Wes Welker was never supposed to leave New England. He was supposed to stay there for the remainder of his career, catching passes from best-friend-forever Tom Brady and terrorizing defenses with first down after first down.
Now he’s in Denver, where quarterback maestro Peyton Manning fools defenders with hand signals and slings the football around a mile high into the air. Like in New England, Welker is expected to quickly gel with his quarterback en route to whipping linebackers and nickelbacks from the slot, a position that he’s helped transcend over the course of six years.
As you might guess, not much will change in Denver. He’s once again going to catch dozens of passes — though the number could slightly drop because of the surrounding weapons — by separating with lateral agility and short-area quickness, two unique traits he possesses.
Welker does an excellent job of separating from defenders despite lacking great size or physicality. Over the last few years he’s beat them with great discipline leading up to the top of his route, where he separated from defenders by the smallest of margins and caught passes thereafter. That’s what has made him so good; he understands each aspect of route-running, from winning at the line of scrimmage to keeping his body squared on his vertical stem to breaking off at the route’s apex. It takes years to develop consistency with each one of those skills, and Welker has accomplished that.
There’s a high volume of routes over the years that he’s ran very well, and one can really pick out any one play they want to use as an example. One that stood out last season was his out-and-up against Houston Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson on Week 14 during Monday Night Football. The route looked simple at first glance, considering how much space Welker had to work with and with Jackson left on an island. But a closer look reveals Welker’s discipline and quickness.
It’s the 11-minute mark of the first quarter, and the Patriots have the ball on their own 29-yard line with a fresh set of downs. Welker is lined up to the left of Brady as part of a Trips set. A signal from Brady sets Aaron Hernandez in motion to the slot at the right of the formation, creating a two-by-two set. Hernandez’s motion also forces the Texans to make a check in the defensive backfield. A double rotation is done by the safeties, leading to them exchanging the responsibility of covering Hernandez one-on-one. That ends up benefiting Welker, who is now isolated with Jackson.
Jackson is giving Welker plenty of room before the snap, a good five yards or so. The play begins and Welker takes three steps vertically prior to pivoting with his right foot and running outside at the 26-yard line. As he flattens out his route, he moves forward two more yards, leaving him running parallel to the line of scrimmage at the 24-yard line.
It’s at this point when his discipline starts to shine. While running laterally, his shoulders are squared and his head is pointed at the sideline, making it seem to Jackson that he’s running an out route. Jackson is prepared for the throw outside, aggressively attacking downhill and awaiting Brady’s throw.
But the throw doesn’t come. Once Welker sees that Jackson’s weight is forward and his hips are in a tangle, he stabs his left foot in the ground and aims downfield.
Welker then takes a second step with his left foot that squares his body up and allows him to burst forward. The minimal steps are a mark of his great short area quickness. Receivers of his size — all of 5’9″ and 185 pounds — are expected to have quick feet, but not all do. He does, however, and he can break his route down in only two or three short steps, a number coaches look for from their receivers.
It’s a route that will make his coaches happy in Denver because once he breaks it down, he’s able to shift a gear and separate from Jackson. Welker then circles outside vertically for a 25-yard reception.
These are the type of routes Welker will run in Denver, in addition to the others — screen, snag, spot, etc. — he ran with the Patriots. The routes were highly productive, resulting in Welker leading the league in yards after the catch (688), while he was sixth in first down receptions (72), ninth in first downs on third down (21), and eighth in yards per game (84.6), according to STATS.
It won’t be much different catching passes from Manning, who is one of the league’s best all-time at throwing the football accurately. He frequently places it right in between the numbers, just like the throws from Brady, a teammate that he was never supposed to leave in New England.