It has been an eventful couple of days with the Patriots offense. First, tight end Aaron Hernandez was injured early in Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals, and it appears he will miss at least a month with an ankle injury. Then there has been the topic that refuses to go away in the playing time between Julian Edelman and Wes Welker, with many conspiracy theories being thrown around left and right on why Welker’s playing time has decreased. Finally on Tuesday some roster moves were made with the team reportedly releasing wide receiver Greg Salas, fullback Lex Hilliard and linebacker Ron Rivera. In corresponding moves, the team has reportedly signed tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and brought back wide receiver Deion Branch. There are now many questions surrounding the Patriots offense and how it will look without Hernandez, and now with the additions of Winslow and Branch.
Here are a few thoughts on the new-look Patriots offense:
What role will Branch and Winslow play in the offense?
What will Deion Branch’s role be? (FILE:USPresswire)
Unfortunately, most people will be disappointed when they see just how little these two will end up by playing. The Patriots do need to try and make up for Hernandez not being in the lineup, and with the versatility Hernandez has showcased it takes two players to do so.¬†Branch doesn’t have much left in the tank, which was why he was released in the first place. But, he has a connection with Tom Brady and a familiarity with the Patriots playbook, which is ultimately the reason for bringing him back. With Brandon Lloyd, Edelman and Welker ahead of him on the depth chart, Branch is the No. 4 receiver. With the Patriots primarily running plays from a 2 TE/2 WR/1 RB set this year, it remains to be seen just how much playtime Branch will get. ¬†With that being said, without Hernandez do the Patriots continue to run two tight end sets?
Without Hernandez Sunday, the Patriots did not use the two tight end set much, as they ran 60 of their 82 offensive plays with 3 WR/1 TE/1 RB. This could be the reason for signing Winslow. Winslow hasn’t been the player he was expected to be coming out of Miami seven years ago. He will just be joining the team this week, giving him very little time to get acclimated with the Patriots system. He is also not the same player as Hernandez — he doesn’t have the versatility. Winslow is more a natural tight end, while Hernandez plays more like a receiver. Given only a few days to prepare, don’t expect to see Winslow play a major role Sunday night against the Ravens. Expect the same as last week with the primary set featuring 3 WR/1 TE/1 RB. The “wild card” is the offensive line and how poorly they played last week. The offense could be forced to keep a tight end in to block especially against the powerful and feared Ravens defense, so Winslow could see the majority of his playing time as a blocking tight end in order to allow Rob Gronkowski to be a target in the passing game. As the weeks go on Winslow could play more of a role, but for now expect a very limited one.
Fans shouldn’t go in expecting these two players to make huge impacts. Like was said before, Winslow will likely not play a big role this coming week, probably serving as more of a blocking tight end. Branch is the No. 4 receiver, so he should see very limited playing time, although without Hernandez the offense could showcase a four wide receiver set and let Brady pick the Ravens defense apart. Adding Winslow and Branch gives the Patriots offense some flexibility back, but adding two players to replace one shows just how valuable Hernandez is and how hard he will be to replace.
Should fans be concerned with Wes Welker’s playing time?
By now everyone has heard and has their own opinion on the Welker playing time situation. Welker played in 43 of 67 snaps in Week 1 and 63 of 82 this past week, while Edelman played in 23 of 67 in Week 1 and 75 of 82 in Week 2. In total Welker has played 106 snaps, and Edelman 102 — a four snap difference. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but with how much playing time Welker has received in the past, it is. Some people have their own conspiracy theories including, Bill Belichick and the Patriots sticking it to Welker for not agreeing to a contract and forcing them to franchise him. If they were really that upset, then why spend the $9 million to franchise him? If it were true it makes zero business sense, and is not the way any organization operates. Cross that off the list.
Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston looked back at the 18 snaps where the Patriots had two wide receivers on the field Sunday. Edelman was on the field for 15 of those plays, while Welker just three. Three of the 18 can be thrown out because they were the Brady sneaks/kneel downs before the attempted game-winning field goal. Of the 12 plays Edelman played over Welker the Patriots ran the ball seven times for 47 yards and then were three of four passing for just 19 yards. Edelman was a key blocker on three of the running plays that went for 10 or more yards. While it is a pretty small sample size to go on, Edelman could be a better run blocker than Welker, and with the Patriots focused on running the ball it could be an explanation as to why Welker has not played as much.
In the passing game Welker still remains Brady’s favorite target. In Sunday’s loss Welker was targeted 11 times and caught five passes for a team-high 96 yards. Edelman on the other hand was targted just six times and of those six caught five of them totaling 50 yards. It is pretty baffling for so much to be made about Welker’s lesser role when he was targeted 11 times and led the team in receiving yards.
Appearing on WEEI Monday morning Brady commented on the situation by saying, “There’s a lot of guys on the roster, and we’re trying to utilize every player so that at the end of the year one guys doesn’t have 700 plays and another guy has 50 plays. Hopefully everyone can contribute and have opportunity and be fresh and stay healthy. Because we need everybody. It’s a long year.”
Later Monday, in typical Belichick fashion he didn’t really answer directly why Welker hasn’t played as much as in the past but did offer some insight.¬†”I’m sure you’ve seen us play before,” he said. ¬†”We have different combinations of personnel groups in every game all the time pretty much every week. That’s pretty much the way we run our offense, and we have for quite a while. The players we have out there are the ones we feel are best for that particular play, situation, however you want to look at it. That’s the way we set up the plays, the offense. When they’re called, we put that group out there. So, whatever is out there is what we feel is best for our team, that time, that situation.”
A possible explanation is the Patriots could be limiting Welker’s reps early in the season to keep him fresh for late in the season and the playoffs, as he is a player who takes a beating each and every game. Also, with the new emphasis in the running game and having a player in Edelman who could be a better blocker he might be better for those particular plays. There isn’t a feud between Welker and Belichick, there is no animosity. Welker is 31-years-old, he isn’t just beginning a career. He is at the point where his body needs to be monitored, which would be the perfect explanation for his playing time this year. Unfortunately, the way the Patriots run their organization there will be no straight answer regarding the situation, so like it or not, this debate and people’s theories will be a continuous topic throughout the season.