FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Wes Welker caught more passes over the past five seasons than any other NFL player. So why is he spending more time on the New England Patriots sideline this year?
Newcomer Brandon Lloyd has taken over the top wide receiver spot, three-year backup Julian Edelman has improved, and Welker, who was involved in an offseason contract dispute, could leave as a free agent after this year. Or maybe he’s hurting and the Patriots want him to be fresher for the second half of the season.
Welker said he feels “great.” And two games into the season is not enough to conclude his value has dropped.
He and his teammates downplay his decreased usage, while coach Bill Belichick questions whether it’s even been diminished.
“I think if you look at his production through the time he’s been here, it’s been pretty consistent,” Belichick said Wednesday.
In terms of the number of snaps?
“Yeah,” he said.
In two games, Welker has been on the field for 70.5 percent of the offensive snaps, although that almost certainly would have been lower if tight end Aaron Hernandez hadn’t suffered a right ankle injury on the third play that knocked him out of last Sunday’s 20-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
In the previous four seasons, Welker participated in 75 percent of the snaps with the Patriots in 2008 (75.2 percent in the first two games), 72.8 percent in 2009 (73.7 percent), 76 percent in 2010 (61.3 percent) and 88.9 percent in 2011 (84.2 percent), according to ProFootballFocus.com.
So his playing time is down, especially from last year.
Welker hadn’t started 11 of his 77 regular-season games with the Patriots before this season. But Edelman started in his place on Sunday, something that happened just once in the past two seasons — and that was in the 2010 finale after the Patriots had clinched a playoff berth and Welker and other starters rested.
Welker said on WEEI radio that he had “a little bit” of a clue he wouldn’t start, but “I really wasn’t positive even leading up to the first series.”
He didn’t play on Sunday until Hernandez was injured. Now that Hernandez, the only Patriot who didn’t practice on Wednesday, will miss some time, Welker should play more even though the Patriots signed tight end Kellen Winslow and re-signed wide receiver Deion Branch this week.
Still, the fact that a player who led the NFL with 122 receptions last season and has 554 in his five full seasons with New England isn’t playing as much has been a popular subject among fans and the media.
“I don’t pay attention to it,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “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.”
Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, who faces the Patriots on Sunday night, isn’t paying much attention either.
“It’s a long season and you do things in a certain way preparing for the weeks to come,” he said. “I wouldn’t read too much into it. Wes Welker’s still a great receiver and I’m sure New England, Brady and everybody knows that. It’s just that people probably want to make news of something that’s probably not something big in the organization. If it is, then that’s something they have t o deal with.”
Welker played sparingly during the preseason but said “I’ve been in situations where I haven’t played a lot in the preseason before and been able to come out there and do just fine.”
He had three catches for 14 yards while playing just 62.7 percent (42 of 67) of the offensive snaps in the 34-13 win over the Tennessee Titans in the opener. Against Arizona, he caught five passes for 95 yards and was targeted 11 times, second on the team to Lloyd’s 13, while playing 63 of 82 snaps (76.8 percent).
“Wes played a big role for us the other day,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “It just goes back to the fact that we feel like we’ve got a number of different guys that can contribute and help our offense and have earned the opportunities that they’re getting.
“There are a number of factors that go into our game plan every week, but certainly he is going to be a big part of our game plan each week.”
With Lloyd, who was limited in practice Wednesday by a thigh injury, and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez playing almost every snap when healthy, Welker would be on the bench when the Patriots used three tight ends and one running back or two tight ends and two running backs.
The new twist on Sunday was that Edelman started ahead of Welker and played 75 of the 82 offensive snaps (91.5 percent) after being on the field for 23 of 67 in the opener.
“Julian is performing better than he did last year,” Belichick said, “in all areas — assignments, technique, production, consistency.”
The 26-year-old Edelman is five years younger than Welker and plays the same slot receiving position. He comes a lot cheaper than Welker, who is making $9.5 million this season after being given the franchise tag. Both can become free agents after the season, and the Patriots may want to get a longer look at Edelman before then.
They’re also are trying for a more balanced offense after running on just 40.4 percent of their plays last season. This year, they had 35 runs and 32 passing plays in the opener.
“If you become really one-dimensional it’s a problem for an offense because it’s just too easy to defend,” Brady said.
But in their second game, the Patriots had 28 runs and 50 pass plays, and Welker still had less action than Edelman.
Welker said it’s not hard to be less of a focus in the offense.
“If we have to rely on me to make 120 catches, it’s not where we want to be,” he said. “We have some guys that really stepped up and it’s good to have those guys out there making plays for us.”