With the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots likely to enter 2013 as heavy favorites in their divisions yet again, Denver's move to sign wide receiver Wes Welker away from New England could have long-lasting implications in the AFC.
The Patriots hemmed and hawed over the possibility of a new deal for Welker for two seasons, slapping the franchise tag on him prior to 2012 and declining to do so this time around. They even had one last chance to retain Welker prior to his signing in Denver -- he reportedly asked the Patriots if they would match the Broncos' offer, before he made up his mind.
Whether the Patriots balked or did not meet Welker's demands, the slot receiver agreed to a reported two-year, $12 million deal with Denver instead.
This could bring about sea change in the AFC arms race. Thanks to their Super Bowl win, the Ravens are the de facto team to beat in that conference, but the Patriots and Broncos will head into next season as definite contenders. Welker's move from New England to Denver gives Peyton Manning yet another outstanding option to throw to ... and robs Tom Brady of his go-to weapon.
Welker caught 672 passes over his six years in New England and led the league in receptions three times. He made 118 grabs in 2012, despite the Patriots keeping him on the bench behind Julian Edelman to start the year.
Those arguing that Welker's a product of New England's system may have forgotten the 67 catches he had for a dismal Miami offense in 2006. That approach also overlooks the fact that Denver's passing attack will be able to utilize Welker in many of the same ways New England did.
Manning now has Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Welker as his top three options. Welker should soar past the 45 receptions Brandon Stokley made as a slot weapon last season, even if some of those catches come at the expense of Thomas, Decker and tight end Joel Dreessen.
The Patriots spent more than half a decade torturing defenses with Welker's inside presence. Now, they may have to figure out a way to stop him to get to next year's Super Bowl. Grade: A. This is easily one of the best pickups of free agency thus far, both because it makes Denver better and delivers a blow to its rival. Good luck stopping Manning next season.