Not just leverage: Welker spurns Patriots, signs with Broncos
He wears, at times, the unflattering tag of "system'' receiver, but I guess we're about to find out if Wes Welker can live with being known as a multiple-system receiver. Because the newest Broncos play-maker just left his comfort zone in New England with Tom Brady in order to take a crack at the system that Peyton Manning already runs so adeptly in Denver.
Does anyone really think he'll do anything but fit right in and move the chains?
The Broncos dropped the ball in that playoff game two months back, but you can chalk up another big score right here and now for the still-nascent Manning era in Denver, because No. 18 is the biggest reason the Patriots just saw the NFL's leading pass-catcher from 2007-2012 removed from their roster. Playing with Peyton is getting to be quite the selling point for the Broncos. Just as it once once was for his Indianapolis Colts.
Isn't that right, Adam Vinatieri?
Once upon a time, it was hard to envision New England's iconic and Hall of Fame bound kicker escaping Foxboro in order to pull on the colors of the hated Colts, but that shocker happened, and in time everyone got used to it. Seven years later, a pattern has been repeated: A beloved and productive Patriots hero is leaving because he got more appreciation elsewhere than in his own backyard, and the lure of playing with Manning proved irresistible.
You have to admit, 'Wes Welker wings west' kind of has a ring to it. The Broncos are hoping it's a big shiny ring, and comes with a parade.
It's a hands-down, win-win for Denver. The Broncos get to add the game's best slot receiver to a receiving corps that already features the promising tandem of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, and it leaves the rival Patriots with some serious work to do in order to replace the NFL-record 110-plus balls that Welker caught in five of the past six seasons.
It's not the end of life as we know it in Belichick-ville, but it's certainly not a good day for those who follow and revere the Flying Elvis logo. True, the Patriots didn't take long Wednesday to replace their smallish slot receiver with another smallish slot receiver, reportedly signing the Rams' Danny Amendola to a five-year contract worth $31 million, with $10 million guaranteed. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels loved targeting Amendola when they were together in St. Louis in 2011, and at 27, he's five years younger than Welker.
But while Amendola plays a similar style of game as Welker, he's not Welker. He doesn't have his track record or his penchant for staying healthy and answering the bell each and every week.
So any way you cut it, it's not an upgrade for the Patriots. There was only one Welker, and he's now wearing orange and blue, and getting ready to give Manning that same security-blanket feeling in the pocket he always gave Brady. And to think that Welker was lost because New England wasn't even willing to match or better the modest two-year, $12 million deal that Denver reportedly gave him. That can't make Brady feel anything but foolish for agreeing to restructure his contract this month in a bid to free up the salary cap room the Patriots needed to work in free agency this year. Welker was thought to be the No. 1 priority on that to-do list, but apparently his vision didn't jive with Belichick's on this one.
If there's some nasty fallout to come in New England between quarterback and head coach on this topic, it's completely understandable. But don't count on it. Brady is no doubt disappointed to lose Welker, with whom he had a second nature rapport, but he also knows how Belichick operates. New England is unsentimental when it comes to these matters, but at least it's consistent.
The Patriots, a source close to the situation tells me, wanted to pay Welker roughly $6 million per year, almost exactly what he wound up getting from Denver. But Welker made $9.5 million last season on a one-year franchise-player tag, and that figure likely convinced him he could never accept substantially less than that in New England. Not that a long-term contract of that yearly salary was ever in the cards for him with the Patriots, who showed no inclination to stretch for a player who had produced so well for them.
So while Brady saw Welker as instrumental to chasing a fourth Super Bowl ring, instead, his favorite receiver will be helping Manning chase his second. That reality is going to sting a while in Foxboro. The Patriots said all the right things about Welker's value to the offense, from team owner Robert Kraft on down, but their actions simply didn't speak up when it mattered most.
Like with Vinatieri in 2006, Brady in the past has seen the Patriots coldly determine a player's value and then refuse to budge beyond that level of salary commitment. Even for one of the franchise's most popular players. But as good as Vinatieri was and still is, he's a kicker. As Brady's go-to receiver in a pass-happy league, Welker was in another league in terms of value.
No matter. The Patriots were moving on, without or without Welker. And while it's a shocking development in New England, it's a giddy one in Denver. The Broncos know their window with the soon-to-be 37-year-old Manning is short to begin with, but this addition aids their cause considerably. With Welker working his magic from the slot, in the crevices and creases of a defense, Denver's outside passing game should be even more effective. Brandon Stokley at 36 was a solid option for Manning and Co. last year in the slot, but Welker at 32 will be a great one. He'll command coverage that Stokley couldn't have dreamed of, and he'll catch his usual 100 balls if the Broncos run as much up-tempo, no-huddle attack as the Patriots did in recent years.
It's tempting to wonder if the balance of power in the AFC just shifted these past two days. Super Bowl champion Baltimore suffered multiple early losses in free agency, and now New England must deal with a major defection to its pace-setting offense. Both the Ravens and Patriots beat the Broncos last season, so the gap looks considerably narrowed from this vantage point.
But it's too soon to know how much ground Denver might have made up on its chief AFC rivals. Again, it's mid-March and the early days of free agency are no time to make final assessments. The Broncos, like the Ravens and Patriots, remain a work in progress. What their roster resembles in late summer and early fall is what really matters.
Still, stealing the first-down machine that is Welker from New England is a clear-cut coup for Manning, football czar John Elway and the rest of Denver's Super Bowl-dreaming Broncos. They got a bargain and a proven, record-setting playmaker, and left the Patriots with a void.
Welker may well be a "system'' receiver, but it's a system that works with him in it. And Denver and Manning will be wise enough to exploit it -- the same way Brady and the Patriots have the past six years. It'll be surprising if Welker is any less effective a weapon as a Bronco than he was in New England. He has merely changed sides in the best quarterback rivalry the NFL has ever known. Money aside, I suppose that makes him one of Wednesday's biggest winners.