ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Wes Welker sat back in a plush, leather chair in the lobby of the Denver Broncos training facility last week, conducting a post-workout interview without revealing the slightest hint of stress.
Unlike the conversations he had with reporters during his six-year stint with the New England Patriots – whose coach, Bill Belichick, scrutinizes his players' public comments with NSA-like zeal – Welker felt no urgency to walk the line between bland and unrevealing.
"I feel like I can be myself a little more for sure," said Welker, who signed a two-year, $12-million deal with the Broncos on March 13, a day after becoming an unrestricted free agent. Asked if he'd received any pre-interview lectures about what subjects to avoid, Welker laughed and said, "Here? No. … All they told me was, 'Just be yourself.' "
Long regarded in player circles as one of the funnier, edgier NFL stars, Welker may finally reveal that to fans after six years of mostly pent-up plainness. Indeed, the switch from playing with one future Hall of Fame quarterback (Tom Brady) to another (Peyton Manning) may not be nearly as jolting as the shift in organizational climate – or, to borrow from Jimmy Buffett: "Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes" (and, in this case, farewell to platitudes).
On that front Welker, once famously benched by Belichick for the first series of a 2010 playoff game for having poked public fun at New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, is taking baby steps toward disclosure early in his Broncos tenure. For starters, he admitted that the Patriots' decision to let him hit the market—and, ultimately, to swing a deal with former Rams wideout Danny Amendola in a pre-emptive move to replace him – will serve as a motivating force in 2013.
"Wherever you can pull any sort of motivation that you need to use to go out there and play the way you need to play, I say use it," Welker said in response to a question about whether he hoped to prove his success wasn't merely a product of the Patriots' system. "So whatever it is, then yeah, I'll definitely pull from wherever I can."
In other words: Come autumn, when Welker attempts to play down his Nov. 24 return to Gillette Stadium for what should be a Manning vs. Brady Sunday night classic, don't believe him. At all.
Welker, the first player in league history with five 100-catch seasons, also confirmed what Y! Sports reported in the wake of his departure: That Brady was angered by the Patriots' decision to move on without his favorite target and close friend, especially given that the quarterback had just restructured his contract in an effort to give the organization more spending flexibility.
"You know, after it happened, obviously we talked and everything like that," Welker said. "He was upset about it, and part of me was a little upset about it too. But things happen for a reason, and I'm excited about the opportunities here and the type of team we have and things that we can do."
Later, Welker added, "It is [a bummer], but I think he understands it, and I understand it. … It's been going on for years and years. I'm not the first [Patriots] player that this happened to, and I definitely won't be the last."
Welker, 32, also made it clear that his arrival in the Mile High City was no accident. Having been spoiled by his connection with Brady – he caught an NFL-high 672 passes over the past six seasons, averaging 112 receptions for 1,243 yards per year – he longed to play with the era's only other quarterback of that stature.
"I mean, really, that was kind of by design," Welker said of becoming Manning's teammate. "There weren't too many quarterbacks that I would've gone out there and played with."
Manning, sensing Welker's potential impact on an offense that already boasted a pair of young, accomplished wideouts in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, sent the slot receiver a couple of solicitous text messages as free agency dawned.
Thus far, the quarterback has been thrilled with the acquisition.
"In just a short period of time, I can see why he's been so successful," Manning said. "He's got a great work ethic. And the cerebral part of the game for him is at an all-time high."
Emotion also played a part in Welker's decision to come to Denver. He said he wasn't surprised by the Patriots' lukewarm efforts to keep him and that the organizational enthusiasm he received from the Broncos buoyed his spirits. "Absolutely," Welker said. "Feeling wanted – it's a good feeling."
As for the subsequent statements by Patriots owner Robert Kraft that New England's offer "was better than what in fact he got from Denver" and that Welker's "agents misrepresented, in their mind, what his market value was," Welker predictably had a dissenting view.
"I mean, I think different people are gonna say different things at different times," he said. "And I'm sure there's a lot of things I've said in the media that I wish I could have back. But you live and you learn, that's just the way it is. I have all the respect and admiration for Mr. Kraft and everything he's done and how he treated me while I was there, so it doesn't really bother me at all."
(For what it's worth, Welker counts his foot-reference-laden press conference before that 2010 Jets playoff game as mulligan-worthy, saying, "You know what? I think I've lived and learned. And I hopefully would never put a coach in a position like that [again].")
After Welker's signing, Manning said he got a text from Brady telling him, essentially, "He's one of my favorite players I ever played with and you're gonna really enjoy playing with him." The new teammates are clearly enjoying one another's company thus far: Welker, an accomplished prankster, served as a willing wingman in April when Manning presented Decker, whom he'd invited to work out with him at Duke University, with a $3,000-plus invoice.
Welker, however, has been dead serious about learning a new offense.
"There's that playful side," said Adam Gase, the Broncos' first-year offensive coordinator. "But when we step on the practice field, he is dialed in."
Added safety Rahim Moore: "Oh man, he's phenomenal. He's everywhere. I like him cause he doesn't say much on the field. He says, 'Just trying to stay on top.' "Yet Welker has displayed a Drake-like "started-from the bottom" mentality as he adjusts to perhaps the most exacting and demanding quarterback in football history. Having gotten a taste of Manning's leadership style at past Pro Bowls, Welker understood before coming to Denver "how detailed he is… 'Now, if the guy does this, you're gonna run it like that, right?' He is very much like that, which is good for me in a lot of ways. It's dictated by what the defense does, not relying on me to just get open no matter what the coverage is. So it's hard for me at times. Cause I'm like, 'I really want to break out.' But I try to stay within the confines of the offense."
Yet Welker said Manning is "giving me some leeway in a lot of areas, too," a clear sign that the quarterback respects his football IQ.
"When he talks coverages with me, I can see the influence that playing in a sophisticated offense in New England and that Brady has had," Manning said. "I remember my first year in Indy, playing with Marshall Faulk. I remember hearing him talk coverages; he talked like a quarterback. I'd sit back in the shotgun with him, and he'd tell me, 'Hey Peyton, they're blitzing. … hey Peyton, they're doing this…' It was really unbelievable. As a rookie, my head's spinning, and he gave me some peace and calm.
"Well, Welker, as a non-quarterback, has a high intellect on coverages, and zones, and how to get open. And you can see how he's used that to his advantage over his career."
All of this, of course, creates some intriguing possibilities for an already prolific offense, one which ranked second in the NFL in scoring and fourth in yards in 2012.
"For us it's gonna be, how are teams gonna play him?" Gase said. "With us having the skill guys we have, it's gonna be tough to stop everyone. Some games we'll adjust on the fly. Every game's gonna be different."
Given the productivity of Thomas (94 catches, 1,434 yards, 10 touchdowns in 2012) and Decker (85 catches, 1,064 yards, 13 TDs), Welker is fully prepared for the possibility that his numbers will go down.
"No doubt," he said. "I don't really care if they do or not. It's not my goal. It's not what I'm about or anything else. If I have to catch 112 balls, I don't know if we're gonna be the team we want to be. I'll catch as many as it takes to win, and whatever that is, that's what it is. I just want to win. That's the only reason I'm here."
He also believes that the Broncos' system may allow him to attack defenses in new ways, saying, "[It's] nothing that I really want to share. I'd rather it happen on the field. But I think there are some things we can do this offseason to prepare ourselves and hopefully catch some teams off-guard."
As with most NFL teams, of course, it's all good in June – and Welker's arrival has been heralded by a franchise that went 13-3 in 2012 and has mile-high expectations for this season.
"He's been a very welcome addition to both sides of the ball," Broncos coach John Fox said. "Our offense gets to use him, and our defense doesn't have to cover him anymore."
Said Decker: "Coming here, I think he knew the culture of our team. I think he just fits the mold of who we are in the locker room."
That explains why his new employers want Welker to be himself, even as he strives to connect with an unfamiliar quarterback and assume a new on-the-field persona.
"I'm enjoying it, you know?" Welker said, sinking into the chair as the bright, Colorado sun reflected through the lobby. "You're in the same system for six years and you're just kinda like, you know. … it's the same stuff, same stuff, so you know it. Now it's like I'm a rookie all over again, and it's kept me on edge."
Except during interviews, that is.
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