Wes Welker’s departure from the Patriots will open up an enormous hole in the offense around quarterback Tom Brady. His exit as a free agent robs Brady of his favorite weapon, as evidenced by Welker’s NFL-high 672 receptions since he had joined the Patriots in 2007.
“When you think of dependability, you think of Wes,’’ Tom Brady said in January. The Patriots now must find that dependability elsewhere.
Take a look back at five reasons that illustrate how important Welker was in his six seasons in New England:
Rewrote team record book: Welker surpassed Troy Brown as the Patriots’ all-time receptions leader in 2012. But while it took Brown 15 seasons to reach 557 catches, it took Welker just more than five to pass him. Welker owns the five best single-season reception totals in Patriots history, and only once in his New England career did he catch fewer than 111 passes in a season.
Welker’s prowess was exemplified in a game at Buffalo in 2011 when he caught 16 passes (which tied a team record) for 217 yards (which set a team mark) and scored two touchdowns (including a game-tying catch in the fourth quarter) during a gut-wrenching 34-31 loss.
Made a dent in NFL record books: Welker performed at a pace nearly unprecedented in NFL history in New England. His tenacity and consistency helped him record an average of 112 catches and 1,243 yards per season. Among his achievements:
• First player to record at least 100 receptions in five seasons.
• Shares the NFL record for most games with 10 or more receptions with 18, reached in a December 2012 game at Miami.
• Set record for most 10-catch, 100-yard receiving games in NFL history with 16. (Now trails Houston’s Andre Johnson, 17.)
• Only second player to record two seasons of at least 120 catches (Cris Carter).
Standout performance in 2009: Welker’s 123 catches in 2009 were the second-most in a season in NFL history. He flourished with a stat sheet that included seven games with at least 10 catches and he crossed the 100-yard receiving mark six times. Welker’s impressive totals came despite missing Weeks 2 and 3 and most of Week 17 with injuries, including a torn ACL in the finale that would knock him out of the playoffs.
The highlight may have come in Week 7 against the Titans, when he caught 10 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns in a 59-0 shutout at snowy Gillette Stadium.
The 99-yard touchdown catch: Since he lacks a Super Bowl win with the Patriots, Welker doesn’t have a seminal image or play that defines his New England tenure (as do Adam Vinatieri, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi). But Welker’s 99-yard touchdown catch against the Dolphins in the 2011 “Monday Night Football’’ opener was a memorable moment.
With the Patriots backed up to the goal line in the fourth quarter, Tom Brady threw from his own end zone to find Welker in stride for a touchdown that gave the Patriots an insurmountable 38-17 lead. The play equaled the NFL record for longest play from scrimmage. Welker finished with eight catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns in the 38-24 victory.
Mr. Dependable: It may be fitting that Welker doesn’t have one play that defines his Patriots tenure. Instead, the image of his time in New England may simply be of him coming through with a reception when needed — something he did in all of the 102 games he played for the Patriots (playoffs included).
Welker obliterated the previous Patriots record for most consecutive games with a catch (Ben Coates, 63). He recorded at least six catches in a game 78 times, which amounts to a whopping 76 percent of his Patriots tenure. And when Brady needed his go-to guy, Welker far more often than not was poised to come through.
As Brady said, when he thinks of dependability, he thinks of Welker.
“Not only him being out there, but him running the right route, reading the right coverage, breaking at the right time, making a catch, making the defender miss, getting the first down, knowing the situation,’’ Brady said. “I mean, that’s just what separates him as a player is his ability to process all these different things.’’