By Michael Rushton, NFL Contributor - Archive - Email
Are Patriots really phasing out Welker?
Wes Welker has eight grabs for 109 yards without a score this season.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Only a head coach with the reputation of Bill Belichick would opt to give more snaps to a fifth-year receiver with less than 60 career catches than to the franchise's all-time leading receiver.

That is just one of the thoughts floating around the world of the NFL following the New England Patriots' shocking loss to the Arizona Cardinals this past Sunday.

Much has been made about Welker's "diminished" role through the first two games of the season. After he made just three catches in a victory over the Tennessee Titans, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels cited three tight end sets and other personnel groupings for the lowering of Welker's chances.

The club was singing the same tune following a 20-18 setback to the visiting Cardinals, one that saw Welker finish with five receptions for 95 yards.

The 31-year-old had just one target in the first half, making the reception. Interestingly enough, it was that one catch that moved him to the top of the club's all-time receptions list.

Welker toed the company line following the game, saying that he prepares to play for whenever his number is called. He also was asked if he had any kind of injury that would be limiting him.

"No, I feel great," was his response.

Never one to enjoy questions about his personnel or game planning, Belichick on Monday dismissed any notion that Welker's role has been altered.

"We have different combinations of personnel groups out there in every game, all the time, pretty much every week," he said. "That's pretty much the way we run our offense and we have for quite a while. The players that we have out there are the ones that we feel are best for that particular play, situation, however you want to look at it."

"That's the way we set up the plays ... when they're called, we put that group out there. Whatever is out there is what we feel is best for our team for that time, for that play, for that situation."

For the time being, we are going to have to take Belichick's and McDaniels' words for it. A closer look at the numbers doesn't offer much of an answer, either.

Welker had 12 catches for 108 yards with a touchdown through the first two games of 2011 en route to logging a franchise-record 1,659 receiving yards for the season. He has eight grabs for 109 yards without a score this season.

After a lack of first-half work versus Arizona, Welker ended the game with 11 total targets, the second-highest on the team behind Brandon Lloyd's 13.

But Welker's big second half also came after tight end Aaron Hernandez suffered a low ankle sprain in the first quarter which is expected to sideline him for 4-to-6 weeks. New England had been putting Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, who is coming off one of the best offensive seasons by a tight end ever, on the field at the same time often, and even Welker admitted after the loss that the game plan gets altered quite a bit without Hernandez on the field.

McDaniels explained on Tuesday that every game plan is different and the club doesn't always give the majority of the snaps to the same players. He said sometimes the club likes to use different rotations to try and get an advantage.

"I think there are a number of factors that go into our game plan every week, but certainly (Welker) is going to be a big part of our game plan each week that we go in and play," McDaniels said.

While that will certainly be true going forward for as long as Hernandez is out -- though the Patriots did add a veteran tight end in Kellen Winslow this week -- there is also the curious case of wideout Julian Edelman.

There is some thought that it is the 26-year-old Edelman who is being primed to take over Welker's role. He has similar size to the vet and has shown on special teams an ability to make big plays with the ball.

That theory was furthered versus the Cardinals, when Edelman was on the field for 73 plays to Welker's 62, though he has made just six catches this season to the latter's eight.

Also working against Welker is the fact that he is playing on a franchise tender that is guaranteeing him about $9.5 million this year. Edelman would certainly serve a cheaper option in 2013.

If the Patriots want to win now, however, getting Welker involved is a must. He is dangerous with the ball and opens up the field for the rest of the offense. Even with his lack of catches , teams can't forget about the Texas Tech product or risk getting burned.

For what it is worth, Welker still has the support of the man responsible for getting him the ball.

"I don't pay attention to it," quarterback Tom Brady said on Wednesday of the Welker situation. "I love Wes and he's a great player on this team and has been since the day he arrived, so nothing has changed in my mind."

It's Belichick and McDaniels who could need the convincing.

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