Rob Gronkowski vs. Wes Welker: Who's More Important to Patriots?
Welker and quarterback Tom Brady have been cultivating an unbreakable bond on the gridiron since the shifty receiver joined the Pats in 2007, while Gronk has provided Brady with security as both a pass catcher and a blocker.
Both Gronk and Welker are having phenomenal years, combining for 80 catches, 1186 yards, and 11 touchdowns.
Welker has been making all the headlines, but Gronk has been every bit as reliable and dominant as No. 83 thus far. The hulking University of Arizona product is in the top five of nearly every relevant statistical category for tight ends.
Let's take a look at Welker and Gronk's production in five key areas and decide which player is more important to Brady and the Patriots' success in 2011.
When Playing Against a Zone Defense
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Wes Welker is probably the best player in the NFL at finding the soft spot of a zone defense.
A master of double-moves and deception, Welker is nearly impossible to defend with a zone look. It helps that he and Tom Brady are so in sync. Sometimes Brady simply looks at Welker before a play begins, and with eye contact they establish a point of attack.
It truly is something to behold.
Rob Gronkowski, on the other hand, is only above average against a zone. He doesn't have much speed or quickness, and isn't quite as well versed as Welker at identifying the weaknesses in the defense.
He is, however, one of the few tight ends in the league who has the route running acumen to tear a Cover 2 defense to shreds. Gronk is a terrific player in the middle of the field, and his size makes him an easy target for Brady to spot.
When Playing Against a Man Defense
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Unless you are the New York Jets, Tom Brady is almost certainly licking his lips at the prospect of facing man coverage.
Brady is one of the league's best, if not the best, at picking apart a defense.
However, he can't do it alone. Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski are both practically unstoppable in one-on-one coverage. Welker is too smart and too quick, and Gronk is simply too big.
Darrelle Revis has been the only player to successfully defend Welker in single coverage this season, and even then (although not Revis' fault), Welker broke free for a 73-yard gain. Maybe he was a one trick pony only able to pick up yardage in small chunks in 2007, but in 2011, Welker has emerged as a receiver capable of running any route. His yards per catch, 15.4, is by far the highest it's been in his career.
Against Gronkowski, it is just unfair.
Built like a brick, and blessed with a fantastic set of hands, Gronk is a matchup nightmare. Oakland Raiders safety Tyvon Branch has been the only defender to shut him down this season, limiting him to one catch with a mixture of size, strength, and toughness that most defenders just don't have.
Advantage: Welker. By a hair.
When in the Red Area
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The "red area" (Bill Belichick's preferred term for the "red zone") is quickly becoming Rob Gronkowski's playground.
Tom Brady has always been partial to tight end's in the red area, and this season is no different. With Gronk's size, it's no wonder Brady almost always looks to No. 87 first when he's near the end zone.
After scoring five touchdown's in the season's first three games, Gronk has been held scoreless in the last three. Opposing defenses realized Brady's preference, and have started to double, and in some cases triple team Gronkowski when the Patriots are near the goal line.
Wes Welker is no slouch in the red area either.
The little wide receiver has somehow found a way to score six times this season, with a few of those coming in goal-to-go situations. Welker uses his quickness as well as anyone in the NFL, and it is especially evident when he routinely turns three-yard outs into six-yard scores by turning up field before the defender even has enough time to blink.
While Welker has certainly improved in the red area, Gronkowski will always be the focal point of the defense when the Patriots are near the end zone.
Reliability as a Blocker in the Running Game
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I don't think there is any debate here, as Rob Gronkowksi is clearly the more important player regarding run blocking.
It may seem unfair to Wes Welker, as wide receivers have only a minimal focus on blocking (unlike tight ends), but run blocking is one of Gronk's best attributes and it must be stated.
Gronk is a beast up front, and he clears running lanes as well as most offensive lineman. There are some times when Gronk is overmatched in pass coverage, but that is a fault of the coaching staff, not the tight end.
Wes Welker is known, at least among Patriots diehards, as a very gritty blocker down the field. He has sprung a few long runs over the course of his time in New England, but overall I would say he is merely above-average.
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Always a tough thing to measure, "clutchness" is one of the most important aspects of any athlete.
As Al Pacino said: "Because we know, that when we add up all those inches, that's going to make the f****** difference between winning and losing!"
It's true, and every NFL player knows it. When it gets down to crunch time, who are the players you are going to trust? Who is the coach going to call a play for? Who is going to get you that inch?
For the New England Patriots, Wes Welker is that guy. As sure handed as they come, Welker has the most first downs among wide receivers (36), and is second in the league overall (behind tight end Jimmy Graham).
Make no mistake though: Rob Gronkowski is every bit as reliable as the gritty wide receiver.
In fact, Mike Reiss at ESPNBoston.com charts catches and targets for Patriots players, and Gronk is 10 percentage points better than Mr. Hands. Gronk catches an astonishing 76.3 percent of the passes thrown his way, compared to Welker's 68 percent.
Granted, Welker has almost 40 more targets than Gronk.
Needless to say, this race may have been a lot closer than you originally thought. The only thing that separates Welker from Gronkowski in this category is his sturdy rapport with quarterback Tom Brady.
Brady will almost always look for Welker on third downs, even in double-coverage.
Wes Welker does what he does best: he wins matchups.
This time, however, he was matched up against his teammate Rob Gronkowski. Welker's 3-2 victory is an extremely close one, with Gronk right on his tail in two of the categories.
Welker, who is 30 years old, may hold the edge for now, but the 22-year-old Gronkowski isn't going anywhere anytime soon. I expect Gronk to take over the title as "most important offensive player aside from Tom Brady" sometime in the next two to three years.
He's made leaps and bounds in his second season, and as his connection with Brady strengthens, I assume his full potential will soon be reached.
And when it does, look out.