Last year Welker caught 122 balls for 1,569 yards, one of the greatest seasons for a receiver in NFL history. He caught 100 passes in four of his first five Patriots seasons, and the outlier was an 86-catch season in which he fought back from a torn ACL to be in the lineup on opening day. He has been one of the Patriots' best and most consistent players, and now he strangely seems to be getting phased out.
Welker caught three passes for 14 yards in Week 1 and wasn't a big part of the offensive plan. Quarterback Tom Brady explained Welker's lack of use by giving some double talk to WEEI, saying he wasn't a big part of that particular game plan ("There's different opportunities on different weeks for different players," he said), then said Welker was "a huge part of this offense." It'll be interesting how Welker's inactivity is explained away this week.
Welker didn't start against Arizona, didn't play at all the first few minutes of the game and was getting fewer snaps than Julian Edelman, who started and has assumed Welker's normal role in the past when Welker has missed games.
Welker had a more recognizable role in the second half, and finished with 95 yards on five catches, including a 12-yard catch on the Patriots' final drive that set up Stephen Gostkowski's field-goal attempt for the win, although Gostkowski missed wide left and the Patriots lost. But Welker's increase in snaps came after an injury to tight end Aaron Hernandez. The Patriots didn't have much choice but to use Welker more.
We're not going to get a straight answer from Bill Belichick. Everyone knows that. So we're forced to guess, and the most obvious conspiracy theory is this is some sort of strange punitive action for Welker's contract situation. Welker wasn't happy he was franchise tagged, and then the Patriots gave their young tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez contract extensions. That was a sign Welker might not be in the future plans, but seemed inconceivable that Belichick would jerk Welker around this season — and hurt the team in the process — just to prove a point. But maybe that is what's happening. The fact that Welker was held out of two Patriots preseason games (Welker said it was because of personal reasons, and he hasn't shown up on the injury report) doesn't make the situation any clearer.
Welker played 22 snaps to 28 for Edelman in the first half, according to ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss (Reiss said at the end of the game that Edelman finished with 75 snaps, and Welker had 63). With one of the best receivers in the NFL playing behind Edelman, the Patriots scored six points in the first half. Brady had just 75 yards before halftime. Welker had one catch for 25 yards.
Perhaps Hernandez's injury will force the Patriots to use Welker in his typical role, as Brady's most common target. Whatever the reason for Welker's role diminishing through the first two weeks, it is hard to understand and it has not helped the Patriots offense.
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