NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
The New England Patriots’ complicated contract negotiations with franchise player Wes Welker were among the organization’s most frequently-discussed storylines this offseason, and despite Welker’s decision to sign the franchise tender before the beginning of the regular season, the wide receiver’s future in New England remains as unclear as ever.
Welker has been on the field for just 105 of New England’s 149 offensive snaps (70.5%) after lining up on 1,211 of the Patriots’ 1,362 snaps last season (88.9%), including the playoffs. Welker’s reduced role with the club has been complimented by Julian Edelman’s increasing presence; Edelman participated in just 120 snaps last season but has already seen 98 snaps in 2012. Edelman was also on the field to begin the game against Arizona in Welker’s place; the 26-year old ultimately played in 75 of the Patriots’ 82 snaps in week two.
These factors have encouraged speculation that Welker’s role in the office is diminishing, that 2012 will be his last season in New England, and even that the Patriots have been scaling back his responsibilities in advance of a trade before the NFL’s October 30th deadline.
New England had been linked with wide receiver prospects even prior to the beginning of the regular season, and should a divorce occur between the Patriots and Welker, addressing the position will appear even more necessary. One intriguing prospect in the 2013 NFL Draft is Washington State Cougars split end Marquess Wilson.
Marquess Wilson was not an especially sought-after recruit in 2010; the three-star prospect was tall (6’3″) but lanky (180 pounds) and ran the 40-yard dash in a pedestrian 4.69 seconds. Rivals.com and Scout.com both regarded Wilson as a three-star prospect, and after receiving low interest from western universities such as Arizona State, Fresno State, Nevada, San Diego State, and UNLV, the receiver ultimately opted to sign with the Washington State Cougars. Wilson’s decision paid immediate dividends as he started eight games for the Cougars over 12 appearances as a freshman; Wilson totaled more yards (1,006) than any other freshman receiver in the country on 55 catches, scoring six touchdowns while averaging 18.3 yards per catch. Nine of his grabs gained 40 yards or more, establishing Wilson as a feared deep threat. He led the Cougars in receiving yards that season and was second in receptions and touchdowns. The performance earned him a place on numerous Freshman All-American lists, but Wilson’s freshman output would pale in comparison to his sophomore yield.
Wilson built on his freshman performance by starting all twelve games as a sophomore and improving his statistics in every major category: he concluded the season by setting Washington State records for receptions (82) and yards (1,388) while additionally scoring 12 touchdowns. Wilson’s reputation as a deep threat continued to grow as five of those touchdowns were on passes of 50 yards or more. His production unsurprisingly earned him recognition as a member of the All-Pac-12 Second Team as well as being named Washington State’s Offensive MVP. Hype for Wilson’s junior career increased when former Texas Tech coach and noted Air Raid master Mike Leach was named Washington State’s next head coach on November 30th, 2011. Leach’s pass-heavy spread frequently ranked among the top offenses in college football, with three of his quarterbacks – Kliff Kingsbury, B.J. Symons, and Graham Harrell – being named Sammy Baugh Trophy award winners. Through three games as a junior, Wilson has caught 13 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns and should be a highly sought-after prospect should he choose to forego his final season of college eligibility and declare his intention to enter the 2013 NFL Draft.
Wilson’s biggest strength as a prospect is his ability to separate from defensive backs and get behind opposing safeties on his intermediate and deep routes, and he is most frequently asked to run routes which create these types of opportunities. These frequent journeys downfield suggest that Wilson will run significantly faster at the NFL Combine than he did as a high school recruit, most likely completing the 40-yard dash in the 4.50 to 4.55 range. Aside from his height, his production, and his propensity for making catches downfield, one of the most interesting aspects of his game is the range of routes he can run on the field. On tape, Wilson runs such routes as short in and out routes, the deep in and out, the slant and go (“sluggo”) route, the drag, the out-and-go, the fly, the post and corner routes, and the screen, primarily as Washington State’s left wide receiver. His long arms give him a wide catching radius, and he adept at making catches with his hands instead of allowing the ball to get inside to his body, and he is effective at making catches in traffic as well. Wilson tracks the ball well in the air and knows how to attack the ball at its highest point and come away with acrobatic grabs; his body control makes him a dangerous threat near the sidelines. Wilson is also shifty in the open field and capable of gaining yards after the catch.
The most obvious concern with Wilson is his build; Washington State’s roster lists him at 185 pounds, and his ability to withstand punishment in the NFL may be called into question. Wilson does not see very much press coverage at the college level, and his ability to deal with physical cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage could also be an issue. Typically, wide receivers who cannot beat press coverage are slow to adjust to the NFL, which could worry a contender looking for immediate help at wide receiver. Additionally, Wilson may have to wait until he runs at the NFL Combine to dispel the idea that he could be more limited downfield than he is in college. Wilson has a tendency to round off some of his routes and does not have an exceptional burst; he is more of a long-strider on the field. Wilson’s hands are typically reliable but he does make some puzzling drops at times.
Wilson could potentially opt to return to school for his senior season depending on which underclassmen declare at the wide receiver position. California’s Keenan Allen, Southern California’s Robert Woods, and Tennessee’s Justin Hunter are three juniors considered very likely to go in the first round in the draft should they forego their final seasons of eligibility, and other highly-regarded draft-eligible wide receivers include Baylor’s Terrance Williams, Marshall’s Aaron Dobson, Oklahoma’s Kenny Stills, and Tennessee Tech’s Da’Rick Rodgers (who previously played for the Tennessee Volunteers.) However, Wilson has already produced at an extremely high level for two seasons, and may not have much chance of improving his draft stock by returning to school assuming he finishes his junior campaign on a high note. The vast majority of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s pass attempts last season were short or intermediate passes (less than 20 yards downfield), and aside from Brandon Lloyd, New England lacks deep threats at wide receiver. Washington State Cougar Marquess Wilson could make sense in the first or second round if the Patriots opt to focus on adding a downfield target in the 2013 NFL Draft.