Whither Wes Welker? Receiver’s reduced role may lead to a new location

Brian McIntyre
Shutdown Corner

By now, it's no secret that New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker is playing a reduced role in the offense. The franchise's all-time leader in receptions (562 entering this weekend) played just 42 of New England's 67 offensive snaps in the regular season-opener before Aaron Hernandez's ankle injury led to increased playing time (63 snaps, 77 percent of New England's offensive plays) against the Arizona Cardinals.

Through two games, Welker has played in 105 of the team's 149 offense snaps, a playing-time percentage of 70.5 percent that falls in line with his playing-time in 2007 (69.4 percent), 2008 (74.4 percent), 2009 (62.3 percent) and 2010 (70.1 percent), according to official playing-time documents. But it's a far cry from the 87.9 percent playing-time percentage he logged during a 2011 season where he led the NFL with 122 receptions and ranked third with 1,569 receiving yards, prompting the Patriots to use the $9.515 million franchise tag to keep Welker off the free-agent market.

As Greg Bedard of The Boston Globe points out, free-agent addition Brandon Lloyd is now the "X" receiver and he, not Welker, will be on the field when New England is in personnel groupings that call for just one receiver. Bedard also noted that when the Patriots were in "12" personnel (one running back, two wide receivers, two tight ends), which essentially operates as their base personnel given their abundance of talent at tight end, Julian Edelman was the No. 2 receiver opposite Lloyd on 13 of 15 plays.

After being unwilling to commit to a 31-year-old Welker during this past offseason, it would be a surprise if the Patriots showed a willingness to do so next offseason. Bedard suggests that between a reduced role on offense, and the emergence of Edelman, Welker could be traded before the Oct. 30 trade deadline, a scenario repeated by Mike Freeman of CBSSports.com. A trade could be considered even more of a possibility now that the Patriots have re-signed Deion Branch and added tight end Kellen Winslow to the roster, but what team would consider trading for Welker?

Injuries over the next month could dramatically shift the trade market, but one team that could have an interest in Welker is the Philadelphia Eagles, and not only because the Eagles and Patriots share a lengthy trade history.

The top two spots on the Eagles' receiver depth chart are filled by DeSean Jackson, who was franchised in the offseason before signing a five-year, $48.5 million contract in March, and Jeremy Maclin, who had a team-high 63 receptions in 2011 and is signed through the 2013 season. According to the 2012 Football Outsiders Almanac, the Eagles used 3+ receivers on 61 percent of their offensive plays, which ranked fourth in the NFL last season. (New England used 3+ receivers on 33 percent, which ranked 29th).

The No. 3 receiver in Philadelphia is currently Jason Avant, who the team unsuccessfully attempted to upgrade with former New York Giants Pro Bowler Steve Smith (now with the St. Louis Rams) last season. With Jackson and Maclin making regular appearances on the team's injury report — Maclin will miss this week's against the Arizona Cardinals with a hip injury, while Jackson (hamstring) and Avant (wrist) are "probable" — the Eagles could look to beef up their receiving corps if they continue to win games and remain on track for the postseason.

In addition to a need at receiver, whoever has an interest in trading for Welker at the deadline will need two things, in this order: Cash and cap space. Welker is earning $559,706 per week on the franchise tag, so depending on when a trade was official, the acquiring club would need to be able to take on an additional $5 to $6 million in cash and cap space for the remainder of the season. If the Eagles thought Welker were an upgrade over Avant, they certainly have the cap space to pull off such a trade.

No team has more available cap space right now than the Eagles, who are more than $20 million under their "Adjusted Cap Number" of $140,343,148.  Whether or not they want to increase their cash budget by over $5 million is another matter.

Between base salaries, signing, roster and workout bonuses, the Eagles are on pace to spend over $135 million in cash this season, which puts their payroll among the ten highest in the league. That said, the Eagles were on target to spend closer to $140 million, but renegotiated the contracts of left tackle Jason Peters and defensive tackle Mike Patterson, who are likely to spend the entire 2012 season on the Eagles' "Reserve/Non-Football Injury" list. The Eagles added "split salaries" to the contracts, which allows them to pay each player at a reduced rate while they are on the "Non-Football Injury" list.

Peters, who tore his Achilles tendon twice this offseason, was scheduled to earn $7.9 million in base salary, but if he spends the entire year on the "Non-Football Injury" list, he will earn $4 million. Patterson was due $2.1 million in base salary, but his "split" cut that in half, and he will earn $1.05 million if he stays on the list. If both players miss the entire season, the Eagles will save $4.95 million in base salary, which comes to within $100,000 of balancing out what it would cost to pay Welker, who would be due $5,037,353 over the final nine weeks of the regular season.

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