INDIANAPOLIS – Wes Welker is used to being overlooked.
He’s 5-foot-9. He wasn’t drafted. His 11 catches couldn’t prevent a Super Bowl loss four years ago. And in the run-up to tonight’s rematch against the New York Giants, the New England Patriots’ wide receiver is getting little attention.
Welker’s NFL-leading 122 receptions were in the shadow of the spotlight-filling injured ankle of 6-foot-6 tight end Rob Gronkowski. So does the small receiver feel he needs a big game to raise his profile?
“I don’t think I am really worried about that too much,” Welker said. “I just try to go out there and do my job to the best of my ability. I really just focus on whatever I have to do to help the team win the game.”
He could have a larger role with Gronkowski at less than full strength. His high left ankle sprain could keep him from tacking on plenty of yards, as he often does, after catching passes.
Tom Brady certainly relies on Welker, whose 554 receptions since 2007 lead the NFL, 80 more than Brandon Marshall’s second-highest total.
“Wes Welker would make any quarterback better with his ability to get open and catch the ball,” Brady said. “He’s a very smart player who has a great feel for the game, who has a great feel for how to get open in man-to-man (coverage), where to find the spots in zone, great body language.”
That body language and Welker’s ability to confuse defensive backs are keys to his success. He also knows that reading what the safeties are doing is a key to how the defense will handle a play.
He usually lines up in the slot and tries to start his patterns the same way so a defender doesn’t know what’s coming.
Then the sure-handed receiver will plant his foot, cut sharply to the left or right or head downfield and latch onto Brady’s pass after eluding a defender.
“I think you go off and react to what they do,” Welker said. “However they decide to play you, you attack it. A lot of it is reaction and being quick, and in and out of breaks, and doing different things to get open.”
Deion Branch usually lines up on the outside and tight end Aaron Hernandez sometimes starts there, too. Gronkowski and Welker are at their best over the middle.
“I just think that they have a good system,” Giants cornerback Corey Webster said. “How they use (Welker) inside the system is wonderful. You can’t have a system without players inside of it as well.”
When Welker was at Texas Tech, he couldn’t imagine being so successful in the NFL, let alone making it to his second Super Bowl in four years.
“I didn’t really have any big expectations,” he said. “I really just wanted a job. I wanted to go out there and do the best I can to try to get that job.”
He signed as a free agent with San Diego. The Chargers waived him after the first game in 2004 and the Miami Dolphins signed him after the second. As a rookie, he returned kickoffs and punts, but didn’t catch a single pass.
In seven seasons since then — five with the Patriots — he has 650 receptions. With 123 in 2009 and 122 this season, he joined Cris Carter as the only players with two seasons of more than 120.
“He’s a very decisive player,” Brady said.
“When you watch him run routes, he makes very swift decisions. That gives me a lot of confidence.”
But the 30-year-old Welker doesn’t take time to think about how far he’s come — from a lightly regarded college player to Brady’s passing partner in two title games.
In the 2008 championship game, his 11 catches tied a Super Bowl record but the Giants won, 17-14.
Still, not bad for a little guy who visited the Chicago Bears before the draft but drew little interest elsewhere.
“I just try to focus on the here and now, and what I have to do now to get ready for a game,” he said. “I don’t think you can really sit back and look back too much. You have just got to continue to get better, continue to try to learn and do what you can to try to help the team win.”