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Spotlight: Wes Welker

posted by Heath Cummings on Jul 29th


Heath Cummings's thoughts

For all of the press given to New England's tight end duo in 2011, Wes Welker put together his best season as a professional, setting career highs in both yardage and touchdowns. Now that everyone has had an offseason to prepare for Gronkowski and Hernandez, it's easy to wonder if Welker could match or even exceed the incredible numbers he put up last season. Let's start by looking at just how incredible he was last year, and really over the last five years.

  • Only two active receivers have ever topped Welker's 1569 yards from last season, Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson. All-time it was the fifth best yardage season for a receiver in his 30s
  • His 122 catches are 4th all-time (his 2009 season is tied for second)
  • Not thought of as a big-time scorer, his 9 touchdowns ranked 6th last season
  • His average season over the last five comes out to 111 catches, 1221 yards, 6 touchdowns

It may seem a little trivial in an in-depth spotlight to be reciting statistics, but someone should be standing on the rooftops shouting his praises. Wes Welker has been one of the best receivers in the league over the last five seasons, and he isn't that much older than his competition.

Receiver Age Recs Yards TDs
Wes Welker 31 554 6105 31
Greg Jennings 28 344 5539 46
Andre Johnson 31 395 5703 35
Larry Fitzgerald 28 463 6480 49
Roddy White 30 471 6422 42

So we know he's been a stud, what can we expect him to be in 2012? On the negative side is Welker's age and the possible hit in production he'll take from the acquisition of Brandon Lloyd. At 31 years old it would be astounding if Welker repeated what he did last season, but it was pretty astounding when he did it at 30. Also, if you're going to question Welker's age it helps to remember that Brandon Lloyd is less than 2 months younger than him.

It's true that there are only so many balls to go around in New England, but I have a hard time seeing how Welker is going to see a serious reduction in targets. All offseason the talk has been about finding a way to stop the two tight end attack, so if anything the reduction may come there. Brandon Lloyd gives Brady a legitimate downfield target, which should really only open up the middle even more, especially if Gronkowski is being double teamed on every play.

Even with a slight regression, Welker is without question a WR1, and in PPR leagues he's in the discussion as a top two receiver. Welker has led the league in receptions three of the last five seasons while putting together four of the top 21 reception totals in league history. Even that doesn't fully describe his consistency. In PPR scoring, Welker has scored ten or more points in 80% of his last 77 games (5 seasons). Not impressed? Four of the 17 times he didn't break double digits were Week 17 when he or Tom Brady played a half or less. You won't find that kind of consistency anywhere outside of Larry Fitzgerald.

I think it's important to remember that Welker has put these numbers up playing three full years with Randy Moss (Moss broke 1000 yards and ten TD all three years) and last year with Gronkowski and Hernandez. The only year he didn't have competition at the top of the food chain was 2010, by far his worse with the Patriots. He thrives when the defense can't focus on him, and when Tom Brady spreads it around. He probably won't get into the end zone consistently, but he never really has except for last year.

Positives

  • Consistency in targets and route running makes him very consistent in PPR formats
  • Extra focus placed on Patriots tight ends as well as their acquisition of Brandon Lloyd should open up the field
  • Tom Brady is among the best in the game, and has helped Welker lead the league in receptions in three of the last five seasons

Negatives

  • No top-tier WR1 has as much competition for targets
  • Age 31 is on the wrong side of the wide receiver career arc
  • As consistent as he is in putting up reception numbers he has been very hit and miss in touchdown heavy leagues

Final thoughts

Even without age and Brandon Lloyd factored in you have to expect at least a small regression to the mean from Welker if only because no one maintains that level of performance. I don't think Brandon Lloyd steals many targets, but he is yet another option in the red zone, so touchdowns may again become sporadic for Welker.

Probably no player in the league is as affected by scoring system. In a standard league, I would wait until the mid third round to take Welker because there are just so many receivers that could put up as good of numbers without the age risk. In PPR, I'm not sure how you don't take him in the second round as the second or third receiver off the board.


Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

FF Ninja said:

Last year Welker saw 173 targets and managed career highs in yards, ypr, and touchdowns. He finished WR3. This year they added Lloyd which some see as just another guy (Branch-esque) and some believe he'll warrant a significant enough amount of targets to hurt everyone's numbers. I belong to the latter, expecting 120 targets for Lloyd. I expect Welker's numbers to return to something along the lines of 2007: 145 targets, 112 rec, 1175 yds, 8 TD, WR11. Needless to say, he won't be on any of my teams this year at a WR6 price.

Last year, I thought he had a solid chance at double digit TDs, but with the presence of Lloyd I think his TD production ends up in the 5-7 range. He caught 20 of 23 red zone targets last year for 6 TD. In case anyone is curious about his red zone production in previous years: He was 20/28/7 in 2007, 13/21/3 in 2008, 11/16/3 in 2009, 15/23/6 in 2010. He scored only 6 TDs from outside the red zone in the last 5 years.

David Yudkin (Footballguys.com Staff Writer) said:

Welker has proven to be Brady's binky in the passing game. He has averaged 10 targets a game since coming to NE and I expect that will continue. I think last year saw Welker get a few extra yards than normal, as he had 7 plays for over 30 yards including plays of 73 and 99 yards. That upped his ypc by 1.0-1.5 above normal.

I still see Welker getting 150 targets, 110 receptions, 1175 yards, and 6 TD. I don't think the contract situation will be an issue, but there is always the slight chance that the Patriots will start to phase him out a little bit at a time if they think he won't be back next year.

WickedCanRest said:

Welker has been Brady's security blanket now for 5 seasons. Obviously they have a pretty stellar relationship, but I think that you're going to start to see his usage and YPC decline as he becomes even more of a possession receiver. This year I think we see Aaron Hernandez emerge a little bit more. There's also the addition of Brandon Lloyd, Brady's first deep threat since Moss in 2009. Lloyd is still capable of producing at an elite level and as a result I think he gets a pretty good chunk of targets. When you mix that all together, you get Welker with a reduced role. I think he still gets a healthy number of targets, but I also see those targets being lower value ones with him basically acting as an extended hand off for Brady.

100 Targets, 80 Receptions, 800 Yards, 4 TDs

I know this makes me by far the most bearish here, but I really think that there are only so many balls to go around and with four legitimate, incredibly talented weapons, someone is going to take a step back and I think it's going to be Welker. Hernandez and Gronkowski with Lloyd over the top is simply going to be too difficult for defenses to cover all at once for Brady to need to lean on Welker as much as he has historically. And by the way, he hasn't exactly been the picture of health for the last few years. He might not have had to miss any games, but sometimes the guy who plays through the nagging injury can be just as detrimental to your lineup.

Coeur de Lion said:

I think that Welker's targets will likely be minimally impacted by the addition of Lloyd; they play totally dissimilar roles and have completely different strengths as players. Lloyd is at his best down the field and outside, behind the defense, while Weller makes his living underneath. Welker is really almost like the Pats "ground game" and I'd be more inclined to bump him down if they had focused on RBs this off-season as opposed to bringing in a bunch of new WRs. Welker's YPC looks like the outlier to me from 2011, the targets and catches were par for the course for him (year after the ACL excepted).

TheDirtyWord said:

I'm selling high on Welker.

It's not that I fault him for dropping the pass that could have sealed the Patriots 4th SB (I'm not a Pats fan - but I know this has been cause for debate). But from my vantage point, Bill Belichick is not one to malinger over being loyal to a declining veteran. It's not even that Welker is in decline. But it's his usefulness to the Patriots that is in decline.

When Welker became the force that he became, he did so because defenses all of a sudden had to deal with the prospect of Brady-to-Randy Moss. The electricity of this combination and what it produced in 2007 was off the charts. And while it's entirely possible that Welker would have realized success with Brady sans Moss...what he was able to establish during the next 5 seasons was an ability to get open in short space in positions to generate YAC. With defenses focused on Moss...it was unreal the amount of latitude Welker had to fine tune and perfect this craft.

Except in the last 2 years, the Patriots have developed two of the best TE's in the game. Both are young, spry talents who have allowed the Patriots to once again change the complexion of their passing game again to one that produces match-up headaches for defenses when both are on the field. How do you defend against an offense that can feature two prolific pass catching options that can also be called upon to provide in-line blocking? The problem for Welker eventually is that there is simply going to be some redundancy in terms of what Gronkowski/Hernandez do...and what Welker does. Certainly they do it differently, but the contrast between Gronk/Hernandez/Welker is much smaller than Welker/Moss.

Brandon Lloyd was brought in to provide a consistent deep threat element to the Patriots passing game. Lloyd, hampered by trades and ineffective QB play in 2011 was 4.5 speed flypaper the year prior. It is Lloyd that now provide the passing game contrast in the New England attack. And while Welker will probably still wind up with more targets than Lloyd...it's Lloyd that will be the bigger play threat as Welker will be forced to fight for his productivity amongst Gronkowski and Hernandez.

It's fair to look at how the Patriots have handled the possibility of a long term contract with Welker (they've essentially ignored him) to see the writing on the wall. Welker won't disappear to be sure, but he becomes a less integral part of the passing game as the ever evolving Belichick continues to churn out powerhouse after powerhouse, gradually weeding out elements of the past to accommodate factors of the future.


Wes Welker projections

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