Valuation Evaluation: Wes Welker in Denver
Much has been made of Wes Welker’s defection from New England to Denver, and for good reason. During his six seasons with the Patriots, few receivers have been as good at what they do on a game-in and game-out basis. He has also been a standout fantasy performer while working with quarterback Tom Brady, averaging a 12.5 rank amongst his pass catching peers over the last four seasons. In PPR leagues, that average rises to an impressive 7.8. With the widely held assumption that he has made a lateral move in offenses by jumping to the Broncos, a quick glance at his modest 2013 ADP numbers would seem to indicate Welker will once again be a significant bargain in fantasy drafts. A closer look, however, suggests that may not be the case.
Welker has been a volume producer throughout his career, and has averaged a truckload of catches (112 per season), and targets (154) while playing for the Patriots. His production relies heavily on this many opportunities due to a meager yards per reception average. In the last four seasons, he has come in 80th (2012; 11.5 ypr), 70th (’11; 12.9), 102nd (’10; 9.9), and 85th (’09; 11.0) among wideouts who saw at least 25 percent of their teams’ snaps. Even the 2011 ranking of 70th is misleading, as he scored on a relatively flukey 99-yard touchdown in the season opener against Miami. Without that play, he averaged 12.1 yards per reception – which would have ranked him a more characteristic 82nd among his peers.
Now that he’s in Denver, Welker will be hard-pressed to see as many looks as he got while playing in the New England offense. He will no doubt continue to be effective, but is likely to see an incremental drop in total output. Last season, Welker received a whopping 27.3 percent of Patriots’ targets. His 10.9 targets per game easily led the team, and that was with him only getting five passes thrown his way during a Week 1 game in which he was on the field for just 63 percent of New England’s offensive snaps.
It would be surprising if, while part of a receiving corps with Demaryius Thomas (24.1% of Broncos’ 2012 targets) and Eric Decker (20.7%), Welker matches that large of a share of Broncos pass attempts. In fact, Peyton Manning has targeted a wideout more than 27.3 percent of the time just once in the last decade, and an injured Marvin Harrison only played five games when Reggie Wayne (28.5%) set that mark in 2007.
Even if Welker does approximate a 27 percent slice of Denver’s targets, the size of the entire pie is markedly smaller. The Broncos ran nearly 100 fewer plays than the Patriots did in 2012 (1164 versus 1069), and New England attempted 53 more passes. That is akin to playing more than an entire additional game, or at the very least an extended overtime barn burner (think, the Chargers and Dolphins’ 1982 playoff epic).
Yes, the Broncos have intimated that they will attempt to run their offense at a quicker pace in 2013, and will probably be successful if their main pieces remain healthy – which is typically a question when surgically repaired 37-year-old football players are involved. However, they are not the only NFL team that is planning to jump on the up-tempo offense train, which will serve to raise statistical baselines in general – including league-average wide receiver production.
Welker’s touchdown production has also been reliant on a high volume of targets. He saw 130 red zone looks during his six seasons in New England. Although he was able to convert 33 percent of his 18 targets from in close into touchdowns last season, that number was inflated when compared to his 22 percent figure compiled in the five preceding years. Thomas has converted 33 percent of his red zone looks over the last two seasons, and Decker actually scored touchdowns on 44 percent of similar targets from Manning in 2012. To bank on an uptick in scores offsetting a drop in Welker’s reception and yardage production is a risky assumption to make.
Speaking of Manning and the Broncos offense, one positive aspect of Welker’s defection to Denver that has been stressed is that he will not lose anything by going from one Hall of Fame quarterback to another. While this is undoubtedly true, it would be rash not to anticipate some sort of adjustment period. During his first season catching passes from Tom Brady, it took Welker until the second week of October to really hit his stride. In their first five games together, Welker averaged 5.4 catches, 52.4 yards and 0.20 touchdowns per game. Those numbers jumped to 7.7 receptions, 83 yards, and more than three times the per game touchdown output (0.63) over the final 11 contests. A similar slow start with Manning will continue to chip away at the margins of Welker’s expected statistical output.
Another “skill” that is often attributed to the now 32-year-old Welker is his durability. He has averaged an incredible 15.6 games played during his eight NFL seasons. For a player who is so slight in stature to absorb such consistent punishment stemming from his impressive receptions totals, it is no stretch to say that he has enjoyed remarkable luck on the injury front. When contrasted with his nominal replacement in New England, Danny Amendola, Welker appears to be the very picture of permanence. Of course, when one suffers his season ending injury in the first game, and the other suffers his in the last game of the year, it tends to greatly affect the respective narratives. It is interesting to note that if Amendola had been “fortunate” enough to get injured in the final game of 2011, instead of the first, and if Welker suffered his 2009 ACL tear in Week 1 as opposed to Week 17, Welker would average 13.8 games per season for his career versus Amendola’s 14.3. Perception is not always reality, and past injury performance is not necessarily indicative of future returns.
For argument sake, let’s say Welker takes a 50 target haircut – from the 175 he saw last season, to 125 in 2013. That would have ranked him second to Thomas (141 targets), and in front of Decker (122), on last year’s Broncos team. He caught 67 percent of targets last year, which would approximate 85 catches if he saw 125 looks this coming season. With a career yards per reception of 11.2, he should register somewhere in the neighborhood of 950 yards. Since he started playing with Brady, he’s averaged 6.2 touchdowns per season. Even if we assume that translates to 2013, an 85 catch, 950 yard receiver, who hits pay dirt six times, roughly would have equated to the 25th best scoring wideout in fantasy last year. This assumes full health for both he and Manning, and no slow start with a new quarterback and scheme.
The good news is that his 2013 ADP numbers, according to My Fantasy League preseason drafts, are in that range. He is going off the board as the 24th receiver in non-PPR leagues. In PPR leagues, his ADP rises to 17th at his position. That, too, is in the range of this projection, when a point per his estimated 85 receptions is tacked on. The total would have been good for 19th at his position last year in such leagues.
Over the next few months until the 2013 season kicks off, fantasy owners will be inundated with “old faces in new places” articles, and imagining big things for shiny new toys is much more fun than spreading wet blankets. When it comes to Wes Welker, it is not hard to predict plenty of stories describing him as a relative bargain when projecting his past performance into Denver’s offense, and pointing to his seemingly low ADP ranking. However, the reality of Welker’s situation is one of marginally depressed production stemming directly from a reduction in total targets, due to a diminished share of an already smaller pool of passes. If his impressive injury luck continues, he stands a reasonable chance of approximating these modest 2013 ADP numbers, but it would be surprising if he surpassed them.