Welker did fall to a knee injury before, but that was at the end of a season so we did not get a real sense of how the Patriots would adapt. It does seem easy enough to figure out though – Bill Belichick always finds a way to get the passing game going, as does Tom Brady. We would have to expect that the rest of the eligible receivers would just pick up the slack and the passing game would just keep humming along. The only real question would be how the distribution of targets – a large number of them, considering Welker is usually good for over 100 catches a year – gets spread around. Do not expect the ground game to get more work, unless you count running back receptions as part of a run game.
Aaron Hernandez, TE – The Patriots already feature both Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez as two starting tight ends on most plays, but without Wes Welker the Patriots would definitely get the ball more to their second tight end. Hernandez often split out wide as a virtual wide receiver in addition to getting work out of the backfield, so Hernandez should be the top acquisition target if Welker goes down with a major injury.
Danny Woodhead, RB and Shane Vereen, RB – While Stevan Ridley will be the main man in the Red Zone, pushing the pile forward between the tackles, both Woodhead and Vereen are very solid receiving running backs. It is safe to expect both to see at least a 25% target increase if Welker was out as Tom Brady might have two running backs in the backfield – Ridley and a receiving option.
Tom Brady, QB – Tom Brady has always been able to produce big numbers even without a major receiver. Remember his playoff runs with Dante Stallworth, Deion Branch, and Reche Caldwell? So yes, Brady can put up big passing numbers even with lesser talents at wideout. He has more than just Welker at his disposal with two strong tight ends (Hernandez, Gronkowski) and a deep ball threat in WR Brandon Lloyd.
Brandon Lloyd, WR – At first you might think that Lloyd would see a natural increase in production, but consider that defenses will now double team the only true wide receiver left on the field. Jabar Gaffney and Deion Branch do not scare any defenses, so Lloyd may get a few more targets but he will also see more defensive attention without Welker.
Stevan Ridley, RB – Considering that New England will still pass the same amount with or without Welker, the pure running game should remain the same. Ridley will be the workhorse between the tackles but do not expect him to see more carries or an overall migration to more running plays.
Rob Gronkowski, TE – Now, do not go out and just sell one of the best tight ends in the NFL, but you do have to lower expectations a bit without Wes Welker in the lineup. Gronkowski suddenly becomes the defense’s top priority in defending the passing game, so more coverage will make his fantasy numbers tougher to keep up to studly levels. If you get a great offer for him after Welker gets hurt and you have a good alternative at tight end, think hard about taking that trade.
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