NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker recently revealed that New England’s contract extension offers diminished in overall value shortly after Welker signed his one year, $9.5 million franchise tender.
It is currently unknown whether or not the reduced offer was a consequence of Welker’s decision to detail the difficult negotiation process between himself and the organization publicly or whether the Patriots are simply attempting to capitalize on the leverage Welker sacrificed by ending his holdout and signing the tender.
Regardless of New England’s motivations for the offer, and despite Welker’s public enthusiasm regarding the opportunity to play under the franchise tag in 2012, the situation will surely be one of particular interest to Patriots fans this offseason.
Welker has been a member of the Patriots for five seasons now and is already poised to supplant longtime Patriot Troy Brown for the team’s career receptions record (Welker currently trails Brown by three receptions, 557 to 554.) Rather than prioritizing size or speed, Patriots wide receivers are required to process a significant amount of information in order to successfully execute the team’s option-routes.
Most organizations ask their wide receivers to run a specific route depending on the playcall; in New England, wide receivers must read the defense quickly in order to determine the defense’s coverage and adjust their route in order to take advantage of weak points in the defense. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is responsible for making the same reads and finding the open receiver; if both players are not on the same page, Brady’s pass may be thrown to an empty space with potentially disastrous consequences.
The difficult transition wide receiver Chad Ochocinco encountered upon arriving in New England last season was largely due to the adjustment he was forced to make from Cincinnati’s offense to New England’s offense, which asked him to perform sight-reads and adjust his routes accordingly. Ochocinco had the athleticism to get open, but he was frequently out of sync with Tom Brady.
Wes Welker, on the other hand, enjoys excellent chemistry with Brady; Welker is intelligent enough to make quick decisions based on reads and agile enough to get open and provide Brady with a safe option. Although the Patriots have a number of other receiving options on offense (tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, recently-signed split end Brandon Lloyd), Welker is perhaps the weapon Brady is most comfortable with, the safety net of New England’s offense.
However, as a 31 year-old player with a messy contract situation, he may be playing elsewhere in 2013. Backup slot receiver Julian Edelman has yet to establish himself on offense, and Bill Belichick has even experimented with moving Edelman onto defense. The Patriots signed slot receiver Anthony Gonzalez this offseason, but he has battled a number of injuries over the course of his career and recorded just five receptions in the past three seasons combined.
Texas A&M wide receiver Ryan Swope represents one potential fit should the Patriots decide to target a slot wide receiver in the NFL Draft next April. Swope would represent a bigger (6’0”, 205 pounds), faster (projected 4.50-4.55 40-yard dash time), and younger option than Welker.
Swope began his collegiate career with the Aggies primarily by contributing on special teams; he returned kicks (eight for 198 yards) and also recorded three tackles on special teams as a freshman in 2009 while adding 19 receptions and a touchdown. Swope made significant strides as an offensive contributor in 2010 by catching 72 passes for 825 yards and four touchdowns, and took another step forwards as a junior last season by catching 89 balls for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns. Aggies wide receiver Jeff Fuller was the more hyped, physically impressive prospect but regressed from his junior year and displayed inconsistent hands all season, prompting A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill to focus on getting the ball to Swope whenever possible.
Many of the routes which Swope was asked to execute in Mike Sherman’s offense translate to the ways in which offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels tries to involve slot receivers in New England’s gameplan. The Patriots emphasize wide receivers who can gain yards after the catch; Swope is often the recipient of bubble screens, slants, and other short routes which are designed to get the ball into his hands.
Swope’s impressive build allows him to run with a surprising amount of power for a wide receiver; he also demonstrates a fearlessness over the middle and a willingness to fight for extra yardage after contact. For this reason the Aggies have even utilized the former high school running back on a handful of reverses over his career. Swope has reliable hands and can adjust to balls thrown away from his body. His savvy allows him to ward off press coverage in order to get open, and Swope is agile enough to create enough separation to make the catch.
Where Swope’s draft stock ends up in 2013 will depend on how well he adjusts to the litany of changes which face Texas A&M’s program entering the 2012 season: former head coach Mike Sherman is now the offensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins and brought quarterback Ryan Tannehill and receiver Jeff Fuller to South Beach with him.
The Aggies will also face a significantly more difficult conference schedule now that they have joined the SEC; defenses will be increasingly focused on limiting Swope’s production in 2012, as he is one of the Aggies’ remaining offensive playmakers. Fortunately for Swope, A&M’s new head coach Kevin Sumlin plans to implement a spread offense with west coast principles which is designed to create separation in the passing game.
If Swope can replicate last season’s success amid a conference change, a head coaching change, a quarterback change, and a shift in the Aggies’ offensive philosophy, he could solidify his draft status as a second or third-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and draw interest from the New England Patriots as a potential successor to Wes Welker in the slot.
Read more about Swope in the Scouting Notes for Texas vs Texas A&M.