The Patriots offense has had some problems in the first three games of 2013. Slot receiver is not one of them.
Through three games this year, Julian Edelman is tied for the NFL lead in receptions with 27.
Between Edelman and Danny Amendola, the slot position in the Patriots offense has caught 37 balls for 305 yards.
The tight end in jail on a murder rap has been missed. The tight end on the shelf after five surgeries has been missed. The slot receiver now in Denver has not.
In fact, the slot position -- by necessity -- has been even more productive for the Patriots post-Wes.
- In 2012, Wes Welker had 25 catches through four games.
- In 2011 Welker had 31 through three games (remember the 16 catch, 217-yard day in the loss at Buffalo?).
- In 2010, Welker had 26 catches through five games.
- In 2009, Welker caught 26 balls in the first three games he played.
Welker has been ably replaced. But nobody should be surprised.
In 2009, Welker wasn’t in the lineup for the second and third games of the season. Instead, Edelman -- a rookie who’d played quarterback in college -- played the slot. In those two games, Edelman had 11 catches for 118 yards.
And when Welker blew his ACL in the final regular season game of 2009, Edelman came in and caught 10 balls for 103 yards. In the playoff game a week later against Baltimore, Edelman was about the only Patriot in attendance, catching six balls for 44 yards and the Patriots two touchdowns.
Wes Welker will forever be the patron saint of slot receivers. Nobody’s ever done it better.
But plenty of players -- especially in the Patriots offense -- can do it just as well.
This isn’t a nugget I happened upon since Welker left. In early 2011, with Welker’s contract set to expire at the end of the year, I talked about the fact that any number of players around the league could capably replace Welker -- Davone Bess, Josh Cribbs, Amendola. When Welker began that season so brilliantly, I told him privately what I’d said and added that I may have been wrong.
Turns out, I wasn’t.
The slot receiver position in the Patriots offense is always going to be one that produces abnormally high numbers.
It’s not a safety-valve position as it is in other offenses, it’s a first option position that Tom Brady uses to steal from the defense. A lot of the throws are no more difficult than handoffs. You can liken the short crosses and digs to entry passes in basketball. The defense will give you those because overplaying them can turn 4 yard completions into 20-yarders.
As revered as Welker is because of his work here, what Edelman did at the spot in four games in 2009 and what he’s done here at the start of 2013 is hard evidence that it’s a plug-and-play position if you find the right guy to plug.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Bill Belichick spoke in depth about the differences between slot receivers and wide receivers last fall, explaining that it’s barely even the same position as wide receiver.
There are more people on the planet with the attributes to play slot receiver in the NFL than those who could play wide receiver.
That’s why the Patriots could, with a straight face, pay Chad Ochocinco $6 million to play wide receiver badly for them in 2011 while paying Welker less than half to play the slot like a maestro.
And it’s also why, after paying Welker $9.5 million on the franchise tag in 2012, the Patriots weren’t interested in bending to the demands of Welker’s agents for $8 million a year or so going forward.
They loved Wes. Who wouldn’t? In terms of emotion, only the release of Lawyer Milloy rivals the departure of Welker during the Belichick Era.
But paying elite wide receiver money to a slot guy turning 32 didn’t make sense. Not when a 27-year-old Danny Amendola could do the same job and was dying to sign.
And not when you knew that, if Amendola got hurt, you had Julian Edelman -- unable to get a sniff as a free agent this past summer -- as depth.
The qualities that set Welker apart are first-step explosiveness, body control, low center of gravity, a thick build, courage, experience, durability and incredible competitiveness. The places he’s just average are catch radius, top-end speed, jumping ability and versatility in terms of the routes he can run.
Many guys who play the slot -- Edelman, Amendola, Victor Cruz and Troy Brown, for instance -- have or had vertical speed to play positions other than slot and still be effective. Welker doesn’t.
What Welker does is brilliant. But it’s not unique.