The question: When will Wes Welker return to the practice field?
Three factors: The PUP list/roster flexibility; Welker’s long-term health; surviving his absence
Finding the answer: Welker’s return to the practice field during OTAs in June – limited as it might have been – and into minicamp was as good a sign as could be expected that things are moving in the right direction. But there’s still a long way to go, given that he still has yet to participate in anything but individual drills.
The first step comes before training camp, when the club has to decide whether to put him on the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list or not. If the team doesn’t, Welker becomes ineligible to go on the regular-season PUP (which would take him out through Week 6), and the only way the team could save his roster spot is by putting him on IR.
So it would make sense for the club to play it safe, and put him on the PUP at the start of camp to leave that possibility open, until there some certainty on his health. Remember, the minute he starts practicing, he’s off the PUP.
After that? Well, a Week 1 return from Welker is certainly a possibility (if not a probability), and there is precedent for that kind of speedy return. That’s not to say anything should be assumed, just that the nature of his injury and history of those returning from him give indications that it wouldn’t be stunning at all to see him playing against Cincinnati. The bigger question may revolve around how effective he can be early on.
How would the Patriots survive if Welker was sidelined through Week 6?
Well, the bye is in that stretch, which helps, but so are three division
games, and three contests against 2010 playoff teams. As for what’s on
the roster if he’s out, Julian Edelman’s the logical replacement,
although he has a long way to go in handling the nuances of the passing
game (remember how much No. 83 was missed in the playoffs) to step into
Welker’s shoes. Torry Holt is another one with the smarts and toughness
to play inside, if Edelman stumbles.
What’s very interesting here is how a logjam at the receiver position
will be affected by Welker’s status. Randy Moss will be on the team,
and it’s a good bet that Edelman, Brandon Tate and Taylor Price will
join him. That leaves Holt, fellow veteran David Patten and special
teamers Sam Aiken and Matthew Slater jockeying for roster spots.
If Welker’s sitting on the PUP, another job opens up. If he’s ready –
and there’s a good chance he will be – paychecks will be tough to come
by in that group.