Now that Wes Welker has cleared the hurdle of live preseason action, it would seem a virtual certainty that the guy who's caught more passes than anyone in the NFL over the last three seasons will be in the New England starting lineup on opening day against the Bengals.
But the question remains -- can Welker be the same, key cog in the Patriots' offense that he's been in his three seasons in New England?
While there is little doubt that Randy Moss strikes fear into opposing defenses thanks to his big-play ability, it's Welker who's been the most consistent force on the New England offense since its genesis in 2007. He's caught 346 passes -- topping the 100-catch mark for three-straight seasons. Marvin Harrison holds the NFL record with fourth straight.
Is it realistic that after blowing out the ACL in his left knee in last year's regular season finale that Welker can still be the same nearly unstoppable pass-catching machine out of the slot?
Welker himself seemed to understand the magnitude of his own appearance in the Patriots second preseason game in Atlanta, and as such doesn't seem likely to assume that just because he's on the field in September that he'll be the same guy he was before the injury.
"I think they are really significant," Welker said of the half-dozen plays last Thursday night at the Georgia Dome. "This is something I've really been working toward and really trying to come back. To be able to do it here in the second preseason game is kind of a milestone for me. It's something I've really been looking forward to and something I've worked my tail off to get to this whole offseason."
But he admitted that the injury is not yet an afterthought.
"It's a step forward," Welker said. "I don't know if we're all the way there yet."
That's the uncertainty Tom Brady and the Patriots face heading into the regular season. Sure, it's great to have No. 83 back in the slot ready to catch passes. But can he be the same guy? Can he find a way to slip two would-be tacklers to pick up 5 extra yards and a first down?
Those are the questions that Welker will have to answer in the regular season for a New England team that has more question marks and changes on the roster than at maybe any other time in the Bill Belichick era.
For now, all of New England is happy to see its diminutive playmaker back on the field. But if the Patriots are to be a legitimate AFC contender, heck if they're to compete for what should be a challenging AFC East title, Welker will have to be more than just a shell of himself.
Welker has surprised everyone with the speed of his rehab and recovery. He's on the field barely seven months after blowing out his left knee. Now, he must prove that he can be the same consistent impact player he's been for New England throughout his first three seasons with the team. If he can do that -- in doing so tying an NFL record with his fourth straight 100-catch campaign with, ho hum, a blown ACL in between -- it truly will be remarkable.
CAMP CALENDAR: Camp broke Aug. 17.
Wes Welker wasn't supposed to be on the field this spring for OTAs, running routes during wide receiver drills with his teammates.
He wasn't supposed to be on the field in training camp, taking part in full-pads workouts and taking the occasional hit from his defensive teammates.
He wasn't supposed to be on the field for preseason game action, as supposedly his status for the regular season was in question.
All along the way the All-Pro receiver has surpassed the supposed limitations and expectations. Now, after catching a pair of passes and taking part in six plays during New England's second preseason game in Atlanta there is little doubt that Welker will be in the starting lineup on opening weekend.
Following his first truly live hits of the summer, New England's diminutive playmaker was well aware of the importance of his return to game action barely seven months after blowing out his left knee in last year's regular-season finale in Houston.
"I think they are really significant," Welker said of the half-dozen plays. "This is something I've really been working toward and really trying to come back. To be able to do it here in the second preseason game is kind of a milestone for me. It's something I've really been looking forward to and something I've worked my tail off to get to this whole offseason."
As he so often does, his coach saw things a bit more pragmatically.
"It was the next step," Bill Belichick said. "He still has a ways to go. The big thing was to get him in there and let him play a little bit."
Samuel Has Words For BB
--CB Asante Samuel hasn't played in New England for more than two seasons, but he apparently still has plenty to say about his former team. The current Eagles playmaker had some pretty pointed words about his former head coach, Bill Belichick, in some recent comments.
"I ain't never said it, but Belichick, I just felt like he had a thing for me," Samuel told The New Journal of Delaware. "He had something against me. I have no idea why. He was going to start Troy Brown, a receiver, at nickel (corner) and I'm over here sitting healthy and he don't want to even play me."
Kaczur Has A Fill-in
OL Nick Kaczur, according to the Boston Herald, has undergone surgery on his injured back. The former right tackle had been working on the switch to left guard to fill the void left when Pro Bowler Logan Mankins refused to sign his RFA tender. But he's missed virtually all of training camp and, according to the Herald, Kaczur's "2010 season may be over before it started."
The Patriots might have found a replacement in joint practices with the Falcons last week.
On Sunday, the Falcons traded valuable and versatile backup offensive lineman Quinn Oninnaka to the Patriots for an undisclosed draft choice. Ojinnaka, 6-5, 299, started five games at right guard last season but was drafted to play tackle in the zone-blocking scheme in place under Alex Gibbs in 2007.
Ojinnaka will be suspended for the first game of the 2010 season for a violation of the NFL's personal conduct policy.
On The Road To Recovery
DL Ty Warren underwent successful surgery last week to repair a torn labrum and micro fracture in his hip. Warren will now begin a rehab process that will take at least six months, with his eye on returning to the New England starting lineup for 2011.
QB Tom Brady had plenty of nice things to say about Falcons starter Matt Ryan last week when the two teams got together for joint practices in Atlanta. The admiration was mutual. Ryan got to watch Brady with some regularity during now-Falcons starter's days as the star passer at nearby Boston College, although he didn't actually meet No. 12 until a game against New England last fall.
"I watched Tom all through college," Ryan pointed out, "which was right through their three Super Bowl runs. It was good to finally meet him last year and talk to him today. It is impossible not to see him when you live in Boston because of his star power. I've watched him from a distance and was impressed with how he has handled himself. He was always classy and did things the right way."
Asked if there are any particular physical aspects of Brady's game that he tries to emulate, Ryan instead cited an intangible.
"Everybody has their own individual style when they go out and play," he explained. "The biggest thing that you may try to emulate is his consistency, not his throwing motion or footwork. He has had a level of consistency that is evident year in and year out, week in and week out. That is the number one thing I would try to do that he has done."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "No news." -- Tom Brady, with a smile last week on the practice field in Atlanta, when asked for an update on his ongoing contract negotiations.
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