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Tim O

Tim O’Sullivan: Patriots can absorb loss of Welker

Don’t fret, all you wailing owners of the now outdated No. 83 New England jersey. You and your fan wardrobe will be fine, just like the Patriots will be fine without Wes Welker.

New England has been widely criticized for not re-signing Welker and allowing him to leave for AFC rival Denver. It’s easy to see why the fans love him – he’s an overachiever – and there’s no debating his numbers – he has the most catches (672) and yards (7,459) in the NFL since 2007.

But do you really think the Patriots are going to all of a sudden miss the playoffs next year because Welker left? Of course not. They will still be one of the top teams in the league and still be in contention for the their first Super Bowl since 2004 … three years before Welker even arrived in New England.

Maybe Bill Belichick was stingy with the salary cap and

callous with his feelings by not paying Welker what he wanted, or at least not bettering Denver’s two-year, $12 million deal. But that’s how Belichick operates with aging veterans, a strategy that’s been a key to the franchise’s run of success in the salary cap era.

Belichick must have believed Welker’s best years were behind him. Given Welker’s age (31), size (5-foot-9, 190 pounds) and the number of hits he’s absorbed, that seems a reasonable theory.

Not paying Welker may feel more puzzling (or maddening) because of the five-year, $31 million deal the Patriots gave receiver Danny Amendola on the same day they lost Welker. But Welker’s contract, because it has more guaranteed money and fewer years, will likely be more of a hit on the salary cap over the next two years than Amendola’s contract, which probably won’t run its full course of years anyway.

Amendola is four years younger than Welker and it’s nice and tidy to label him as Welker’s replacement. While he will do some of the things Welker did in the passing game, the real replacements are already on the Patriots roster and signed to lucrative, long-term deals – tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Those two will make up for Welker’s loss not because they can split out to the slot (though both can), but because they can work the middle of the field, the place where Welker was so valuable. Giving Hernandez and Gronkowski more chances to catch and run with the ball is a positive for New England, even if it took losing Welker to create them.

An offense featuring those two tight ends is what New England wanted to use to start last season, the same time we saw the first signs that Welker was expendable. He didn’t start in the opener against Tennessee and caught only three passes in the game. Injuries to Hernandez and Gronkowski put Welker back on the field, and he responded with a 118-catch season, but the writing was on the wall: the Patriots were ready to move on from Welker.

Maybe Belichick simply believes Welker’s production, and thus value, is about to dip. Maybe he’d grown tired of the Welker’s wise cracks in the media – the Rex Ryan foot press conference in January 2011 and the “nice to stick it in Bill’s face” comment last year. Or maybe Belichick was still haunted by the drop in Super Bowl XLVI.

Yes, the pass was a bit high, and there were plenty of other reasons the Patriots lost to the Giants that day, but Welker’s drop lingers as the painful memory from the loss, a memory that was rekindled all too often last season.

According to profootballfocus.com, Welker led the league in drops last year with 15. And like he did against the Giants in the Super Bowl, Welker had a crucial drop in New England’s season-ending loss to the Ravens in the last season’s AFC championship game.

To be fair, Welker dropped about the same percentage of catchable balls as top receivers like Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall, who were second and third on the drop list with 14 and 13, respectively. The stats also showed plenty of receivers who had worse hands than Welker. They also showed plenty who had better, however, including Amendola, who had only two drops on 64 catchable targets (compared with 15 on 133 for Welker).

Whether or not Amendola’s abilities can work in New England remains to be seen. Heralded veteran free agent receivers have come here and not made it out of training camp. But given offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’s history with Amendola during their time in St. Louis, the receiver should at least have the right type of skills to succeed with Tom Brady in the New England offense. And Amendola is a lot like a free agent receiver who did find success in Foxborough – fellow Texas Tech alum Wes Welker.

Brady is reportedly unhappy about losing Welker, his favorite target and off-field buddy, especially after the quarterback restructured his deal just two weeks ago to give the Pats cap space. But Brady understands this is a business, and he should also understand that instead of spending that money on another offensive weapon, New England can spend it where there’s greater need – defensive backs and pass rushers.

Sure, Welker will be missed. But fans will find new jerseys to wear, Brady will find a new security blanket and the Patriots will keep winning.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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