The Patriots don’t deal in hypotheticals, but with some uncertainty surrounding his contract situation, it’s worth speculating what the New England offense might look like if Wes Welker was playing elsewhere in 2013.
If Welker left the Patriots this offseason, don’t expect New England to panic, or make a dramatic adjustment in the way it operates. (In other words, don’t expect them to make a dramatic push to land one receiver who could singularly replicate Welker’s production.) Instead, the Patriots will continue to move in the same direction they did for much of 2012, where the offense displayed solid balance between the running and passing game, while the passing attack continued to build around young tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Simply put, there’s no template for the New England offense without Welker. (In fact, it’s almost hard to remember a time where Welker wasn’t a part of the Patriots’ passing game.) Since he first arrived prior to the start of the 2007 season, the receiver has missed just three regular-season games, and has been one of the most dependable and durable players on the roster in that stretch. However, based on what we know about the Patriots offense and how it’s operated over the last few seasons (at least, since the offense switched gears and started emphasizing the tight ends in 2010), we can make some presumptions as to how it would operate without Welker.
While the Patriots are a game-plan offense (and always will be), it was clear that they spent the bulk of last offseason tweaking their passing game to feature the two tight ends. While things changed last season after injuries to both Hernandez and Gronkowski, if they did lose Welker, the Patriots’ offense would continue to head in the same direction its gone in recent seasons leaning even heavier on the tight ends. It’s all been part of a growing trend -- targets for the New England tight ends went from 43 catches on 60 targets in 2009 to 169 catches on 237 targets in 2011. In that same period, targets for receivers went from 273 catches on 423 targets (2009) to 196 catches on 309 targets in 2011. (I’m not including the target numbers from 2012, as the injuries to both Gronkowski and Hernandez affected the stats.)
In the context of this discussion, it’s also important to remember that the Patriots are expected to add to their tight end grouping in 2013 with Jake Ballard. Ballard, who sat out all last season because of a knee injury he suffered in Super Bowl XLVI against the Patriots, turned himself into a effective downfield threat in 2011 with the Giants (38 receptions for 604 yards and four touchdowns), and could provide the same sort of presence in 2013 with the Patriots. The 6-foot-6, 275-pounde compares with Gronkowski in his bulk and his overall playing style, and the idea of deploying a three-tight end set with Ballard, Gronkowski and Hernandez would be an intriguing matchup problem for opposing defensive coordinators.
If the slot receiver departed as a free agent, the Patriots do have plenty of options on the roster who could try and replicate his production. At the same time, they would look to try and replace Welker’s production via the draft or in free agency, with the conventional wisdom saying you take a portion of the money you would spend on Welker and use it to try and sign slot receiver Danny Amendola. Amendola has followed an almost eerily similar career path to Welker, one we documented here. However, it’s important to remember Amendola doesn’t have near the durability that Welker has displayed over the course of his career. This isn’t necessarily a knock on Amendola -- frankly, there have been few players who have been as amazingly durable as Welker has been since he arrived in the league. But to expect someone like Amendola to step in and be an instant facsimile of Welker is unfair to both receivers.
When it comes to New England drafting a potential replacement, that can be dicey, at least as of late. There are no absolutes when it comes to the Patriots and how they approach the draft, but under Bill Belichick, they’ve never taken a receiver in the first round. And when it comes to drafting and developing wide receivers over the last decade, the Patriots have struggled: in the last 10 years -- starting with the 2003 draft -- the Patriots have selected eight receivers. They have a combined 165 career receptions in the NFL, with 69 of them coming from Julian Edelman. (The only other two with more than 30? Bethel Johnson with 39 career receptions and Brandon Tate with 37 career catches.) Welker had 118 of his own last season. The Patriots have been fortunate enough to find several free agent receivers to augment the roster and bolster the passing game, including Welker, Randy Moss and Brandon Lloyd. But the inability to consistently develop young receivers -- especially when contrasted with the other skill positions like running back and tight end -- is baffling.
There remains a belief that Edelman -- who is also a free agent -- could eventually be the guy who replaces Welker, but the former college quarterback has struggled with injury the last two seasons, and no matter what you think of Welker, that has never been a problem for the veteran. Edelman’s durability has never been an issue like Amendola, but it’s still worth mentioning in the context of this conversation. (There’s also a belief that Edelman, if given the chance, would start to grow into Welker’s role -- his supporters point to the fact that Welker didn’t become WES WELKER! until the age of 26 when he caught 67 passes in his last season in Miami. Edelman turned 26 this past season, and appeared to make small gains, catching more balls and playing more offensive snaps than any time since his rookie year. But by that comparison, he still remains behind Welker when he was the same age in terms of the overall developmental curve.)
The wild card in all of this could be Lloyd. If he does stick around, the receiver -- who was uneven over the course of his first season with the Patriots -- isn’t a slot receiver type. However, he could still pick up some of the targets that went to Welker over the last few seasons.
If Welker leaves, the real changes -- at least when it came to overall offensive opportunities (we call them touches) -- would come among the running backs. The Patriots’ running game was able to make colossal gains in 2012; New England ran the ball 523 times during the 2012 regular season, the highest total for a Patriots team since the 2004 team ran the 524 times over the course of the regular season. There was simply no comparison between the 2011 and 2012 running attacks: In the 2011 regular season, the Patriots had 438 carries, 1,764 yards, 4.0 yards per carry and 18 touchdowns. In the 2012 regular season, those numbers jumped to 523 carries, 2,184 yards, 4.2 yards per carry and 25 touchdowns. Expect those numbers to grow if Welker departs.
One other thing that’s worth discussing is the fact that the running backs could become even more involved in the passing game than they were last season, particularly Danny Woodhead, who caught a career-high 40 passes in 2012. Shane Vereen -- who caught 74 passes as a collegian at Cal -- could also emerge as a force out of the backfield.
The bottom line? Welker managed to become not only Tom Brady’s most valued target over the last six seasons, he has grown into one of the quarterback’s closest allies. (The first job for any receiver -- or receivers -- who might be brought in in the wake of a Welker departure would be to get themselves invited to the offseason throwing sessions the quarterback has on the West Coast every spring, a series that Hernandez is set to attend later this year.) Welker has put together an epic run of production in the New England offense -- five of his six seasons, he’s posted at least 100 catches -- that has gotten him within one 100-catch season of being in a Hall of Fame discussion. If he does depart, expect the Patriots to lean heavier on the two tight ends and the running game, as well as whatever wide receivers might be brought in to try and replace him.
In the end, if he does leave, it won’t be a singular option who would replace Welker; that would be next to impossible, as the 31-year-old is a pioneering slot receiver who helped shatter the traditional ideas regarding the position. Instead, a handful of individuals (both new and old) would be expected to step into the breach to try and reproduce the same sort of offensive flow the Patriots have enjoyed over the last three seasons.
Ultimately, if there’s an offense that could make the transition in a post-Welker climate, it’s probably New England. After all, the Patriots have made alterations to their offense at least three times under Belichick (the initial move from Drew Bledsoe to Brady, the creation of the shock and awe offense of 2007, and the post-Randy Moss era that incorporated the young tight ends and signaled the move to uptempo football). On each occasion, the transition wasn’t exactly seamless, but the Patriots were able to make it work in large part because of the quarterback. While the loss of Welker wouldn’t necessitate a radical overhaul, it would mark another chapter in the coaching career of Bill Belichick, and present Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Brady with a whole new set of challenges for the 2013 season.