Wes Welker and the NFL’s triangular blind spot

Here’s a list of NFL receivers, most of them now out of the league. See if you can find the one that doesn’t belong.

  • WR                              Ht.       Wt.       Draft    Recep.     Yards      TDs
  • Reidel Anthony        5-11   178           1         144          1,846       16
  • Kevin Dyson              6-1      208           1        178           2,325       18
  • Rod Gardner             6-2      213           1         242          3,165       23
  • Bryant Johnson        6-2      214           1        314           3,938        16
  • Matt Jones                 6-6      242           1         166           2,153       15
  • Charles Rogers         6-3      202           1           36               440         4
  • Travis Taylor             6-1      210            1         312          4,017       22
  • David Terrell             6-3       215           1         128          1,602         9
  • Peter Warrick           5-11    192            1         275          2,991       18
  • Wes Welker               5-9      190        None    768          8,580        38
  • Mike Williams           6-5      229            1         127          1,526         5
  • Troy Williamson      6-1      203            1           87           1,131         4

Not that hard, was it?

It’s no secret that NFL scouts, personnel executives and general managers are in love with the triangle, the three measurables that ostensibly tell them about a prospect’s ceiling as an NFL player. They are height, weight and speed, the numbers even many fans now follow rigorously during the NFL scouting combine. The triangle has become so important in scouting evaluations that the combine, once considered a boring set of drills and tests, is suddenly must-see TV for true football fanatics.

As the above list indicates, it is not unusual for a college wide receiver with great measurables — big, strong, fast — to be selected in the first round of the draft and then produce an underwhelming pro career. Nor is Wes Welker alone among those who have been overlooked and gone on to produce big pro numbers. Rod Smith was an undrafted free agent who turned into the best Broncos receiver of all time.

So the fact that the triangle is far from an infallible predictor is not breaking news. But Welker is one of the most obvious examples of why. At 5-9, 185 pounds, he was decidedly small. Repeatedly clocked in the 40-yard dash at 4.6 seconds and above, he was not exceptionally fast. “Small and slow” will get you crossed off a lot of lists. And frankly, when you see Welker in street clothes, “football player” is not the first thought that comes to mind.

All Welker had going for him was a history of making big plays.

During his junior and senior years at Texas Tech, he gave NFL scouts plenty of notice of what was to come. His uncanny ability to get open produced 86 catches for 1,054 yards as a junior and 97 catches for 1,099 yards as a senior. He scored 31 touchdowns in his college career — 21 as a receiver, eight as a punt returner and two as a rusher.

Nevertheless, Welker was generally viewed by NFL scouts as a college player without the size or athletic ability to make it at the next level.

This is pretty much what college coaches thought four years before. A native of Oklahoma City, Welker attended Heritage Hall High School, where he was named Oklahoma high school player of the year by USA Today and the Daily Oklahoman in 1999. He scored 90 touchdowns in high school playing offense, defense and special teams. Oh, he also kicked field goals.

Nevertheless, he was viewed as just another high school kid without the size or athletic ability to play major college football. It didn’t help that Heritage Hall competed in Class 2A — the second lowest — in a state with six high school football classifications. He thought he’d get a scholarship offer from Tulsa, but it never came. On National Signing Day, he had no offers.

“I was thinking I’d get a scholarship offer somewhere,” Welker told USA Today. “When it didn’t happen when it was supposed to, on signing day, I was pretty hurt by it.”

A week later, Lenny Walls walked away from his scholarship at Texas Tech, choosing Boston College instead. A week after signing day, Mike Leach, the new coach at Texas Tech, offered it to Welker.

“When you saw him, he was slow and not really big,” Leach told USA Today. “But he just had a great sense of the field and how to play football.”

Welker thrived in Leach’s spread offense, but the NFL scouting report was familiar. In fact, he was so far off the league’s radar he didn’t even get an invite to the combine, where they collect the measurables that were working against him anyway.

As an undrafted free agent, his background as a kick returner helped him find work. The Chargers signed him as a returner, then released him after one game when somebody else they liked became available on the waiver wire. Marty Schottenheimer later called it one of his biggest personnel mistakes.

Miami picked him up and kept him for three seasons. The Dolphins used him as a returner and slowly opened up opportunities for him to get on the field as a receiver. In his third season he had 67 catches for 687 yards, offering a glimpse of the production he would make routine in New England.

Welker caught Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s eye with nine catches for 77 yards in a Patriots 20-10 victory over the Dolphins in 2006. Belichick reportedly considered giving him an offer sheet as a restricted free agent that offseason. Instead, he offered Miami a second-round draft pick (and, ultimately, a seventh) for Welker and acquired him that way.

In his first season in New England, Welker teamed with Tom Brady to lead the NFL in catches with 112 for 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns. The Patriots went to the Super Bowl.

In six seasons in New England, Welker caught 672 passes (an average of 112 per) for 7,459 yards (1,243 average) and 37 touchdowns. He blew out a knee in the final game of the 2009 season, tearing both his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. He came back in 2010 as if it had never happened, catching eight passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener.

After all this proof that expert talent scouts have been wrong repeatedly about Welker, not that much changed when he became a free agent this season. He was far from the most prized receiver on the market.

Mike Wallace, a third-round draft pick by the Steelers in 2009, got a five-year, $60 million free agent contract from Miami, a reported $30 million of it guaranteed. Greg Jennings, a second-round pick by the Packers in 2006, got a five-year deal worth a maximum of $47.5 million from Minnesota.

Welker got a two-year deal worth $12 million from the Broncos. The $6 million annual average puts him behind more than 20 NFL receivers, even though he’s had more catches than any of them over the past six seasons.

So last week I asked him if all these skeptics and doubters over all these years have fueled him.

“They get me out of the bed every morning,” he said.

I’m told they’re trying to come up with a new test at the combine that will somehow capture intangibles that the scouts keep missing in the lengthening list of NFL stars passed over when the blue-chip athletes are selected at the top of the draft. Of course, such a test wouldn’t have helped scouts discover Welker because he wasn’t even invited to the combine.

Now 31 (he’ll turn 32 in May), Welker will never be the league’s highest-paid or most highly-valued receiver. But for a guy who fails every test of the sacred triangle, he’s having a pretty nice career.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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