What Can We Expect from Wes Welker in 2013?

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystJune 10, 2013

May 30, 2013; Englewood, CO, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker (83) walks off the field following organized team activities at the Broncos training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight season, there's going to be a player lining up on offense for the Denver Broncos who's just going to look weird.

Last year, it was quarterback Peyton Manning. This year, it's wide receiver Wes Welker, who joined the Broncos in free agency after spending the last six seasons with the the New England Patriots.

Let's hope the Welker signing works out half as well as the Manning one did.

At first glance there's no reason to think it won't. Welker led the AFC with 118 catches in 2012, tallying 1,354 yards and six touchdowns. Over the past six seasons, there hasn't been a more prolific pass-catcher in the National Football League.

As you can see, in three of the past six seasons, Welker led or tied for the NFL lead in catches. In two other seasons he was just off the pace. The only year where Welker wasn't near the league lead (2010), it was the result of recovery from an ACL tear late in the previous season.

For his part, Manning has welcomed Welker to the Broncos with open arms, telling Mike Silver of Yahoo! Sports that Welker's football acumen is a welcome addition in the Mile High City.

When he talks coverages with me, I can see the influence that playing in a sophisticated offense in New England and that [Tom] Brady has had. Welker, as a non-quarterback, has a high intellect on coverages, and zones, and how to get open. And you can see how he's used that to his advantage over his career.

From a team standpoint, it's pretty hard to find something not to like about Welker's arrival in Denver. With Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker outside, and Welker joining them in the slot, Peyton Manning now has arguably the best trio of wide receivers in the NFL at his disposal.

Tight ends? Who needs them? Something tells me you'll be seeing a lot of three-wide receiver sets from the Broncos in 2013, as Manning and the team reaps the rewards of the mismatches that having three wideouts of this caliber on the field will bring.

However, from an individual standpoint it's hard to imagine Welker's streak of 100-catch seasons continuing. That's no knock against the player. There's just simply only so many passes to go around.

As this chart shows, Welker was consistently targeted a ton in New England. With the exception of the 2010 season, Welker was perennially one of the most targeted wideouts in the NFL over the past five years. He averaged nearly 150 targets a season, and was targeted on 26 percent of the Patriots passing attempts.

Meanwhile, Thomas was targeted 138 times by Manning last year, with Decker checking at 120 targets according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The two accounted for around 45 percent of the targets on Manning's 583 pass attempts.

If Welker were to get the 26 percent of the total targets that he's averaged, then he would receive just over 150 looks. Those three receivers would account for over 70 percent of Manning's intended passes, without a tight end or running back ever having seen the ball.

As good as that cadre of receivers are, they're not going to hog that many looks.

Even if Welker were to maintain his target percentage, his looks would drop a bit this year (from 166 to 152). Even Welker expects that number to drop further, at least according to Mike Klis of The Denver Post.

If I have to catch 112 balls [Welker's average the past six years], that probably means we're in trouble. (The catches) are not the goal. The goal is to go out there and help your team win games. However many catches that is, however many blocks that takes, however many routes I've got to run, whatever. I think we all feel the same way about that.

How far that target number drops has been the subject of a great deal of speculation recently, but ESPN pointed out a stat that could mean it won't drop off as significantly as many think.

Frankly, Welker's 2010 numbers are probably a pretty good barometer of what to expect statistically this season. His 118 targets that year would represent a drop of nearly 30 percent from last season, but still leave him a big part of the Denver offense.

That season, Welker ended the year with 86 receptions for 848 yards and seven touchdowns. The scoring number may be hard to match, but the reception and yardage numbers appear attainable, if a little optimistic.

It may be some time until we know exactly what sort of season Wes Welker is in for, and whether he'll supplant either Thomas or Decker as one of the top two wideouts in Denver.

What we do know, however, is that the Broncos appear to have a very nice problem on their hands, and while Welker may have to sacrifice some stats this season, odds are they're not going to come at the expense of winning football games.