Wes Welker captures the imagination. A wholly remarkable player who's not the fastest or strongest, certainly not the biggest -- but one who's carved out a career by having an overabundance of a characteristic often perceived to be lacking in the modern NFL: bravery.
This isn't bravery in the traditional sense. It's not about someone rescuing children from burning buildings or representing one's country in a theater of war. The temptation to thrust overwrought praise is there, but maybe it's better to characterize Welker's play style as premeditated madness rather than traditional bravery borne out of duty or altruism.
One has to be driven by higher motivation to throw himself over the middle for the better part of a decade. Most downs you'll be hit; if you catch the ball it will be hard. A helmet provides small comfort, not for protecting the head but limiting peripheral vision -- shielding better judgement from an influx of doubt caused by watching safeties get bigger and linebackers faster. It might be too on the nose to call them a horse's blinders for a Bronco, but hey, hopelessly on-the-nose imagery fits sometimes.
The 2013 season was a kind of reward to Welker. Not just due to the Super Bowl on Sunday, but it showed a respect to a player whose unabashed madness was exploited for so long. A statistical regression in most areas, but a paradigm shift in the career of a player who went from being an every-reliable mule to a specialized tool, used selectively and with purpose.
Let's walk back this idea of "exploitation" for a second, because it connotes images of abuse. Welker willingly played the slot receiver role in New England without hesitation, and it was rewarded by making him an offensive focal point. There's bravery at a coaching and organizational level to take a 5'9 receiver weighing 185 pounds and bet the farm on him. Traditionally we see smaller players get hurt more often, and the Patriots not only embraced the idea of making him Tom Brady's right-hand man, but resisted the temptation of wrapping him in bubbled plastic and putting him on the edge.
From 2007-12, few were better. Welker's statistical traits put him among the league's best while working in the messy areas, fighting through scrappy nickel backs and hard-hitting linebackers to amass more than 7,000 yards receiving and 30 touchdowns. Some may thumb their noses at an ever-increasing passing league that enables traditional wide receivers to reach the statistical stratosphere, but it's hard to level the same argument at the diminutive pass catcher. If there's a "right way" to play the position, he did it -- garnering universal respect in an era it became popular (and lazy) to denigrate the Patriots because of their spygate missteps.
During this time Welker made the Pro Bowl five times, became an All-Pro twice and hoisted the Lamar Hunt Trophy as an AFC champion twice. It's a resume that would make him indispensable in most organizations, but this is New England we're talking about. A team hailed for its ability to recognize turning fruit and jettisoning players right when another team thinks it's getting a Ferrari, to find out the engine was replaced with a Yugo's.
The Patriots' decision to let Welker walk crossed the boundary of sensible team building into hubris. An unailing belief that another Welker could be found, and easily. There are scores of reasons why New England took a step back offensively in 2013, but losing its gritty slot receiver was akin to pulling out the team's heart. It just didn't look right.
Denver capitalized, signing him for a song. It wasn't the Broncos' belief that they needed a workhorse wide receiver to give them 100+ catches, but rather a final piece -- another paintbrush in an already impressive toolbox to be used by a modern football master. Welker happily moved from being an offensive centerpiece to a tertiary weapon, and while his total yards, yards per catch and receptions all fell, he caught a career-high 10 touchdowns out of the slot.
It wasn't a perfect season in Denver, not by any stretch. According to Pro Football Reference, he dropped 12 passes, posting a 67.5 percent catch rate, one of the lowest in Welker's career. Some of this was due to overcompensation, an inherent desire to make a big play when the opportunities arose, fewer than they did in New England. The Broncos gain reliability, however. A gifted receiver working in small spaces who would catch passes and convert critical third downs, while letting Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker garner more of the reputation.
Another chapter is waiting to be written in Welker's career, and likely not the final one. Arriving in New England a few years too late to win a ring, brought to the cusp of success twice and unable to finish. It's appropriate that the third chance comes in a new city, after a reinvention that sees him take a step back in to gain his next best chance at taking a big one forward. We won't hear much, regardless of the result. Wes Welker will keep his head up, on a swivel and continue to play the same way he has for 11 seasons.