Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Wes Welker to Start Scrapping on the Broncos

Per ESPN reports, Wes Welker just signed a 2-year, $12 million contract to play in Denver, swapping one hyper-accurate legendary quarterback for another, albeit one whose neck has been sewn on like Frankenstein's monster. Obviously, any opinion today is pure speculation, but that won't stop me from giving mine. On first look I think it's the rare deal that helps each and every actor; it's great for Welker, great for Denver, and great for New England.

As mentioned above, Welker gets to benefit from continued high level quarterback play (actual elite quarterbacking, as opposed to Flacco-elite). What sets Manning and Brady apart from so many other quarterbacks is not their physical gifts, but their ability to read defenses and their otherworldly accuracy. Welker would probably be a good receiver in any system, able to slide down the seam for easy looks and capable of running wide receiver screens that function as a pseudo-running game, but it would be a waste of Welker's talent if a lesser quarterback like Andy Dalton were trying fit the ball in the tiny windows of space in which Welker operates. In Manning, Welker has a security blanket, and vice versa.

Welker's career is viewed through a certain achromatic tint because he is white and short, and thus "scrappy" (which, of course, is just code for white, small, and not that physically imposing to sports writers). Welker is certainly tough and he speaks well in platitudes and he's married to a former Hooters waitress, so the constructed image of "scrappy" fits, but he's a lot more than that. If any other receiver were putting up similar numbers at his age 31 season, even viewed predominantly as a possession receiver (like Reggie Wayne at this point in his career), I don't think he'd be viewed by his own team as such a risk, but this predetermined narrative has somewhat undermined Welker's prodigious skills. I don't mean to play the reverse racism card, especially in a league where "running qb" is used as proxy for "black qb" is used as proxy for "qb who can't win," but there is an undeniable undercurrent that says the Patriots can easily replace Welker's production because they can replicate his talent (or lack thereof).

I doubt that assertion because Welker has been monstrously good these last 6 seasons. Even this past year, when he was supposedly being phased out of the offense, Welker was 8th in the league in yardage and second in catches. His yards per catch were a relatively pedestrian 11.5 (versus Reggie Wayne at 12.8), but his catch rate is so high that his yards per attempt is .8 yards higher than Wayne's (7.8 to 7.0). Welker's average season since coming to the Patriots netted 112 catches for 1243 yards. Some of that is on the quarterback, but undeniably some of that is on the receiver as well. Product of a system designed for his skills or not, Welker has produced at a staggeringly consistent high level. Catching passes from the elder Manning, Welker should be able to continue producing at a high level, and this contract is a pay cut from 2012 but still a good chunk of change.

For the Broncos, it gives them one more weapon and a receiver who's famed for his crisp route-running, something for which Demarius Thomas is not particularly known. I'm not sure if they're planning to return Eric Decker, but he's more than qualified for the 3rd receiver Brandon Stokley role, with Thomas subbing for young Reggie Wayne and Welker for older Marvin Harrison. It further cements the Broncos as an offensive force in the pedestrian AFC West, and helps to offset some of the regression concerns from a team that simply beat up on a terrible schedule last year.

Last, this will be good long term for New England. If the Patriots were to run the same offense next year with Julian Edelman (most likely cut) or Danny Amendola (their next target in free agency), I think the offense would suffer slightly. But in a guy like Edelman, they could get maybe 75% of Welker's production at 10% the cost. Amendola may cost as much as Welker (if not more), but the team would be paying for Amendola's prime, instead of gambling that Welker stay at a high level. The Patriots also make adjustments schematically as well as any team in football (remember how different 2007 was from any year before thanks to Randy Moss) and should be able to capitalize on their massive tight end advantage, provided Gronk and Hernandez are healthy. That shift in offensive philosophy would serve to mitigate even more of the drop-off.

I don't think this is enough to tip the balance of the AFC in any way, but it's a solid move for the Broncos and still doesn't cripple the Patriots.

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