welker-TD2

Surely there’s no fear of an actual shortage of footballs in the greater Denver area. But, you know, if a Super Bowl can be halted by a power outage, an NFL stadium can run out of footballs. It could happen.

We’re wondering about the amount of fantasy footballs that can be distributed, and specifically the ones that will land in Wes Welker’s hands in his new NFL home. He came from a place with plenty of other offensive talent, but not an abundance at his position. It was a system that worked the middle, with Tom Brady hitting Welker up the seam often, and the likes of Brandon Lloyd used in a much lesser role.

Now Welker moves to a more dynamic offense with diverse skillsets among the top three receivers.

Throughout his six years in New England, Welker averaged 1,243.7 receiving yards per season, and he did that while averaging 112 receptions per year. That’s some serious mileage, and it was the product of high volume targets. Even during his injury-shortened 2010 season, Welker still had 123 targets on the other end of Tom Brady’s throws, a number that peaked at 175 this past season. That’s well ahead of Lloyd, who finished with 130.

So the greatest concern surrounding Welker’s fantasy potential when he’s not dropping passes and getting the Manning scowl is those targets, and if a high volume can be maintained in Denver.

Clearly there won’t be nearly the gap between the balls directed at Welker in Denver, and those that go towards everyone else. We know this because the other two guys at his position are pretty good, and their names are Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, the latter being the most significant threat to Welker’s production. More on that in a minute.

First, what exactly do high targets mean for Welker, and his fantasy production? Well, the laws of obviousness tell us that more targets lead to more opportunities, and great production potential. Obvious guy says obvious thing. But let’s go a little deeper to both quantify Welker’s targets, and determine their value.

In 2012, Welker needed those 175 targets to finish with 1,354 receiving yards (a pace of 84.6 yards per game), 118 receptions, and six touchdowns. In standard leagues, we’re concerned with yardage and touchdowns, and Welker scored once every 29 targets, while averaging 7.7 yards per target. When he caught the ball, that average increased to 11.5 yards per catch. Throughout the rest of his time in New England, we see a similar gap between yards per target, and yards per reception (example: in 2011 he had nine yards per target, and 12.9 yards per catch).

As with all possession-based receivers who thrive in space and on intermediate routes, Welker needs that volume to create after the catch after he led the league in YAC this past season with 619 yards, according to ESPN, which accounted for 45 percent of his overall yardage. That brings us back to Thomas and Decker, and especially Thomas, who finished fourth in receiving yards (1,434 yards) while being targeted 141 times. Of those yards, 512 of them came after the catch. That’s still a sizable percentage (35.7), and Thomas did it by being the long man behind Manning’s long ball. He logged 29 catches of 20 yards or more, whereas Welker had just 13.

Then when we also throw in the 123 targets that Decker received, in addition to the 143 the tight end position reeled in between Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen, what’s left for ol’ Wes? Not enough, seemingly, and certainly not anything close to the over 170 targets he’s had in each of the past two seasons in New England.

But maybe we should direct our focus elsewhere to find the true meaning of life Welker in Denver. A Peyton Manning offense is one that uses the slot receiver with great frequency, which explains the Broncos’ pursuit of Welker with the aging Brandon Stokley set to leave, as he’s currently still seeking employment on the open market. However, even though Stokley just completed his age 36 season and he was therefore slow and very much a shadow of his former shifty self, Manning still targeted him 58 times during their one-year Denver reunion, which turned into 544 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

Stokley struggled with injuries when he was together with Manning previously in Indianapolis, but his one truly healthy season in 2004 resulted in 102 targets for 68 receptions, 1,077 receiving yards, and a career high 10 touchdowns. Much like the depth chart that Welker now finds himself in, that 2004 Colts roster also included Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne at wide receiver. As has been typical throughout his career, Manning had no problem spreading the touches and production around, as Wayne turned his 115 targets into 1,210 yards. Most importantly, Harrison was targeted 139 times for 1,113 yards, and Manning’s gaze in other directions didn’t stop him from tying a career high in touchdowns (15).

Manning has thrived with multiple targets that often require multiple reads. CBS’ Dave Richard observed that despite the sheer abundance of targets directed at Thomas, Decker, and Tamme this past season, combined all three had more than 10 targets in a single game just 12 times. But here’s an even more saliva-inducing stat from Richard: of Manning’s 583 total attempts, 65.1 percent of them traveled 10 yards or less through the air. That’s Welker money time.

So basically then after a lengthy exploration we’ve circled around to pretty much where we started: there will be a dip with Welker, but only a slight one, and he should still be a quality WR2 just as he was last year. Good talk.