The biggest story for the New England Patriots this season remains to be their situation with star receiver Wes Welker. After troubled contract negotiations this offseason, a lack of snaps in week one, and not starting in week two, Welker had a more extended role in the team’s week three loss to the Baltimore Ravens and proved his worth to the team. With his production and more injuries to the Patriots offense, the team can’t afford to ignore their star anymore.
Over the last four seasons Welker has become one of the NFL’s leading receivers. In 2011, he was the Patriots only productive receiver and a contract extension was expected during the offseason. But a deal was not agreed to as Welker watched tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez receive theirs. The lack of snaps Welker’s been on the field for this season has gotten national attention but the Patriots can no longer afford to pretend they don’t need their star.
Expected to repeat as AFC champions this season, the Patriots dropped their second consecutive game Sunday night to become 1-2. An injury to Hernandez has put him out indefinitely and forced the team to adjust their offensive strategy. Instead of focusing on their two tight ends, the Patriots will now have to target their wide receivers more often.
The Patriots went with primarily three receivers Sunday night and played Welker in his familiar position of slot receiver. With the country watching and wondering what the four-time Pro Bowler would show on national television, Welker came through big even if it was in defeat. Welker ended the night with eight receptions for 142 yards which included a 59-yard reception in the first quarter.
Sitting at 1-2, the Patriots have to turn their fortunes around soon and that won’t happen with Welker on the sidelines. With Hernandez out, much more focus will go toward Gronkowski by opposing defenses making it tougher to get him the ball. That means that the team’s wide receivers must be the new focal point of the passing game.
The team currently has five receivers on the active roster. Matthew Slater has yet to make an impression and it’s still unknown how much head coach Bill Belichick wants to include former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch. That leaves Brandon Lloyd, Julian Edelman, and Welker. With the Patriots likely to use primarily three receivers, Welker’s importance has become even greater.
His performance Sunday night doesn’t help the case against him. In a game where the team needed players to step up and play big, that’s exactly what Welker did. The Patriots young starting running back Stevan Ridley has been inconsistent this season and it’s hard to tell what he’ll give the team the rest of the way. In addition, Edelman left the game Sunday night with a hand injury which could hamper his progress. If he is slowed at all that would leave Gronkowski, Lloyd, and Welker as the only remaining dependable targets on offense.
The Patriots need to begin a run of wins and they can’t do that without a significant impact from Welker. Gronkowski will be limited in what he can produce with much more focus on him. Ridley’s youth and inconsistency makes him a liability. That leaves Lloyd and Welker to help quarterback Tom Brady carry the Patriots offense. With a limited number of offensive players to depend on and the season on the brink of collapse, the Patriots can’t afford to ignore Welker anymore.