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On Football

Patriots were right to let Wes Welker go

Departure is about the evolution of the offense

Why did the Patriots facilitate Wes Welker’s move out the door? What’s next for the offense?

Evolution.

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Just don’t mistake it for a revolution. The Patriots parted ways with Welker because they feel a slightly new direction for the offense is needed to win another Super Bowl.

It’s definitely a road with more risk. The easiest thing in the world would have been to bring the ever-reliable Welker back and continue on with the same offense, only with a better, younger and more explosive replacement for Brandon Lloyd as the boundary receiver.

But sometimes you have to risk something to gain something. I think that’s what the Patriots believe. I don’t know this, but it’s been there on film all season. It was only reinforced with the loss to the Ravens in the AFC Championship. And I’m on board with it. Have been for a while.

This has been difficult for me to process because no one is a bigger Welker fan than I am. No one knows his real value – the dependability, how he always gets up after catches – than I do. I covered him since he was an undrafted guy with the Dolphins.

But to grab the ring again, the Patriots needed to let Welker go (and upgrade the defense, but that’s another discussion).

If the Patriots only had one standout tight end, Welker would absolutely be the right guy to go forward with this offense. But because they have invested so much in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Welker became more expendable. Why? Because all three like to work in the middle of the field. It makes the Patriots easier to defend. That’s how the Jets beat the Patriots in 2010, and it factored into how the Ravens beat the Patriots this year.

Basically, the Patriots are better than anyone inside the numbers. But to realize their full potential offensively, they have to get better on the outside. The Patriots can stay the same on the inside without Welker, and other players will, in theory, make them better on the outside.

Do not mistake the Patriots’ move simply as a one-for-one swap, Danny Amendola for Wes Welker. While they may be the same size, they are completely different players. Amendola is a much more dynamic athlete. He’s terrific with the ball in his hands. While Welker can break man coverage in the slot better than anyone, Amendola is close to Welker in that regard but much better after the catch in terms of making players miss. Yes, Welker led the league in yards after the catch again, but Amendola (and Julian Edelman if he’s re-signed) can be even better. Welker gets what’s blocked on screen plays – and few follow and setup blockers better – but Amendola can make more people miss. That’s what the Patriots want on the outside at their Z position.

The other part of the Patriots’ offense evolving is finding an explosive boundary receiver with similar traits (but obviously less skill) to Randy Moss. I don’t see many of those types available in free agency, but the Patriots could pull a trade out of the hat (Ryan Mallett and a future pick for Larry Fitzgerald anyone?). I think that’s a long shot, but the draft has great depth there. I know the Patriots haven’t found anyone there since 2002, but I’m willing to bet the Patriots have spent the offseason, similar to 2010 with the tight ends, examining the draftable receivers. If they do half as well with receivers as they did with the tight ends in the ’10 draft, they’d be thrilled.

They have to find a receiver in a draft. It’s a must. DeAndre Hopkins (Clemson), Justin Hunter (Tennessee), Keenan Allen (Cal), Terrance Williams (Baylor), and Markus Wheaton (Oregon State) are among those who have that type of potential.

So by taking Welker out, and bringing in receivers that are better on the edge – of both the boundary and short-area variety – the Patriots think that gives them the best chance to take the offense to the next level.

Obviously it’s a risky move. Probably the most danger lurks in injuries – and not just on the offensive side of the ball. Not only has Amendola missed 20 games the past two seasons (Welker missed three in eight seasons), but Hernandez, Gronkowski and Edelman (if he returns) have had trouble staying on the field. And if the Patriots re-sign the oft-injured Aqib Talib at cornerback, you’re talking about five fairly key players who have alarming injury histories and could greatly affect the Patriots’ chances should they go down.

The argument is there to be made that if the Patriots just maintained the status quo on offense, found a legitimate deep threat, and improved more on defense, then that was the path to another Super Bowl title. That road is certainly less painful and has more known quantities.

But often, to win something, you have to risk something. Jim Harbaugh swapped Colin Kaepernick for Alex Smith, and went to a Super Bowl. John Harbaugh swapped Jim Caldwell for Cam Cameron at offensive coordinator – during the season – and won a Super Bowl. Bill Belichick released Lawyer Milloy days before the 2003 season, and won a Super Bowl.

The Patriots feel moving on from Welker will make them better in the biggest games, and I agree with the plan (though I would have handled the end with Welker differently).

Plans don’t mean anything unless you execute them.

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