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Top Stories of 2012, No. 9: Wes Welker franchised, phased out, back to form

12.25.12 at 3:04 pm ET
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Over the final week of 2012, WEEI.com will count down the top 10 stories of the year in Boston sports. Our second entry in the countdown is No. 9: Wes Welker’s up-and-down year.

After a slow start, Wes Welker returned to form as the Patriots' most reliable receiver in 2012. (AP)

For five seasons in New England, Wes Welker seemingly could do no wrong, and it seemed unfathomable that the Patriots would not want to keep him in Foxboro for as long as possible.

Then came the drop in February’s Super Bowl loss — a difficult but catchable pass that went through Welker’s hands late in the fourth quarter. Instead of giving the Patriots a likely game-ending first down, it gave the Giants the opportunity for their game-winning drive. And suddenly Welker’s true value was being questioned by some. It didn’t help that the Patriots played hardball during contract negotiations in the offseason, electing to place the franchise tag on Welker and settle for a one-year contract rather than agree to a long-term deal.

The $9.5 million, one-year deal ensured that Welker would stay with the Patriots through the 2012 season. After that, who knows?

It certainly is possible that Welker could re-sign with the team after the season, but judging by his consistency and continued success, he might demand a larger contract next year, both in terms of money and years. For now, he is enjoying another tremendous season after professing happiness that he and the team were able to agree on a deal that kept him with a perennial Super Bowl contender.

“There are 9.5 million reasons why I wouldn’t miss any regular-season games,” Welker said during a May 14 appearance on Mut & Merloni, dismissing speculation that he would hold out for a long-term contract. “I don’t think there are any sort of hard feelings on my side or their side. I think we’re all looking forward to the 2012 season and hopefully do some big things there.”

Welker did not exactly do “big things” in the first couple of games this season, but he was not solely to blame. In the Patriots’ 34-13 victory over the Titans in Week 1, Welker’s playing time was limited and he had only three receptions for 14 yards while being targeted just five times (including a drop on third-and-8 in the first quarter). Speculation abounded that he was being phased out of the offense, either as punishment for asking for too much money or so fellow receivers such as Julian Edelman could get more of an opportunity.

Week 2 was better for Welker, as he finished with five catches for 95 yards, albeit in a 20-18 loss to the lowly Cardinals. Still, it was not the 10-catch, 100-plus-yard receiving performance New England fans were accustomed to seeing.

Those kinds of outputs began in Week 3, as Welker went four straight games with at least 100 yards receiving, including a season-high 142 in Week 3. He hauled in a season-high 13 catches (and his first touchdown) in an Oct. 7 win over the Broncos, and then he started conspiracy theories anew when he cracked: “It’s kind of nice to stick it in [Bill Belichick's] face every once in a while.”

While other key members of the passing game (Edelman, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski) missed chunks of time due to injuries, Welker once again became quarterback Tom Brady‘s favorite target.

“Wes loves to play football,” Brady said on Dec. 5. “There’s nothing more important in Wes’s life than being a football player and thinking about football and making the big play and running the right route and getting open when it’s most important.

“That’s what quarterbacks dream about, too: having receivers that do that. And Wes is everything you look for in his ability, not only when he catches the ball to be an important part of the play, but also on plays when other guys are supposed to get the ball, he busts his butt harder than anybody to make sure he’s doing his job to clear out on a certain route or to take some coverage with him so another guy can get the ball. I think that’s what makes Wes really special is his selflessness as a player. But the ball always seems to find a way to him.”

So, what will the Patriots do with Welker? He is in his sixth season with New England and is 31 years old — not exactly a spring chicken, but he has shown very few signs of slowing down. He still is the premier slot receiver in the NFL, and that is a very big luxury for any team to have.

In the Patriots’ Dec. 16 loss to the 49ers, Welker made his 100th reception of the year, making him the only player in NFL history to have 100 catches in five seasons. Welker has produced 100-catch seasons in five of his six seasons with New England; his other season he “only” had 86 receptions. He also has had at least 1,000 yards receiving in all but one of his seasons with the Patriots. In terms of the all-time greats, Welker’s 760 receptions are good for 34th in NFL history, and he is ninth in receptions for active players. Welker leads the AFC in receptions (117) and is fifth in the conference in receiving yards (1,260).

With the Patriots locked in for another playoff appearance after wrapping up the AFC East title, Welker might have his chance at redemption a year after being labeled a Super Bowl scapegoat by some fans. But however this season ends for him, and whether his career continues in New England or elsewhere, Welker has proven he still has some record-breaking performances left in him.

Read More: 2012 Stories of the Year, Aaron Hernandez, Bill Belichick, Brandon Lloyd Print  |  Email  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It