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Healthy Welker has a good feeling about season

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By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / August 16, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH - Maybe it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given Wes Welker’s history.

The Patriots receiver yesterday said he’s not just fully recovered from major knee surgery last offseason, he’s even faster than he was before his injury.

“I feel great,’’ he said after a full-pads practice, which was held inside the Dana-Farber Field House because of rain. “I feel like I’ve gained a step from two years ago. This is the best I’ve felt in a long time, and I just want to continue to play well and continue to get better and do the things that help the team win.’’

If his play in training camp is any indication, Welker will be as dangerous as he was in his first three seasons with New England, when he totaled 346 receptions.

The image of Welker’s left knee buckling at Reliant Stadium in Houston in the 2009 regular-season finale and the look on his face as he realized the severity of his injury are hard to forget. Almost as memorable, however, was the sight of him in uniform, just four months removed from surgery, for an on-field offseason workout with his teammates.

Welker may have felt stable physically, but he said he had to relearn to trust that his knee wouldn’t let him down again.

Still, he was Tom Brady’s favorite target, pulling in 86 catches - a fine number for most receivers but an off year for him.

Now, 18 months removed from surgery, it’s obvious that Welker is better than he was a year ago.

“It looks like his quickness level - he’s regained some of that relative to where it was,’’ said Nick Caserio, the Patriots’ director of player personnel. “Wes works hard, he’s been a productive player and he just looks confident. He just sort of catches your eye a little bit. He’s done some things that look real good.’’

Though he turned 30 in May, Welker isn’t thinking about slowing down.

“I feel like I’ve worked hard and I feel like as long as you work hard and get better on a daily basis, there’s no telling where the curve is as far as the backside of your career or anything else,’’ he said. “For me, I still feel like I’m in my prime.

“This is the best I’ve felt in my career, I feel like. I think my knowledge of the game and being able to be healthy, it’s really helped. Hopefully, it will keep on improving and keep on getting better as the year goes on.’’

Welker could well be the threat he’s been in the past, but he may not necessarily put up eye-popping numbers. New England brought in Chad Ochocinco for much-needed help; Rob Gronkowski has looked excellent in camp, and Aaron Hernandez isn’t far behind; and before suffering an injury against Jacksonville last week, Taylor Price was making a strong case to become a regular part of the offense.

“I think we complement each other real well; I think our strengths are our route running,’’ he said. “I know for Tom, it’s such a big thing to have guys that can run good routes and I feel like our receiving corps does a good job with that and we’re continuing to get better with it and we’ll continue to work on it and get better with it on a daily basis.’’

This is the final season of the five-year, $18.1 million contract Welker signed when he arrived in 2007. In January, on his way to another Pro Bowl, he said he didn’t deserve a contract extension, reasoning that he hadn’t done enough in 2010 to warrant one.

Yesterday, he said he’s not worried about a new deal.

“I’m just worried about going out there and playing ball and I love playing on this team and I enjoy every day that I’m out there,’’ he said. “I’m going to let my play take care of everything else.’’

With Logan Mankins’s deal done, the debate can begin over which player, Welker or linebacker Jerod Mayo, should be the Patriots’ next contract priority. Mayo signed a five-year contract as a rookie in 2008.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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