How ironic is it that Wes Welker, coming off a serious knee injury, is considered a more valuable target for Tom Brady than the recently traded Randy Moss? Will Welker become Brady's favorite target, or are there other options to consider?
The diversified offensive options for the post-Randy Moss era Patriots are almost as unproven as they are many.
Quarterback Tom Brady clearly has plenty to choose from in the coming weeks as he strives to continue to keep the Patriots among the highest scoring teams in the NFL.
The challenge begins Sunday afternoon in Foxborough against the 4-1 Ravens. Baltimore faces the unknown of a New England offense without Moss, something that's not been seen since 2006.
The guy facing the most pressure may be Wes Welker -- New England's other All-Pro pass catcher. The game's ultimate slot machine over the past three-plus seasons, still coming back from offseason reconstructive knee surgery, bumps up to become the Patriots' No. 1 option.
Contrary to popular opinion, Welker has faced a lot of double coverage in the past. In fact, his current coach employed that strategy against him during a 2006 game with Miami when Welker was toiling for the Dolphins.
Bill Belichick opted to make Welker the focus of his secondary's attention during the second half of the Patriots' 20-10 Week 5 win over Miami after watching his troops get torched to the tune of seven catches for 67 yards during the opening 30 minutes. Having seen enough, Belichick chose to double Welker, who wound up making just two more grabs for 10 yards. The Dolphins were blanked after intermission.
The Patriots hope that wasn't an indication of what to expect from their offense now.
Welker is no longer the largely anonymous figure he was in 2006. Instead, he's attempting to join former Indianapolis star Marvin Harrison as just the second receiver in NFL history to post four consecutive seasons of 100 catches or more.
He's been to a pair of Pro Bowls in his three years in New England, topped the 1,000-yard receiving mark in all three seasons and has made more catches than anyone in football over that time. Welker also made an impressive return from a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee suffered in the regular-season finale in Houston last year. He has made 26 catches over the first four games, putting him on pace for yet another 100-plus-catch season.
But there's one thing he's never done as a Patriot, and that's play a game without Randy Moss lined up somewhere in the same offense. And that fact has some concerned about the offense's viability going forward.
While Welker certainly has more experience dealing with extra attention based on his incredible production playing with Tom Brady, he's sure to see a whole lot more for the remainder of the 2010 campaign. The Patriots offense was the best in football over the season's first month, leading the NFL with 131 points and with 32.8 points per game.
But all of that was done with Moss as part of the equation.
When asked if he believed his job would be more difficult without Moss, the wideout did his best to alleviate any fears.
"It's difficult in the NFL on Sundays. Nothing's changed there. You just have to keep working hard and getting better on a daily basis," Welker said.
|Patriots TE A. Hernandez makes tough catches in traffic. (AP Photo)
Now they must find a way to keep the momentum going without the luxury of Moss occupying the thoughts and fears of opposing secondaries and defensive coordinators. Even at his advanced age, and despite his modest production (nine catches, 139 yards, three TDs), Moss still commanded extra attention from most teams. That focus allowed guys like Welker and rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez extra room to breathe in the underneath zones, an area where Brady has proven to be dominant throughout his illustrious career.
"Obviously Randy's a great deep threat and you always have to account for him," Welker said. "But at the same time, it's about beating man coverage and getting open, and that's the way it is. Definitely I've benefited from playing with Randy, and I'm going to benefit from playing with these guys, too."
One of those guys is Hernandez, who's been remarkable thus far with 18 catches for 240 yards while showing an uncanny knack for picking up big yards after the catch, constantly crediting Moss with providing him the space to operate due to his deep threat.
The question the Patriots must find the answer to now is: Who is going to serve in that role in Moss' absence?
While Brandon Tate, the starter opposite Moss in the first four games, could very well switch sides and occupy Moss' position, the answer to the above question may wind up being Hernandez. Although Tate has the speed to potentially serve as a deep threat, Hernandez has the ability to do more damage. He's already shown he can line up in a variety of spots -- outside, in the slot, tight to the formation, even in the backfield -- and be effective. He could very well wind up being the team's No. 2 target behind Welker as the season unfolds.
"Randy obviously brought a deep presence to him," Welker said. "Things may change a little bit, but we have some fast guys that can definitely go deep and stretch the field. Randy was one of the best in the game doing that, but we just have to collectively go out there and work hard and play hard and do everything we need to do to try to make up for him."
Another option is Deion Branch, who returns to New England after an injury-plagued, disappointing stretch with the Seahawks. The Patriots sent a fourth-round pick to Seattle to get back the former Super Bowl MVP and one of Brady's all-time favorite targets.
|Patriots newly acquired WR D. Branch (Getty images)
But the Branch of 2005 isn't walking through the Gillette Stadium locker room door.
One safe bet for the passing game is that Brady will find his share of open targets. Without the temptation of throwing it deep to one of the game's all-time greatest big-play threats, he'll likely return to his roots by spreading the ball effectively and utilizing the short passing game that made him famous in the first place.
One of the more underrated aspects of the Patriots' early-season offensive success was the running of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. With Fred Taylor sidelined by a toe injury, Green-Ellis emerged as the lead back and produced. He carried 47 times, including 16 in each of the last two games, and totaled 215 yards (4.6-yard average) and a pair of touchdowns.
So how might Moss' absence affect Green-Ellis' ability to continue that kind of production?
"I'm not sure. I've never played without him," Green-Ellis said. "I can't tell you how it's going to be without him because I haven't experienced that yet."
That's something he has in common with virtually every member of the offense.