But what about the Patriots’ motive for this divorce? They can talk all they want about how they wanted him here, but that’s not really the case. If you desire someone, you go the extra mile. Or foot.
Welker did it all the time for the team and teammates, but it was never reciprocated. The Patriots didn’t go 1 inch further when it came to Welker. Ever.
Oh, they’d blow millions on guys like Leigh Bodden, Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco, and Shaun Ellis, but for one of their finest, they always got alligator arms reaching into their pockets — probably because he never called their bluff.
If you combine the $9.515 million franchise tag the Patriots reluctantly paid Welker last season, and added it to this year’s offer, that’s three years and $19.5 million. That would have easily gotten a deal done last July, but the Patriots didn’t do that. Why? Because they didn’t want to.
They thought Welker was expendable, and now they were able to get a younger, similar, slightly more athletic player in Danny Amendola, and start anew.
The Patriots are able to think that way because they struck gold in 2010 with the tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The latter especially made Welker expendable, and now that No. 83 is no more, it’s time for another offensive evolution in New England. Just don’t mistake it for a revolution. Only a slightly new direction for the offense is needed to win another Super Bowl.
It’s definitely a road with more risk. The easiest thing in the world would have been to bring the ever-reliable Welker back and continue with the same offense, only with a better, younger, and more explosive replacement for Brandon Lloyd as the boundary receiver.
But sometimes you have to risk something to gain something. Jim Harbaugh swapped Colin Kaepernick for Alex Smith at quarterback, and went to a Super Bowl. John Harbaugh fired Cam Cameron at offensive coordinator for Jim Caldwell — during the season — and won a Super Bowl. Bill Belichick released Lawyer Milloy days before the 2003 season, and won a Super Bowl.
I think that’s what the Patriots believe with the offense. I don’t know this, but it’s been there on film all season. It was only reinforced with the loss to the Ravens in the AFC Championship. And I’m on board with it. Have been for a while.
To grab the ring again, the Patriots needed to let Welker go (and upgrade the defense, but that’s another discussion).
If the Patriots had only one standout tight end, Welker would absolutely be the right guy to go forward with this offense, as he is in Denver. But because the Patriots invested so much in Gronkowski and Hernandez, Welker became a luxury the team didn’t want to afford. Why? Because all three do their best work in the middle of the field. It makes the Patriots easier to defend. That’s how the Jets beat the Patriots in 2010, and it factored into how the Ravens beat the Patriots last season.
Basically, the Patriots are better than anyone inside the numbers. But to realize their full potential offensively, they have to get better on the outside. The Patriots can stay the same on the inside without Welker (using Hernandez or Amendola, among other options), and other players will, in theory, make them better on the outside.
Look at the past three Super Bowl champions. The Packers had terrific inside and outside receivers. The Giants had Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham on the outside, Victor Cruz inside, and solid tight end play. The Ravens had Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones on the outside and Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta on the inside.
All three of those teams were much tougher to defend in all areas of the field than the Patriots of the past three seasons. I don’t care what kind of statistics you come up with to prove otherwise, in a one-game situation, that’s an indisputable fact.
Letting Welker go can help the Patriots close the gap.
Do not mistake the Patriots’ move simply as a one-for-one swap, Amendola for Welker. While they may be of similar size, they are completely different players. Amendola is a much more dynamic athlete, is taller, with longer arms and is better down the field. He’s terrific with the ball in his hands.
While Welker can break man coverage in the slot better than anyone, Amendola is close to Welker in that regard but much better after the catch in terms of making players miss.
Yes, Welker led the league in yards after the catch again, but Amendola (and Julian Edelman, if he’s re-signed) can be better. Welker gets what’s blocked on screen plays — and few follow and set up blockers better — but Amendola can make more people miss. That’s what the Patriots want on the outside at their Z, second receiver position.
The other part of the Patriots’ offense evolving is finding an explosive boundary receiver with similar traits to (but obviously less skill than) Randy Moss. I don’t see many of those types available in free agency, but maybe the Patriots can pull a trade of their hat. The Cardinals will not deal Larry Fitzgerald, a league source said, despite their apparent rebuilding project.
But the draft has great depth. I know the Patriots haven’t found anyone at receiver since 2002, but I’m willing to bet they have spent the offseason exhaustively researching the available receivers. If they do half as well with receivers as they did with tight ends in the 2010 draft, they’d be thrilled.
They have to find a receiver in a draft. It’s a must. DeAndre Hopkins (Clemson), Justin Hunter (Tennessee), Keenan Allen (Cal), Terrance Williams (Baylor), and Markus Wheaton (Oregon State) are first-round candidates.
So by taking Welker out, and bringing in receivers that are better on the edge — of both the boundary and short-area variety — the Patriots think that gives them the best chance to take the offense to the next level.
Obviously it’s a risky move. Probably the most danger lurks in injuries — and not just on offense. Not only has Amendola missed 20 games the past two seasons, but Hernandez, Gronkowski, and Edelman have had trouble staying on the field. And if the Patriots re-sign the oft-injured Aqib Talib at cornerback, you’re talking about five fairly key players who have alarming injury histories.
The argument is there to be made that if the Patriots just maintained the status quo on offense, found a legitimate deep threat, and improved more on defense, then that was the path to another Super Bowl title. That road is certainly less painful and has more known quantities.
But the Patriots feel moving on from Welker will make them better in the biggest games, and I agree with the plan (though I would have handled the end with Welker differently; just say good luck and goodbye).
Now we’ll see if paper meets reality.
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.