FOXBOROUGH — Any expectation of replacing a hard-to-replace slot receiver such as Wes Welker is inevitable, understandable, and perhaps borderline unfair to Danny Amendola.
Good thing he’s been down this road before. Amendola was in the exact same spot nine years ago, when he was a freshman at Texas Tech. Welker had been an all-Big 12 performer for the Red Raiders, leading them to an 8-5 record in 2003 as a senior. Amendola — with roughly the same size and skill set — arrived on campus the next season, Welker’s heir apparent as a receiver/punt returner.
So the questions Amendola has fielded in 2013 — initially after he signed a five-year deal with the Patriots in March, and then again this week, with Welker and the Denver Broncos coming to town for Sunday night’s game — were the same questions thrown his way in Lubbock, Texas, nearly a decade ago.
“You should have heard it when I went to college,” Amendola, referring to the Welker comparisons, said after Wednesday’s practice. “[But] it’s not my job to compare myself to anybody, so I just go out there and play my game, try to get the job done.”
Amendola said he was referred to as “Wes Welker Jr.” in college. He was the only true freshman to play for Texas Tech in 2004, when he was named first-team all-conference as a punt returner, a role Welker held the previous four years. Amendola’s career arc has mirrored his predecessor’s. They both had good college careers, both went undrafted, and both signed with NFL teams as rookie free agents.
Now both have called New England home, and will likely remain forever linked, at least in these parts, based on what happened this spring. Amendola signed with the Patriots on March 14, while the Patriots and Welker couldn’t reach an agreement on a new deal. Welker signed with Denver a day later.
If he didn’t know before coming here — not likely — Amendola quickly heard all about the player whose spot he’d be taking. Welker caught at least one pass in every game he played with the Patriots, averaged 112 receptions for his six seasons, and endeared himself to fans and teammates by performing at a high level despite taking a heavy dose of physical punishment. Yet Welker missed just three games while playing for the Patriots.
Amendola has missed four games this season: a groin injury cost him three games early, and a concussion forced him to sit out the second game against the Jets.
But Amendola is healthy now — Welker is the one banged up, having suffered a concussion last Sunday, although he’s expected to play Sunday — and ready to get what’s been a week filled with questions he’d rather not answer behind him. Without being short or rude, Amendola hasn’t looked or sounded interested or comfortable discussing Welker.
“I don’t really think about it too much,” Amendola said. “I’ve been watching Wes for 10, 12 years, it’s old news. He’s a great player, bottom line, and we’ll have to do a good job to stop him.”
Based on receptions, Welker is in his customary spot, leading his new team with 61 for 648 yards. Amendola is third on the Patriots, having caught 29 passes for 341 yards and just one touchdown, which came against the Steelers.
Still, he’s made a positive mark with his new team.
“He’s got really good ball skills, he’s quick, he runs good routes,” said Julian Edelman, a fellow slot receiver for the Patriots who has 52 catches for 500 yards, both team highs. “That’s usually what you need. That’s the prototypical guy.”
Edelman left out toughness, another attribute of a modern-day slot receiver, with their willingness to run routes across the middle of the field, putting what’s usually an undersized pass catcher directly in harm’s way. From 2007-12, Patriots fans watched Welker catch pass after pass, take hit after hit, and bounce right back up. Edelman has done that this season. Amendola is hoping to be that guy for years to come.
“To work as hard as you can throughout the week and let it all go on Sunday, and hopefully come up with a win,” Amendola said, in response to a question about battling and persevering, job requirements for the position he plays. “It’s a tough task sometimes, but that’s why we prepare so hard during the week and at least give ourselves a chance.
“I just come to work. I’ve got a job to do, and I’ve got to be there for my teammates.”