Is This the End for Wes Welker?

Welker has been among the top slot receivers in the NFL for years, but is his productivity going to decline again in 2014?

It wasn't long ago when Wes Welker felt like a guaranteed lock for at least 100 receptions each season to go along with a healthy dosage of yardage. After all, in his six seasons with the New England Patriots between 2007 and 2012, he failed to haul in 100 passes and 1,000 yards just once (in 2010).

Last season, his production dipped while playing alongside the depth of receiving talent in Denver and as a result of playing just 13 games, but his fantasy relevance was saved by his first ever double-digit touchdown season.

Welker will be 33 this year, and has already faced a multitude of injuries of severe nature (concussions and an ACL tear).

So uncertainty shrouds Welker's 2014 season, a season that could result in his typical production as an elite slot receiver or a season plagued by injury scares and a deep corps of receivers in Denver.

According to our brand new Fantasy Football Cheat Sheet, Welker is projected to be the 11th-best wide receiver in fantasy football this year, even in non-PPR formats. He's projected to record 85.52 receptions for 1,088.97 yards and 11.03 touchdowns. Quite the stat line, indeed, but there's plenty to know before investing a fourth-round pick on Welker.

2013: Dropping the Ball and Dipping Production

numberFire analysis generally centers on Net Expected Points (NEP), and this article will do the same. NEP is a quantified look at how much a player affected his team's scoring output throughout the season. You can click the link above to read more about it.

As you can imagine, Welker was able to help New England put points on the board, get into scoring position, and extend drives with his ability to haul in passes consistently and help move the chains. Unsurprisingly, his Reception NEP tallies (which account for the points he added to the Patriots with his receptions) were typically high. This past season, even though he caught 10 touchdowns, his Reception NEP was very low by his own standards (since 2007 when he emerged as a legitimate receiving option).

SeasonReceptionsRec NEPTargetsTar NEPRec NEP/Target

Welker posted his lowest Reception NEP and fewest receptions and targets in the past seven years last season - even when including the down year in 2010. Again, Welker played in just 13 games in 2014, but he was on pace to fall just shy of a Reception NEP of 100.

Historically a lock for 100 catches, Welker received just 111 targets, so it's not surprising that he fell well short of the reception milestone.

However, since 2007, Welker has caught 746 passes on 1,039 targets (giving him a 71.80% catch rate). In order for him to achieve a 100-catch year at that rate, he'd need at least 140 targets. Extrapolated for a 16-game season at his 2013 pace, Welker would have been targeted 136.62 times. (And the now-departed Eric Decker was targeted 136 times last season. Just saying.)

But what's problematic is that his catch rate last year wasn't quite near his 71.80% average. It was a lowly 65.77%, which is why he was on pace for just 89.85 catches over 16 games last season. Now, this catch rate was still higher than Demaryius Thomas's (64.79%) and Decker's (63.97%), but Welker was not reliant on vertical passes quite like Decker and Thomas.

Furthermore, their Reception NEP per target was significantly higher despite being targeted more frequently. Thomas's average on 142 targets was 0.92; Decker's was 0.83 (136 targets). This indicates that Welker was less efficient than Decker and Thomas on a per-target basis even with his 10 touchdowns.

Big Plays in Small Spaces

Welker's drops are well documented - particularly because he's had some in critical moments of huge games - but he was able to maintain a semblance of efficiency last year because of his touchdowns.

Last year, his Reception NEP per target was his highest since 2007. A high mark implies that an elevated amount of receptions were big plays, and, as we all know, that was the case since 10 of Welker's 73 receptions resulted in touchdowns. Only two of those touchdowns came on catches longer than 10 yards, and every one of them occurred in the red zone.

None of them came in the fourth quarter, and only one of them came while Denver was trailing (a one-yard touchdown in the first quarter when the Titans were leading 7-0). Three came on first downs, four on second downs, two on third downs, and one on a fourth down. Welker was less of a difference-maker who had a nose for the end zone, and more a mere beneficiary of a Denver offense that found itself in ideal situations early and often.

But you shouldn't care when someone scores a touchdown. And Denver will probably have plenty of those situations again this year. And I'm not trying to knock Welker for converting on early downs. He just had the benefit of being in optimal situations near the goal line and had the passes gone elsewhere, his production would have been abysmal.

I'd be more concerned about his unequal production distribution last season (and I am). Welker hauled in eight touchdowns over his first six games last year. In his five games after Denver's Week 9 bye, his production was wildly different than his totals before the week off.

Welker's 2013ReceptionsYardsTouchdownsFantasy Points
Weeks 1-86.2569.381.1312.88
Weeks 10-144.6044.600.205.40

Without the touchdowns, Welker struggled to perform as a fantasy receiver, but his tallies were also down drastically across the board. In fairness to Welker, we can't look solely at this decline and point the finger at him alone. The five-week span between Weeks 10 and 14 included two of Peyton Manning's three lowest yardage outputs on the year, as well as his bottom three games in completion and touchdown tallies. That is to say that Peyton had some really un-Peyton games during Welker's poor stretch.

In fairness to the numbers, though, Manning did throw for at least 397 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2 of those 5 games. No matter how you look at it, Welker was a different player after the bye week than he was before, and he was on pace to fall short of 1,000 receiving yards, a mark 24 receivers reached last year.

What to Do with Welker

There's plenty of reason to believe that Welker can take advantage of Decker's departure, that Emmanuel Sanders won't snare enough touchdowns from Welker, and that Cody Latimer won't take many catches away from Wes' tally. After all, we're projecting just 2.54 touchdowns from Sanders and 31.92 receptions from Latimer.

Welker remains one of the most legitimate threats for double-digit touchdowns among all receivers - especially if Manning leads the league with 40.30 touchdown passes like we project. So with a fourth-round price tag and top-11 type projections, Welker could easily outproduce his draft day price. But whether the 33-year-old receiver will be able to stay on the field and avoid another serious concussion is a big risk - a risk you need to know before investing heavily in a big year from him.