FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Wes Welker caught more passes over the past five seasons than any other NFL player. So why is he spending more time on the New England Patriots sideline this year?
Newcomer Brandon Lloyd has taken over the top wide receiver spot, three-year backup Julian Edelman has improved, and Welker, who was involved in an offseason contract dispute, could leave as a free agent after this year. Or maybe he's hurting and the Patriots want him to be fresher for the second half of the season.
Welker said he feels "great." And two games into the season is not enough to conclude his value has dropped.
He and his teammates downplay his decreased usage, while coach Bill Belichick questions whether it's even been diminished.
"I think if you look at his production through the time he's been here, it's been pretty consistent," Belichick said Wednesday.
In terms of the number of snaps?
"Yeah," he said.
In two games, Welker has been on the field for 70.5 percent of the offensive snaps, although that almost certainly would have been lower if tight end Aaron Hernandez hadn't suffered a right ankle injury on the third play that knocked him out of last Sunday's 20-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
In the previous four seasons, Welker participated in 75 percent of the snaps with the Patriots in 2008 (75.2 percent in the first two games), 72.8 percent in 2009 (73.7 percent), 76 percent in 2010 (61.3 percent) and 88.9 percent in 2011 (84.2 percent), according to ProFootballFocus.com.
So his playing time is down, especially from last year.
Welker hadn't started 11 of his 77 regular-season games with the Patriots before this season. But Edelman started in his place on Sunday, something that happened just once in the past two seasons — and that was in the 2010 finale after the Patriots had clinched a playoff berth and Welker and other starters rested.
Welker said on WEEI radio that he had "a little bit" of a clue he wouldn't start, but "I really wasn't positive even leading up to the first series."
He didn't play on Sunday until Hernandez was injured. Now that Hernandez, the only Patriot who didn't practice on Wednesday, will miss some time, Welker should play more even though the Patriots signed tight end Kellen Winslow and re-signed wide receiver Deion Branch this week.
Still, the fact that a player who led the NFL with 122 receptions last season and has 554 in his five full seasons with New England isn't playing as much has been a popular subject among fans and the media.
"I don't pay attention to it," quarterback Tom Brady said. "I love Wes and he's a great player on this team and has been since the day he arrived, so nothing has changed in my mind."
Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, who faces the Patriots on Sunday night, isn't paying much attention either.
"It's a long season and you do things in a certain way preparing for the weeks to come," he said. "I wouldn't read too much into it. Wes Welker's still a great receiver and I'm sure New England, Brady and everybody knows that. It's just that people probably want to make news of something that's probably not something big in the organization. If it is, then that's something they have to deal with."