After a falling out with the Patriots, Wes Welker quickly latched on with the Broncos. (Ed Andrieski/AP)
As we power through the summer toward training camps, Chris Burke will highlight players that interest him this season for various reasons. This week, he’s looking at three players who might regress in 2013.
It seems almost comical now (and it was a bit at the time, too), but the New England Patriots went through a brief spell early in 2012 when they seemed ready to phase Wes Welker out of their offense. Welker played sparingly in a Week 1 win over Tennessee, then opened Week 2 on the bench in favor of Julian Edelman.
Welker wound up reclaiming his usual role as Tom Brady's go-to receiver again, of course, en route to a team-leading 118 receptions and fifth consecutive Pro Bowl honor. But the Patriots barely made a squeak when Welker hit free agency, allowing him to leave for the rival Broncos on an affordable two-year, $12 million deal that Patriots could have easily matched.
Which leads us to this question: Did Welker thrive simply because he was part of the Patriots' system?
Either way, Welker's situation is very different in 2013. And unlike in New England, when he remained Brady's safety net even after the arrivals of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Welker is a complementary piece in Denver.
Even Welker, who averaged 112 receptions per year during his time with the Patriots, seems to know that.
"If I have to catch 112 balls," Welker told the Denver Post, "that probably means we're in trouble."
A quick rundown of the players Welker might have to share the ball with:
• Demaryius Thomas: Denver's first-round pick in 2010 broke loose in Manning's first Broncos season. Thomas led the team with 94 catches (62 more than he had in 2011), for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns. He will enter the year as the unquestioned No. 1 receiver on Denver's depth chart.
• Eric Decker: Taken two rounds after Thomas in the draft, Decker nearly matched him reception for reception last season. The former Minnesota Golden Gopher finished with 85 catches, nearly 1,100 yards and a team-high 13 touchdown grabs. The Broncos must continue to feed him the football.
• Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen: While this duo may not be Gronkowski-Hernandez, it still combined for 93 receptions and seven touchdowns in 2012. Manning always has kept his tight ends involved, and 2013 does not figure to change that.
• Willis McGahee and Montee Ball: The Broncos have no fewer than six options at running back currently on the roster, but it's McGahee (a team-leading 731 yards rushing in 2012) and Ball (2013 second-round pick) who should go 1-2. Ball's presence alone might mean more run plays for the Broncos, a year after they struggled to balance out their offense.
With all of those talented weapons around him, Welker will be hard-pressed to even approach the stats he posted from 2007-12.
So, while his recent production indicates that he still has plenty left in the tank, Welker's regression in 2013 may not be so much from a physical standpoint as it is a team-assisted drop. Granted, moving from playing with Tom Brady to Peyton Manning is like trading in your Lamborghini so you can buy an Aston Martin, but the Broncos figure to ask less of Welker than the Patriots did.
And that's why the question about the role of New England's system in Welker's repeated brilliance is a bit backward. Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots constantly have reconfigured their offense to best fit their pieces. When Welker and Moss were paired at receiver, Brady let it fly; when Gronkowski and Hernandez raised their games, the Patriots played down the seams; and Stevan Ridley's emergence allowed them to pound the rock more in 2012.
Sure, Welker benefited from landing in a pass-happy system with a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. His unmatched skills out of the slot, though, forced the Patriots to build a large part of their offense around him.
The Broncos are highly unlikely to follow in those footsteps -- last year, slot receiver Brandon Stokley caught 45 passes. Welker represents an improvement at the position, but the 32-year-old receiver is far from the top dog in Denver.
Welker, should he stay healthy, might not show signs of slowing down for another two or three seasons. But that does not mean that he will be able to replicate his Patriots successes in a new uniform.