Wes Welker isn’t coming back through that door, but the measure of the Patriots’ offseason is who is coming through the Gillette Stadium doors on defense.
It’s the Patriots’ prerogative if they wanted to move on from Welker. Bill Belichick’s track record of letting players go shows that he’s been right significantly more often than he’s been wrong about parting ways with a core player. His Hoodiness viewed Welker as expendable; otherwise the Patriots would have been willing to make a bigger expenditure.
But swapping Welker for Danny Amendola brings the Patriots no closer to a fourth Super Bowl title; only bolstering their pass defense and pass rush can do that. Whether the Patriots are making the right move or taking a false step by letting Welker walk doesn’t change that.
The offseason priority for the Patriots isn’t who will be catching passes. It’s who will be stopping them from being caught, which has been the team’s downfall in five of its last six playoff losses.
The argument can be made that cornerback Aqib Talib, acquired as a quick fix from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the season, is a free agent of more importance to the cause than Welker.
None of this has stopped the revisionist history already seeping out of Patriot Place now that Welker has taken the advice of Horace Greeley and the dough of the Denver Broncos. It’s the junction of justification for an unpopular decision and football fiction.
Suddenly, it was Welker who was standing in the way of the Patriots hoisting a fourth Lombardi Trophy, not porous pass defense, lack of a consistent pass rush, and drafts from 2006 to 2009 that yielded a bounty of picks and disappointing results.
You can say a lot of things about Welker, but you can’t say he was one of the Patriots’ major problems. If Tom Brady locked on to him too much, that’s not Welker’s fault. You usually throw the ball to the open man. Welker could get open in an airplane restroom.
I disagree with the notion that Welker, Aaron Hernandez, and Rob Gronkowski couldn’t peacefully and productively coexist in the same offense.
They did in 2011, when the Patriots went 13-3 and made it to the Super Bowl.
Gronkowski only had the greatest season ever by a tight end. Welker led the NFL in receptions with 122 and finished second in receiving yards with 1,569. Hernandez had 910 yards receiving and 7 touchdowns in 14 games. Brady threw for a career-high 5,235 yards. The Patriots tied an NFL record by scoring 30 or more points in 12 games and had the most net yards in franchise history (6,848).
The Giants did put the Avery Bradley vise grip on the Patriots offense in Super Bowl XLVI, flooding the middle of the field. But Gronkowski’s serious ankle sprain and Chad Ochocinco’s inability to grasp the playbook aided their cause.
Last season’s AFC title game loss to the Ravens was a Gronkless affair, too. Hard to pin that on a Patriots traffic jam between the numbers.
Was Welker’s occupying the middle of the field responsible for Mark Sanchez going 4 for 4 for 76 yards and a touchdown on the pivotal drive of the Patriots’ 28-21 2010 AFC divisional playoff loss to the Jets?
If only Welker hadn’t clogged the middle of the field, then Mario Manningham wouldn’t have caught that pass from Eli Manning in Super Bowl XLVI, and Anquan Boldin wouldn’t have posted up Patriots defensive backs in the end zone in last season’s AFC Championship game.
The Patriots have ranked 30th, 31st, and 29th in pass defense the last three seasons. That, not Welker, is the cause of their big-game failures.
The team has had a revolving door in the defensive backfield. Since 2007, the Patriots have drafted 12 defensive backs. During that time, they have used 46 different defensive backs in regular-season games.
Over the same period, the Steelers and Giants have used 27 and 31, respectively. The Rams, who have the worst winning percentage in the league since 2007 (.234), have used 32. The Ravens are close to the Patriots with 42.
The Patriots have positioned themselves to add to that number.
New England has nailed the depressed free agent market in the flat cap environment, a shrewd bit of football financial forecasting that has the team in position to bring back Talib — or a suitable replacement — and add another crucial piece, such as a veteran pass rusher or safety.
The going rate for a corner of Talib’s caliber is probably $4.5 million-$5 million based on the contracts that have been signed. For roughly the price it would have cost to franchise Talib ($10.854 million), the Patriots could sign two quality defenders.
Intriguing names still available at cornerback include Talib, Brent Grimes, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Antoine Cason. The safety market still boasts Kerry Rhodes, Michael Huff, Adrian Wilson, Charles Woodson, and Bernard Pollard.
I’m on record as president of the John Abraham Fan Club. He is exactly the type of veteran situational pass rusher the Patriots need.
Whether or not Amendola, who has averaged a meager 8.8 yards per reception in his career, is an upgrade over Welker is not going to determine the Patriots’ trophy fate.
The Patriots know that Brady will make do with what’s on hand. He did that in 2006 with Reche Caldwell, Doug Gabriel, and Jabar Gaffney. TB12 certainly has better weapons than that now with Gronkowski, Hernandez, and Amendola alone.
The real question isn’t, how will the Patriots replace Welker? It’s, will the Patriots be able to stop receivers like Welker?