Welker can buck some of his trends, the Broncos also get a bonus.
Projecting Welker’s Value
It’s hard to project just how much longer Welker will remain productive enough to be considered a top slot receiver. Welker led the league in routes and touchdowns out of the slot in 2013, and he was second in yards and receptions according to Pro Football Focus, but his production may not support that kind of usage going forward.
|Welker's Slot Ranks|
|Year||Routes||Rec||Yards||TDs||Catch Rate||Drop Rate||YPRR|
Welker ranked 25th in drops out of 33 wide receivers who ran at least 50 percent of their snaps out of the slot, 15th in catch rate and 10th in yards per route run out of the slot. His usage was only slightly impacted coming to Denver, but his production dipped in a significant way.
Maybe it all has to do with Welker’s first year with Manning, but at his age it’s probably a sign that he’s slowing down. It’s likely Welker will remain a useful player for several more seasons, but he’ll have to decide if he wants to keep playing when he no longer has a future Hall of Fame quarterback throwing him the ball.
Considering his concussion history, his production decline and likelihood that he won’t have Manning or Brady throwing him the ball in 2015 and beyond, Welker should probably retire after the 2014 season.
Welker is certainly capable of a great year that makes retirement seem premature, but even if that happens he may want to go out on a high note before his brains are scrambled or he ends up as the slot receiver for a 4-12 team.