There's a reason why most teams keep their most-skilled offensive players away from special teams: It's dangerous and can make them more susceptible to injury. Just look at second-year receiver Brandon Tate, who tore up his knee on a punt return during his senior year at North Carolina — an injury that caused him to slide into the third round of the 2009 draft and then miss the majority of his rookie season in New England.
Welker's return to the practice field this offseason has been impressive, but there's still no telling how his left knee will hold up in live action. Obviously, the Patriots wouldn’t put him in harm's way if he wasn’t strong enough to practice, but he only participated in 30 minutes of each non-contact session.
At this point, it's far too soon to forecast Welker's health. The Patriots will be able to get a better feel once the veterans report to training camp July 29.
For now, they can weigh a handful of factors. First, Welker was second in the NFL last season with a 12.5-yard average on punt returns, and he was basically New England's main guy in that department. He returned a team-high 27 punts, not including 16 fair catches. Julian Edelman returned six punts (plus one fair catch) for 10.5 yards, and Kevin Faulk returned five punts (two fair catches) for 6.2 yards.
If the Patriots don’t want to go in Welker's direction in 2010, they've at least got other options. Faulk has long since been a model of consistency while returning punts, Edelman surely has displayed an ability to be dangerous in the role, Tate was a special teams dynamo in college and he figures to play a prominent role on kickoff returns in New England and rookie Devin McCourty, who was also a big-time special teamer in college, has gotten his chance in practice on punt returns, too.
Welker's true value in New England is clearly as a slot receiver — after all, he's the only player in NFL history to record three consecutive seasons with at least 110 receptions — so the Patriots would be best served by limiting his involvement on special teams, at least until his knee is back to full strength.
In the meantime, they might find that Tate or Edelman can handle the punt-returning duties in comparable fashion.
NESN.com will be answering one Patriots question every day until July 24.
Monday, July 19: Can the Patriots find more success on the road?
Wednesday, July 21: What combinations will the Patriots use at middle linebacker?