Wes Welker is the consummate NFL overachiever. As a 5’9″ 186 lb wide receiver coming out of Texas Tech, the odds for him to succeed in the NFL were heavily stacked against him. In fact, despite having a successful career as a return specialist and receiver, the five time pro bowler was not even invited to the NFL Combine. Coming out of college with already sub par physical measurements Welker’s Texas Tech pro day forty yard dash time of 4.6 seconds and average 30 in vertical leap did not impress. After going undrafted following the 2004 NFL draft, Welker originally signed with San Diego Chargers before being cut. At age 33, Welker has seen both his fair share of individual success and criticism, as well as his share of hits on the field. The undersized wideout suffered his third concussion in the last ten months during Saturday’s preseason Denver Broncos vs Houston Texans game. The latest injury has many wondering if Wes Welker should consider retirement.
Last season when healthy, Welker was productive. Catching passes on an NFL record-breaking offense from Peyton Manning often looked like child’s play for the Denver Broncos receiving corps. Using his usual precise route running skills and instincts, Welker managed to record 73 receptions, total 778 receiving yards, and haul in 10 touchdown passes. These numbers may seem far short of a typical Welker season. However, that was due in part to the fact that the Broncos slot shared his targets with an elite receiver in Demaryius Thomas, and a legit number two in Eric Decker. Another factor to consider was Welker missing the final three games of last season, while in recovery from his second concussion in just 22 days.
Emanuel Sanders signed on to replace Decker this season, following Decker’s departure to the New York Jets. Although that trade-off may not seem like it favors the Broncos, Manning is still the type of quarterback who maximizes the production of his wide receivers. When Tim Tebow was anchoring this squad, Demaryius Thomas and Decker were virtual unknowns. Some of that might have to do with Tebow’s inability to consistently throw accurately in the NFL and his preference to run with the football. Manning was simply able to use his football IQ to mold and mentor his young receivers. Regardless, the Broncos have Demaryius Thomas, Sanders, tight end Julius Thomas as targets, as well as Monte Ball now starting at running back. This means there are still plenty of weapons on offense for Manning to utilize. Thomas caught 12 touchdowns last season and Ball was given the keys to the backfield when John Elway did not elect to bring in competition at running back.
There is no question that the Broncos would love to have the steady production of Welker in the slot. Still, there is no essential need for Welker to rush a return. The efficient receiver has worn a protective helmet since he returned during last year’s playoffs. The helmet was specially padded and designed to reduce the risk of a concussion. However, Texans safety, D.J. Swearinger delivered the hit that sent Welker to his third NFL concussion protocol in less than a year.
On the play in question Swearinger received a penalty flag for unnecessary roughness. After catching the pass Welker’s head collided with the shoulder of Swearinger, who attempted to make a tackle on the Broncos star. Manning was visibly upset immediately following the play and he sought redemption. Following a 29 yard touchdown pass to Sanders, Manning charged at Swearinger as the two players touched face masks and the quarterback was whistled for taunting.
When age sets in, the wear and tear of injuries start to accumulate. In order to determine if now is the right time for Welker to consider if he should retire one needs to look into what factors are motivating him to keep playing. Many players consider their legacy. In that regard, Welker will compare well. He holds a slew of franchise records for the New England Patriots.
He was the leading receiver on Tom Brady’s squad for years and amassed an NFL record five 110 or more reception seasons. Welker made either the Pro Bowl, All Pro team or both in each of his seven seasons with the Patriots. He also led the NFL in receiving yards on three occasions during that span. The slot receiver has established himself as one of best of his kind during the last decade. However, after being on the wrong end of three Super Bowl appearances Welker is likely sticking around for another chance at the Lombardi trophy.
If Welker returns to the field in a timely fashion there is little doubt in the minds of NFL analysts that he will be a factor on the field. The concern lies more with the quality of life Welker may have when he eventually retires. There is no certainty to as to the number of concussions Welker has suffered in his 10 year career but the three that have been reported recently are likely less than half of the total.
In the wake of studies determining that concussions often lead to CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the NFL has been forced to place an emphasis on player safety. Such precautions were not in place for former Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer, Tony Dorsett. The ex star running back now suffers from severe memory loss along with a host of former players, who are suing the league. In 2012 former NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide and eight months later, scientists discovered he showed signs of CTE. Seau played 20 seasons in the NFL without having been listed as having a concussion. This type of practice was somewhat normal in the NFL for decades. Now the dangers of concussions are more well known, with relevant information, procedures and policies at the disposal of the NFL and its players.
Various sources have indicated that Welker has made no talk of retirement and he does not believe he should consider the possibility. An ESPN report stated that Welker is in “good spirits,” despite being in the initial stages of the league’s concussion protocol. If and or when Welker returns to the Broncos looking for a Super Bowl ring, there is a great possibility he is risking a lot more with regard to his future. One comforting sign for the savvy veteran receiver is that he does not appear to be pressed.
Commentary by Brandon Wright