In the back of your mind, you kind of knew that Wes Welker would find a way to spite Tom Brady and Bill Belicheck after two years worth of on-and-off negotiations didn’t net him a contract extension in New England.
And what do you know: Now Welker is going to be flanking Peyton Manning as the slot receiver for the Denver Broncos. It’s an exciting plot twist that makes the Broncos an even more dangerous team, which is hard to fathom after they finished with the second best offense in football last season.
Welker’s deal with the Broncos is worth $12 million over two years, a reasonable price tag even for a veteran player, which makes it even more odd that the Patriots weren’t able to retain him. There was a sense that the Broncos were sitting in the weeds yesterday as a bunch of deals got done, waiting for their chance to pounce on a deal like this, and you have to credit John Elway for make it happen.
Denver may have just assembled the most prolific wide receiving core of all-time. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker already made for one of the best wide receiver combinations in the NFL, and now you add one of the best slot receivers ever to the mix? If Peyton Manning gets a little back of that zip back in his arm through off-season training this season, we could be talking about a historically productive offense in 2013.
|Thomas||393||3 of 86||21.0%||13 of 86||67%|
|Decker||389||4 of 86||16.3%||8 of 86||69%|
|Welker||243||19 of 86||5.4%||30 of 86||67%|
Take a look at how Denver’s top three receivers performed last year based on Football Outsiders advanced metrics. Needless to say, no other team in football had a third receiver that ranked that highly in DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement; value overall) and DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average; value per play).
Look no further than at one of Peyton Mannings’ oldest friends to see how his new one will play this season. Even at 36 years old, Brandon Stokely was still productive for Denver last season. Stokely ran 93.9% of his routes in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus, and led the league with an 80.4% catch rate out of the slot. What this tells you is that a sure-handed receiver that runs reliable routes and gets his timing down with Manning will be able to produce.
Given that Welker led the NFL in yardage produced out of the slot last season (1,040) and finished second in 2011 (1,207; Victor Cruz had 1,208), I’m sure that Manning is drooling at the possibilities this offense will have next season (Eli is drooling for a separate reason). Additionally, the last time Welker played with a vertical threat to the outside of the numbers like Thomas – 2009 with Randy Moss – he led the league with an 82% catch rate out of the slot and compiled 984 yards in such situations.
Welker is a very versatile slot player, too, a bit more so than Stokely was in his prime. In addition to running quick/timing concepts out of the slot, Welker is also a master at working the intermediate routes and killing teams that play zone coverage and leave the middle of the field open.
Here is a play we will surely see from the Broncos from time-to-time in Welker’s first season in Denver. It’s a simple a 2×1 alignment with Welker motioning pre-snap to the right side of the formation. New England pulls the right side of it’s ine on this play and Welker breaks back on the snap immediately for a quick screen. These plays aren’t necessarily always called but if Manning sees a key that tells him blitz or off coverage, he can go to this audible.
Learning the terminology of Denver’s offense will be a major transition point for Welker, particularly because such a large percentage of the plays called for him come after the quarterback makes his pre-snap reads and gives a hand signal or a call for Welker to adjust his plan for that play. If Welker were going to the Chiefs and had to work with Alex Smith about this, I’d be a bit worried, but seeing as he’s going from Tom Brady to Peyton Manning, I’m sure they’ll have the communication ironed out by the time opening day comes around.
Here is an example of Brady picking up the heat from the Ravens and making a call to his offensive line. Take a look at Welker peaking in at Brady, likely listening in to what he’s calling.
As you can see, Welker adjusted to a quick flat route, beating his man, ace slot corner Ladarius Webb, with a great jab step towards the middle before breaking off towards the sideline.
But like I said, Welker isn’t all about the quick hitter routes that pick up five or six yards a play, though that is a valuable part of his game and will likely be the extension of Denver’s run game this season. Take a look here at how well he runs his route against this zone coverage.
The Patriots are going to use start tight end Aaron Hernadez here to cross the face of two of Baltimore’s zone defenders (Webb and Ray Lewis). As a result, the middle of the field will open up for Welker when he breaks towards the middle of the field around the 25-yardline.
Lewis is totally out of position to cover Welker’s route and this an easy throw for Brady to make.
Here the Jets are going to try to get cute by dropping their defensive tackle in coverage as well as their outside linebacker, hoping to contain Welker on short crossing routes over the middle of the field.
So much for that. Welker, as receivers are taught, sits down versus the zone coverage and makes himself easy target for Brady in between two defensive players without the lateral range to make a play on a strong pass.
Finally, we get to Welker’s ability to get down the seam on deep routes.
The Jets are in a two deep look here, but their strong safety is not going to drop deep; instead, the strong safety will provide support on Hernandez while the free safety gains depth for deep plays.
You can see how this creates a problem. The free safety did not gain his depth in the middle of the field, giving him an awful angle at Welker, who is now heading right for where the strong safety would be if he wasn’t inching up to cover Hernandez.
With defenses having to send help over to Thomas, I feel like Welker will have ample opportunities to make plays down the seam with the Broncos this season. When you consider how well Thomas stretches the field vertically, how well Decker runs those intermediate routes and how well Welker performs in the slot, Denver will have the best receiving core in the league this season. And with Manning at the helm, anything is possible with this group.
As for the Patriots, they felt this loss for all of an hour before signing Wes Welker Jr., former St. Louis Ram Danny Amendola, to a five-year, $31 million deal. Amendola is cut from the same cloth as Welker; he’s a prototypical slot guy that works great on option routes and graduated to the pros from a spread system at Texas Tech (same as Welker).
Amendola averaged 1.91 yards per route run last season when playing out of the slot, which happened on 80% of his routes. Compare that to Welker’s 2.05 yards per route run and you don’t get too significant of a difference, especially when you consider the difference in scheme, quarterback and complimentary talent.
Amendola is a dynamic slot guy that runs good routes, is dangerous on option plays and will make for a new primary target for Tom Brady. Once those two have their chemistry down, they’ll have the chance to be just as productive as the Brady/Welker duo, though Amendola does come with a bit of an injury risk.
The Patriots did a great job to snag the best slot option on the market once Welker was gone and this move is better for them in the long-term with Amendola being just 27-years old.