Editor’s note: This is a guess post from Justin Becker of Fantasy Football Overdose. You can follow the Fantasy Football Overdose Google+ Page, and for more Premier Fantasy Football Projections visit Fantasy Football Overdose – a fantasy football blog.
Many fantasy football experts feared a significant drop-off in production for slot wide receiver Wes Welker in 2013, as he went from catching 100+ balls on a yearly basis with the New England Patriots, and entered the unknown with the Denver Broncos. Naturally, Welker was playing with a new quarterback, in a new system, and with much better surrounding talent (at wide receiver, at least).
Suddenly Welker wasn’t the guy that made his offense go, and wasn’t projected to catch anywhere near 100 receptions. Instead, he was projected to haul in somewhere between 70-80 balls, as he fended off new teammates, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. Little did fantasy owners know, but raw tight end Julius Thomas would quickly be given a large role in Denver’s passing attack, as well.
However, instead of hurting Welker, the emergence of Thomas actually helped him from day one, as he made quite the debut with nine catches and two touchdowns in his first game as a Bronco in week one.
He didn’t stop there, as he caught at least five balls in six of his next seven games, and failed to score a touchdown as a member of the Broncos for the first time in week seven. Through the first six games, Welker was a major piece of Denver’s offense, hauling in 37 catches and eight receiving touchdowns.
Just like that, Welker was on pace for 98 receptions in his new town, as well as a ridiculous 21+ receiving touchdowns. Of course things tapered off a bit, as Welker finished with just two touchdown catches in his final 10 games and ended the year with 10 receiving touchdowns and 778 receiving yards off of 73 catches.
While the second half of Welker’s season was less than desirable, it’s absolutely worth noting the Welker’s 10 touchdowns was more than any amount he had ever scored with New England. It’s also worth noting that the eight touchdowns he scored in the first six games had been topped or tied in New England just twice.
In Denver, Welker was utilized more in the red-zone on short passes than he ever had been with the Patriots, yet he was still used in the slot about as much as he ever had been. In fact, it’s entirely possible that Welker could have picked up the pace down the stretch in 2013, had it not been for concussion issues and the Broncos playing it safe.
Welker ended up sitting out the season’s final three games and still had a very solid season, overall. So, what can we expect in 2014?
The departure of Eric Decker certainly opens the door for Welker to hit last year’s numbers, but with Decker’s 87 catches from 2013 gone, there will be more targets to go around. Decker’s production in the red-zone (11 touchdowns), could also open the door to more red-zone work for Welker.
Naturally, Decker being gone won’t only affect the soon to be 33-year old Welker, as tight end Julius Thomas and Demaryius Thomas should both build on their already 10+ touchdown seasons of a year ago. Of course, there is also the freshly added Emmanuel Sanders, who was brought in to replace Decker. Sanders is much more explosive than Decker, but has never been a proven red-zone producer and also has an injury history.
The rushing attack could also factor in to a certain degree, as with one less red-zone factor, the Broncos could look to run the ball even more inside the 10. There is also the idea of the Broncos incorporating their running backs more in the passing game. Knowshon Moreno may not be with the team anymore, but he was a major factor in the passing game, as he hauled in 60 receptions for over 500 receiving yards last year.
Montee Ball isn’t nearly the receiver Moreno is, but he’ll be taking over Moreno’s old role and should be in line for half of Moreno’s receptions, if not just as many. Backup running back Ronnie Hillman is the more versatile and explosive threat, however, so it’s worth wondering if Denver will try to get him more involved. If so, Hillman could help open up the passing attack, as well as the running game.
With all that said, the arrow is still pointing out for Welker. Any way you shake it, the guy was still a huge part of Denver’s offense in his first season with the team and now a big weapon that stole targets away from him is gone. Simple logic suggests a guy who has scored 10 touchdowns just once in his entire career (last year, in fact) might not do so again. But speculating that Welker will drop in receptions and yardage would be foolish. With Decker gone, Welker will still operate out of the slot, but will undoubtedly be the team’s number two option in the passing game.
Naturally, despite all of the upside to do with Welker, there is some clear downside, as well. Welker could easily start to show a sharp decline now that he’s going to be 33 years old, while he will also naturally become more vulnerable to injury. Even if he keeps his knees and feet healthy (which isn’t always easy for a receiver working the middle of the field to do), he’s at least more susceptible to head injuries. The fact that Welker had concussion issues last year and sparked some retirement talk could be a tad worrisome.
However, because of his role and ability out of the slot, Welker will be a legit threat for 90+ receptions and 1,000+ yards in 2014. While unlikely based on his skill-set and history, he should also be a serious threat for back to back 10+ touchdown seasons. Needless to say, Welker will be a borderline WR1 in standard fantasy football leagues, while he should remain a rock solid WR1 and likely a top-10 option in PPR (points per reception) formats. While there are questions to consider surrounding Welker, it’s entirely possible that he’ll be even better in his second season with the Broncos.