Few wide receivers can do it. Judging by the current number of Pro Football Hall of Famers, and excluding tight ends and special teamers, Wes Welker‘s position has the least of any — 23, tied with quarterbacks — of modern era busts. And of those 23, they averaged 13.1 years in the NFL.
Not to say that Welker, 33, will never strap on a helmet again, but after suffering his third concussion since November in Saturday’s 18-17 preseason loss to the Houston Texans, the Denver Broncos‘ $6 million man is being asked by advocates to hang ’em up after just 10 seasons. It begs the question, if the two-time All-Pro’s career were to conclude today, would he be among the likes of Jerry Rice, Cris Carter and Art Monk?
Many look at Welker’s position as a slot receiver and deem him not a true wide out. How could a guy who runs underneath routes to move the chains be compared with a speedster who stretches the field? Slot receivers are labeled replaceable while the field stretchers are stamped as indispensable. Another knock against Welker is that he’s worked with the greatest of this generation in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
Even so, his reception totals are beyond remarkable. His 841 receptions are ranked 24th in league history, and no other slot man comes within 100 catches. He is the only player in league history with five seasons with over 110 receptions, and if Welker kept up at the rate he was going — averaging 106.4 catches a year since his breakout 2007 season — he’d find himself with more than 1,000 catches and inside the top 10 of the NFL’s career receptions list before his 35th birthday.
Yet as a slot guy, his tallies beyond catches fade. He is only 47th in receiving yards at 9,358, behind 10 current Hall of Famers and at least eight future candidates (Tony Gonzalez tops the list). And he is 127th in career touchdown receptions at 48, behind reliable pros but nowhere-near-Hall-of-Famers in Vincent Jackson (52), Marques Colston (63) and Santana Moss (66). In fact, Welker has more Pro Bowl selections — five — than those three do altogether with four.
Only two modern era wide receivers played fewer seasons than Welker. They are Pete Pilos, who caught 373 passes for the Philadelphia Eagles between 1947 and 1995, and Lynn Swann, the Super Bowl legend who nabbed 336 in nine seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The glaring difference between Pilos and Swann and Welker is in rings.
Pilos won two NFL championships in Philly. Swann filled a whole hand minus the thumb catching Terry Bradshaw passes in Pittsburgh. Welker’s stats in the Super Bowl are typical, combining for 26 catches for 247 yards, but going 0-3 in those games. And the defining moment of Welker’s career was not coming back from a torn ACL or multiple concussions. Rather his drop with just over four minutes to go that would have sealed Super Bowl XLVI. Minus that play, and the numbers, Welker has played with a grit and reliability throughout his career that earned him respect a fan favorite which should not be overlooked.
While selection for the Hall is a challenge — even Tim Brown, fifth in career receptions, sixth in receiving yards and seventh in career touchdowns over 17 seasons is waiting for the call — Welker’s candidacy is that of a new pass-dominant age in the NFL. Even though Welker did not invent the position of slot receiver, he certainly perfected it like no other. Unfortunately for him, his job consists of going over the middle quite often, where his fate may have just been written on the field, but should continue all the way to Canton.