The most recent report from our own Greg Bedard says that “the odds are strong [Wes] Welker will be back” with the Patriots in 2013, the latest in conflicting news regarding the 31-year old wideout.
I don’t think there’s any way to get a good read on what the New England front office is thinking outside of inside information—past history suggests they could go either way, offering Welker a new deal or parting ways with him for good. The Patriots have shown themselves to be decidedly unsentimental when making personnel decisions, especially with older players, even before age has started to take its inevitable toll. However, there is nothing the Pats value more than solid, no-nonsense production, and Welker has certainly brought that since coming over from Miami in 2007.
I decided to examine just how much Welker has meant to the Patriots offense using statistics pulled from Advanced NFL Stats. Though it doesn’t separate the contributions of a receiver from those of his quarterback, one of the best stats for evaluating a wideout’s production is Expected Points Added (EPA), which translates a team’s movements down the field into the points it can historically expect to score from that position, given down and distance. For a more thorough explanation of EPA, click here.
In the chart below, I’ve graphed Expected Points Added for wide receivers in the NFL from 2007-2012. Alongside Welker’s own production, I’ve plotted the league average, calculated from wide receivers that played at least half the regular season, and the NFL’s top performer for each season.
In every season he has played in New England, Welker has been above average, and in most of them he’s been excellent, regularly producing at least twice the amount of expected points as the average of his peers. Just two seasons ago, after completing a 122-catch, 1,569-yard season, he led the NFL in this category. The only years in which Welker did not lead the Patriots in EPA were 2010, his least productive season, and 2007, when he finished second in the league behind Randy Moss, who set an NFL-record for touchdown receptions.
It’s clear that Welker has been a high-usage player for Tom Brady and the New England offense; his target rate, a measure of the percentage of a team’s passes thrown a receiver’s way, has been about 40 percent higher than the league average from 2007-2012. But Welker has also made the most of his targets, catching them at a high rate. Once again, I’ve plotted below how Welker stacks up with his competition in this category.
Again, Welker ranks well above average in each season, often at the top of the league—though it’s worth noting that his catch rate has started to fall off slightly in recent years. If that’s an indication that he can’t get the same separation from defenders that he once did, you can be sure Bill Belichick has taken notice.
Whatever the fate of the Welker contract negotiations, there’s no denying the integral role he has played in the Patriots’ record-setting offense. It is difficult to know whether he can sustain his incredible rate of production for many more years, but team management will know the answer to that question better than anybody. For now, let’s appreciate the place that Welker—all 5’9” of him—has carved out in a league of giants.
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He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrateds 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.
Now living in Marblehead, hes focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.