The NFL regular season is already full of surprises, and it hasn't even started yet.
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Denver Broncos receiver Wes Welker—everyone’s favorite scrappy, little guy—tested positive for amphetamines and has been suspended by the league for the first four games of the season.
Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk cites a source who suggests Welker took “Molly” cut with amphetamines at the Kentucky Derby.
Since amphetamines fall under the performance-enhancing-drug policy, Welker lost his appeal. Had Welker’s “Molly” been purely the recreational drug MDMA, his positive test would have fallen under the substance-abuse policy and likely wouldn't have drawn a four-game ban.
The Broncos will still be an offensive juggernaut without Welker because they have already started to transition away from a reliance on him.
As long as quarterback Peyton Manning is under center, the Broncos will be fine, but forward-thinking by general manager John Elway should also alleviate any concerns.
Welker’s production has been steadily declining, so realistically, the Broncos won't need to match last season’s total of 73 receptions, 778 yards and 10 touchdowns. Welker is also entering the final year of his contract and turns 34 next year, so the Broncos had to formulate a plan to replace him in the coming year if they didn’t play to re-sign him.
The Broncos did just that by drafting wide receiver Cody Latimer with the 56th overall pick of the draft last May. NFL.com’s Albert Breer indicates that was the same month when Welker tested positive.
Latimer is a very different wide receiver than Welker at 6’2” and 215 pounds, but he enables the Broncos to use free-agent acquisition Emmanuel Sanders more in the slot.
In 2012, Sanders was the primary slot receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), 67 percent of his routes were run out of the slot and he caught 30 passes for 361 yards in that alignment. Of his 44 receptions that year, 68.2 percent of them came from the slot.
Sanders wasn’t as effective gaining yards inside as he was outside, with only 57.7 percent of them coming from the slot, but he’s proved he can do the job if Latimer is ready to play early as a rookie.
Even if he's not, the Latimer-Sanders combo isn’t the only option the Broncos have to replace Welker’s production.
Andre Caldwell also has experience as a slot receiver. Unlike the Latimer-Sanders duo, Caldwell is a one-for-one Welker replacement, which would allow the Broncos to keep Sanders outside and have a minimal impact on the rest of the offense.
Caldwell was the major beneficiary when Welker missed three games with a concussion in 2013. In the first game Welker missed, Caldwell caught six passes for 59 yards and two touchdowns. In total, 68.8 percent of Caldwell’s receptions, 56.5 percent of his yards and 66.7 percent of his touchdowns came in those three games—just 18.8 percent of the season.
The Broncos also still have tight end Jacob Tamme, who has been Manning’s slot man in the past and shared the role with Brandon Stokley in 2012.
In Welker’s absence last year, Tamme caught seven passes for 60 yards. Tamme averaged just one catch for 9.5 yards in Denver’s other 13 games.
Using more two-tight-end sets with Virgil Green as a blocker also makes sense because that would allow tight end Julius Thomas to run more routes. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Broncos used Thomas to pass-block 122 times in 14 games last year.
Simply with a formation tweak, the Broncos could have Thomas run eight more routes per game on average. This wasn’t what Denver opted to do last year, but the team has also changed this offseason.
The Broncos can now lean more heavily on running back Montee Ball, especially after they build a lead. As long as the rebuilt defense holds up, there’s no reason the Broncos can’t win games by grinding the clock once they gain a sizable advantage.
Replacing Welker statistically shouldn’t be a problem, and it might actually be a good thing for Welker and the offense when he comes back.
Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today reported that Welker returned to practice Monday just nine days after suffering his third concussion in 10 months.
Not only does this give Welker more time to recover from his concussion, it could also help him avoid another one. At least that's how former Broncos slot receiver Mark Jackson sees it, based on what he told Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post:
Doesn't Fox or anyone on his staff see that Wes Welker is exhausted? If you see the series before he gets the concussion, he gets the punt and busts (his butt) to get to the sideline on the return. Then they go into the two-minute drill, and when you're exhausted, your focus is just off, and that sets you up even more for a concussion or a big hit, because you're not on top of your game.
Welker’s exhaustion very well could have affected his production. Welker scored nine of his 10 touchdowns in the first eight weeks and only had two in his final eight games, including the playoffs.
Overall, Welker’s targets, receptions and yardage also trended down in 2013.
His production production aside, the offense wasn’t significantly worse without Welker last season. With him in the lineup, the Broncos averaged 39.6 points and 341.2 passing yards per game. Without him, they still managed 30.3 points and 336 passing yards per game.
In one of the three games Welker missed, the Broncos scored just 20 points, which skewed the average.
In the other two games, the Broncos scored 35.5 points per game, which is even higher than what they averaged with Welker after their Week 9 bye.
At worst, losing Welker hurts the depth at receiver, but the Broncos won’t miss him otherwise. If the Broncos were to suffer an injury at the position between now and Week 5, they’d certainly be glad to have a healthy and potentially more productive Welker raring to go.