Wes Welker Heads to the Broncos

Assessing the now ex-Patriots receiver's career in New England.

Much of New England waited with bated breath on Wednesday as the fate of one of the region’s most beloved, prominent men was decided. Late in the afternoon, the news broke. It wasn’t good. Wes Welker had signed with the Broncos.

Oh, and we also found out Cardinal Seán O’Malley wasn’t elected Pope. But … Welker? Man.

The receiver reportedly inked a two-year, $12 million deal with Denver. (The Patriots allegedly offered him two years for $10 million.) Tom Brady’s favorite target in recent years, Welker averaged 112 receptions during his six seasons with the Patriots. He’ll now catch Peyton Manning’s passes. The Patriots did make a move to replace Welker, signing oft-injured Danny Amendola to a five-year deal. Yikes.

Welker was never going to change games like Randy Moss, but—and I realize that this is a painfully simplistic take—he was often a hell of a lot of fun to watch. The guy had, one sportswriter liked to say, the quick first step of an NBA point guard. He always seemed to find open space with which to work, and despite taking an absolute beating from defenders, he was exceptionally durable. Even after shredding his knee in the last game of the 2009 season, he was back for the 2010 season opener.

The fact that Welker was diminutive (by NFL standards) clearly helped endear him to Boston fans, but even if he weren’t, his output alone probably would’ve made him a cult hero in these parts. He was predictably (and annoyingly) labeled “scrappy,” “gritty,” and “dependable,” but never “freakish,” which is how I saw him. A 5-foot-9, 185-pound (both generous estimates) man shouldn’t be able to absorb the kind of punishment he took on a weekly basis. Yet he did, and still found a way to gain bunches of yards on a variety of screens, slants, and out routes.

That doesn’t mean Welker is a Hall of Famer. If it existed, he’d be a prime candidate for the football version of “The Hall of the Very Good.” But sorry, he’s not destined for Canton. And if I’m being honest, occasionally he did some maddening things. According to Pro Football Focus, Welker led the league in drops last season. In the third quarter of this season’s AFC title game against the Ravens, he couldn’t come down with a pass that would’ve picked up a vital first down. That came less than a year after he wasn’t able to haul in a—poorly thrown—fourth-quarter Brady pass that may have sealed the Patriots’ fourth Super Bowl victory.

What’s sad is that those plays are probably the two signature Welker moments, at least in my mind. People forget that during Super Bowl XLII, he racked up 103 yards on 11 catches. But not one of those receptions was particularly iconic or singularly consequential. (That night, it was Moss who scored what should’ve been the winning touchdown.) Anyway, New England lost that damn game.

When Adam Vinatieri signed with the Colts in 2006, we could at least look back at the handful of franchise-altering kicks he made and say, “We’ll always have those.” But with Welker, it’s different. He never really had a similar moment. He certainly deserves one. I just hope it doesn’t happen against the Patriots.