FOXBORO -- During Wes Welker's career in New England, from 2007 through 2012, he missed just four games. He sat out of two with a knee injury in early 2009. Later that year he tore his ACL and MCL in the final game of the regular season and was forced to miss a playoff game with the Ravens. He missed one more game the following season, the 2010 season finale, because the Patriots wanted to give him some rest before the playoffs.
Over those six years, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound slot receiver took a significant pounding. It was the kind of pounding that comes from averaging 112 catches -- and many of those over the middle -- every season as a key cog in the Patriots offense.
Welker's former teammates still in New England understand that he doesn't like to be held out. Though he suffered a concussion in Denver's 27-17 win over the Chiefs on Sunday, and though by rule he won't be allowed to participate fully in Broncos practice until Friday, the Patriots defense is preparing as though he will be in uniform and on the field Sunday night.
"We're preparing, we know he's probably going to be out there," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. "He doesn't miss many games, we know that from playing with him, and we expect to see him on Sunday."
Welker was at practice on Thursday after missing Monday's session, increasing the likelihood that the Patriots will have a reunion of sorts on their hands in three days at Gillette Stadium.
In his first year with Peyton Manning and the Broncos, Welker has made a seamless transition to his new surroundings, a new quarterback and a new offense. Through 10 games, he has 61 catches for 648 yards and nine touchdowns. He hasn't fumbled once, and he continues to be one of the best in the league at finding the sticks with 40 first downs, which ranks tenth among all receivers.
McCourty was asked on Thursday what makes Welker stand out among his receiving peers, many of whom are so obviously bigger and faster. Why, standing alongside receivers like Demaryius Thomas (6-3, 229), Eric Decker (6-3, 214) and tight end Julius Thomas (6-5, 250), does Welker not get lost in the shuffle?
"To me I think it's toughness," McCourty said. "He'll run routes over the middle, he'll run routes on the outside, he'll block. He'll do everything at that position, and I think that makes him not only a good player but a complete player."
The Patriots know far too well what Welker's capable of to overlook him on Sunday, assuming he plays. Of course, they have very little reason to believe that he won't.
"I think it's gonna be similar to training camps and practices when we went out there and competed against him," McCourty said. "He's a tough guy."