Wes Welker led the NFL in receptions last year, and it wasn’t close. He had 1,569 receiving yards — putting him behind only Calvin Johnson in that category — and while that’s a pretty sexy number, for fantasy purposes the far more appealing crooked figures were those 122 receptions, which placed him well ahead of Roddy White, who was second with 100.

The fantasy points lie in the yardage, and the resulting touchdowns (Welker scored nine times in 2011), but in our game which provides so very few avenues for security, and even fewer assurances that production won’t fade, Welker’s exceedingly high volume of targets and receptions gave that feeling of safety.

Sure, we knew that with the Patriots increasingly shifting their focus in the passing game to Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, Welker’s numbers could suffer slightly. But the assumption — or at least my assumption that’s still not necessarily incorrect — was that the tight end shift alone wouldn’t be enough by itself to lower Welker’s value over the course of an entire season. His slot skills and abilities as a small, shifty receiver are too unique, and Welker was still able to lead the league in receptions while Gronk busted records last year, and the two TEs had 2,237 receiving yards combined.

So we’ve already seen that the Patriots’ tight end dominance alone has a negligible impact on Welker’s production. But combine Gronk and Hernandez with the introduction of Brandon Lloyd, and what happens? Week 1 of that experiment produced a volcano of suck.

The first reaction Welker owners had yesterday after he finished with just three catches for 14 yards was probably something similar to this…

Once a soothing sense of calm prevailed, the second reaction was to turn to reason, and quasi denial. The Welker owner then likely surmised that those 14 receiving yards on just 4.7 yards per catch — his lowest yardage total since the 2009 game against Houston when he tore his ACL — was a product of the lopsided game, and New England’s easy 34-13 win over Tennessee. That’s a half truth.

Welker averaged 7.6 receptions per game last year for 98.1 yards, so the opening pace he’s set for the 2012 season is just slightly short of that. Slightly.

But what’s far more troubling than his lack of production yesterday relative to the other Patriots wide receivers — a group that was led by Lloyd’s five catches for 69 yards — was his simple lack of usage, and a significant reduction in playing time. As Mike Reiss from ESPN Boston observed, the Patriots’ 2011 receptions leader shared a major chunk of his workload with Julian Edelman, who was buried on the depth chart a year ago and had only four receptions.

Reiss tracked the snap counts for the Patriots wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs, and only Gronkowski and Hernandez appeared on the field for all 67 New England plays. Welker was used in 64.1 percent of those snaps, which was way down from his 89.2 percent usage last year. That extra 25 percent was split between Edelman (23 snaps) and Lloyd (57 snaps).

The poor output wasn’t a case of bad throws from Tom Brady or an abundance of drops either, because Welker was only targeted five times, which is again a sizable drop from last year when he averaged 10.75 targets a game for 172 overall (second behind only Roddy White). Blame the score again if you’d like to ease your mind, but the Patriots won three games last year by at least 20 points, and while Welker’s numbers clearly suffered during those wins because he simply wasn’t needed, the drop wasn’t nearly this drastic. He averaged 42.6 yards per game, and 4.7 receptions.

We knew there could be a problem lurking in New England, with far too many hands, and not nearly enough footballs following the addition of Lloyd, a deep threat who will draw more attention than the departed Deion Branch. But we thought it would be Gronk who suffered from a very mild case of regression fever, with the deep passes directed at Lloyd subtracting from some of his underneath looks.

Now, the (very) early indication is that it could be Welker, and it might not be mild at all.

You may now resume smashing things at your place of work…

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