Free Agent Duel: Welker or Vollmer?
With two of their key players hitting free agency, the New England Patriots have a tough decision on their hands. Should they keep Tom Brady’s favorite target, Wes Welker? Or should they lock up of one of the league’s best young right tackles, Sebastian Vollmer? PFF analysts Pete Damilatis and Gordon McGuinness tackle this debate in the first of our Free Agent Duels and invite you to share your opinion on the matter.
Why it has to be Welker
By Pete Damilatis
In his six seasons in New England, Wes Welker has been one of the best receivers in the league and, with his contract expiring, he wants to be paid like one. But he’s turning 32 this summer, and putting the franchise tag on him for a second time in a row would cost $11.4 million. It’s not an easy decision for the Patriots to make, but losing Welker is not an option they can afford right now.
Welker’s numbers speak for themselves. His 326 receptions, 3,771 yards, and 1,828 yards after the catch over the past three seasons rank first, third, and first at his position, respectively. And when it comes to production from the slot, Welker blows the rest of the league out of the water. He posted 236 catches and 2,768 yards on slot routes, while no other receiver had more than 143 receptions or 2,075 yards in that span. And Welker’s stats are as much quality as they are quantity; his 2.28 Yards Per Route Run in that in the last three years is 11th in the league.
It’s a testament to Welker’s dependability that in the 83 games we’ve graded him, he’s only once earned a mark lower than -2.0. While Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez shuffle in and out of the lineup with various injuries, Welker has missed only three games in his six years with the Patriots. One of those was New England’s 2010 playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, and it’s no coincidence that Tom Brady’s -5.3 grade on that day was the worst we’ve ever given him.
Patriot fans may salivate when they see Mike Wallace, Greg Jennings, and Dwayne Bowe on our Free Agent Wide Receivers list. But Chad Ochocinco and Brandon Lloyd have shown that integrating into the Patriots’ offense is far from seamless. And with Brady nearing the latter years of his career, should the Patriots really risk shaking it up? Since Welker doesn’t have the size and athleticism of a prototypical No. 1 receiver, some may see him as replaceable, but his production is undeniable. Welker doesn’t look like one of the best wide receivers in the league, he just plays like one.
Why it Shouldn’t be Welker
By Gordon McGuinness
Welker has been a tremendous receiver since arriving in New England, and it’s hard to argue with Pete’s logic as to why they should keep him — he has been exactly what you want as a slot receiver in today’s NFL. I just don’t believe it’s wise to spend as much money as it will take to keep him when they can resign his replacement for a fraction of the cost. Julian Edelman may not have been as prolific as Welker, but he has flashed talent in his time in New England. He averaged 6.6 yards after the catch per reception and I have a hard time believing that the Patriots can’t get the most out of him in a bigger role.
While Welker has been fantastic from the slot, his Yards Per Route Run from there dropped from 2.83 in 2011 to 2.05 in 2012. Meanwhile, his Drop Rate rose from 9.63 to 11.28 in the same period. The Patriots need to ask themselves if they are willing to commit money over the next few years (Welker isn’t looking for a one-year deal, remember) on a player who will be 32 years old when the season begins, and is potentially on the downside of his career.
Why it has to be Vollmer
By Gordon McGuinness
While it’s easy to look at the Patriots’ roster and see all the stars on offense who put up big numbers, I don’t think people give enough credit to who I believe to be the best offensive tackle duo outside of San Francisco. Nate Solder was impressive at left tackle a year ago but the play of Sebastian Vollmer in 2012 makes the decision on who to re-sign, or hit with the franchise tag, an easy one for me.
Since entering the league as a second-round draft pick of the Patriots back in 2009, Vollmer has been a standout on their offensive line, never finishing a season with a cumulative grade of less than +8.3 — and that low mark came in a 2011 season where he played in just seven games. That’s a level of consistency that not many players at his position can boast, and something the Patriots would be wise not to let go of if they can avoid it.
As a run blocker this past season he was solid, finishing the year with a grade of +5.8 in that regard and while he only had one game where he really excelled in the running game, he also only had one with a run blocking grade of -0.5 or lower. It showed on the field for the Patriots, where they averaged a decent, if unspectacular, 3.91 Yards Per Carry on runs either side of Vollmer’s right tackle spot.
As a pass blocker, he allowed Tom Brady to be hit or sacked on just 13 of his 617 pass blocking snaps and his 35 total pressures allowed resulted in a Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) Rating of 95.5, tied for 22nd amongst all offensive tackles. He’s been consistent in that regard too, never finishing a season in his four year career with a PBE Rating lower than 94.6.
Adding to all of this, and his overall value to the Patriots, is his ability to move over to left tackle in a pinch and perform at a high level. He did just that in his rookie season, allowing just one hit and seven hurries from four starts on the left. You could argue that he has actually done his best work on the left, but either way it’s obvious that the Patriots have to do everything they can to keep him on board in 2013 and beyond.
Why it Shouldn’t be Vollmer
By Pete Damilatis
I’m not about to argue with Gordon on Vollmer’s performance; there’s a reason he was our fourth-highest ranked right tackle this season. However, I will argue that the Patriots are in a much better position to replace an offensive lineman than they are to find Brady a new favorite target. New England has been incredibly successful at plugging new players into their line and getting the same results. Matt Light retired, and Nate Solder earned a +20.7 grade in his first full season at left tackle. Logan Mankins missed time with injury, and Donald Thomas allowed just one sack in seven starts in reserve. When Vollmer missed a start, Marcus Cannon earned a +3.1 grade in his stead. Vollmer has been great, but it also helps when your quarterback only takes an average of 2.47 seconds to release the ball, the fastest mark in the league.
The Patriots’ history with wide receivers, on the other hand, is spottier. Edelman has been a nice backup, but he hasn’t performed well with extended playing time. New England gave him a chunk of Welker’s snaps in the first three weeks of this season, and he earned a combined -3.1 grade in those games. In 125 slot routes over the last three years, Edelman has totaled just eight catches, 69 yards, and just 0.56 Yards Per Route Run. Belichick’s tenure is littered with draft picks, like Chad Jackson and Brandon Tate, and veterans, like Joey Galloway and Ochocinco, who couldn’t cut it as New England receivers. Vollmer will not be easy to replace. But given the Patriots’ track record, finding Welker’s successor will be even harder.
If only one can be kept, who should it be? Let us know which of these players you’d opt to keep around if you had to make the call.