The Patriots All-Pro receiver played in just 63 percent of the team’s snaps on offense and caught three passes for 14 yards, which raises questions, especially due to his tumultuous offseason.
Welker was in his familiar position in the slot to start the game, but was off the field for the second drive following a dropped pass that clanged off his facemask.
The Pro Bowler was off and on the field for the remainder of the game playing 42 out of 67 total offensive snaps, and it didn't appear to be related to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' new offensive scheme. Backup receiver Julian Edelman was in on offense for 23 snaps, mostly in Welker's absence.
There are four possibilities for why Welker may have sat more than usual: the Patriots didn't feel comfortable playing him after missing most of the preseason, there was a nagging injury, he was benched due to his first quarter drop or the team may already be looking to move on without him following this season, or sooner.
Welker missed the Patriots' final three preseason games this summer, the first due to the team resting most of their offensive starters and the last two for "personal reasons." Head coach Bill Belichick may not have felt comfortable giving Welker a full workload after getting so few reps recently in game scenarios. If that's the case, expect Welker to return to a full share of snaps next week against the Cardinals, and to get more involved in the Pats offense. Welker was fourth on the team with just five targets behind Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
The Patriots can also be ambiguous at times with injury reports, and "personal reasons" may equate to a nagging injury that could have flared up against the Titans. It might not have been serious enough to bother Welker during practice last week, but it could keep him out for a drive or two in a game. If it was just a minor injury, there should be nothing to be concerned with moving forward.
Belichick has had a history of benching players for making mistakes, which could also explain Welker’s limited snap count. Brady fired a perfect pass to Welker, who either didn't see the ball or wasn't ready for it when it bounced off his face mask. Welker may have been on the receiving end of a message meant for the entire team from his coach, "If you are going to make mistakes, you won't be playing." Patriots fans everywhere surely remember Welker's last infamous drop back in February.
Finally, if the Patriots don't expect Welker back next season due to contract disputes, they may already want to groom his replacement in Edelman. The fourth-year player had an impressive training camp by all reports this year, and could be the heir apparent to Welker as the starting slot receiver. If the Patriots think that Edelman is ready to take over, they could even try to trade their star receiver while they can still get a return for him this season. If the Patriots are not trying to trade Welker, while still mixing in Edelman to groom him to take over next season, it’s a tough situation for Welker. If he isn't getting the same production he's had in past seasons, its likely his contract won't be as large as he desires either.
"At the end of the day, it's about winning ballgames," Welker told the media after Sunday's win, seeming unconcerned with his relative dearth of snaps. "However, we need to do that or whatever we need to do, that's what we're going to do. That's the ultimately goal every time we go out there on Sunday and however I can contribute, whether it's a big day in stats or not or in blocking or however I need to do it, that's what it's going to be. I'm just going to try and do my part as far as that goes."
It's too early to panic or to come to any conclusions, but it's an interesting story to monitor as the season goes along.
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