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Welker won't have any more "rare" drops in New England.

Welker won't have any more 'rare' drops in New England.

The craziness continues, with Wes Welker signing with the Denver Broncos being the big story of day two of the league year. The Patriots responded by signing Danny Amendola, the least surprising move since Brandon Lloyd joined Josh McDaniels in New England last year. Arguably the biggest move so far this week has been Mike Wallace joining Dolphins, while Greg Jennings still seems likely to move on from Green Bay. Throw in Percy Harvin to Seattle and Anquan Boldin to San Francisco, and we’re seeing a lot of movement among the top receivers this year. Which gives me an opportunity to do a quick data dump on the best receivers to ever switch teams.

In some ways, it’s hard to find a comparable receiver to Welker. He’s been so productive for so long that it’s easy to be unimpressed with the 118 catches, 1,354 yards, and six touchdowns he had last year, but no receiver had ever switched teams after catching more than 101 catches in a season. Only two receivers — Muhsin Muhammad and Yancey Thigpen — gained more receiving yards in a season than Welker did in 2012 and then played for a new team the next year.

But Welker’s amazingly unique numbers are a product of playing in a very pass-friendly environment on a team that threw 641 passes last year. To compare players across systems and eras, I came up with a wide receiver ranking system last month. That will allow us to look at the best receivers to switch teams and not just the ones from the last couple of decades. For some perspective, Welker ranked 8th among wide receivers last season, although that’s without any Tom Brady-adjustment.

The table below contains a lot of information. It shows receivers who added over 200 yards of value over average in Year N and then played for a new team in Year N+1. For each player, I’ve listed his old team, his age in Year N, some traditional statistics, the amount of value added by the receiver, and his rank among wide receivers. Then starting in the “N+1 tm” category, we see his new team, his statistics in the new season, how much value he added in Year N+1 and his rank in that season.

Name
Yr
Tm
Age
G
Rec
Yd
TD
Val
Rk
N+1 tm
G
Rec
Yd
TD
Val
Rk
Yancey Thigpen1997pit281679139878421oti9384933-5836
Muhsin Muhammad2004car3116931405167483chi1564750416823
Buddy Dial1963pit261460129597031dal10111780-72233
John Jefferson1980sdg2416821340136661gnb13396324029
Harold Jackson1972phi261462104846583ram1440874139111
Roy Jefferson1969pit261467107996411clt1444749722319
Jeff Graham1995chi2616821301463410nyj115078864428
Laveranues Coles2002nyj251689126455905was16821204647212
Brandon Marshall2009den25151011120105676mia14861014327212
Terrell Owens2003sfo3015801102956310phi14771200145705
Keyshawn Johnson1999nyj271689117085587tam1671874835519
Don Looney1940phi23115870745202pit9101861678
Wes Welker2012nwe3116118135464848den
Art Powell1966rai2914531026114794buf6203464908
R.C. Owens1961sfo281455103254746clt14253072-95137
Ron Jessie1974det26125476134693ram144154735523
Brandon Marshall2011mia271681121464686chi1611815081110671
Anthony Miller1993sdg281684116274676den166011075-6730
Bob Mann1949det251266101444572gnb36891-15317
Terrell Owens2005phi32747763644211dal16851180136094
Paul Warfield1969cle271442886104208mia112870364888
Darrell Jackson2006sea2813639561041711sfo15464973-436105
Santonio Holmes2009pit2516791248541514nyj1252746614422
Bill Hewitt1936chi27121535864092phi11161975010
Tony Martin1998atl331666118164058mia166710375-1333
Keenan McCardell2003tam3316841174839315sdg73139314628
Percy Harvin2012min24962677336214sea
Quinn Early1995nor3016811087835917buf16507984-15646
Harold Jackson1977ram311448666635810nwe1637743620714
Willard Dewveall1960chi241243804535110oti7122003-22716
Peerless Price2002buf2616941252933214atl1664838312225
Otto Stowe1973dal24723389632512den8291-42873
Bob Grim1971min26144569173218nyg135671-62992
Al Baldwin1949bba26125371973062gnb12285553-34823
Lance Rentzel1970dal271128556529613ram14385345-2728
Art Powell1962nyj251464113082883rai14731304166322
Bert Emanuel1997atl271665991928818tam114163623828
Plaxico Burress2004pit271135698528717nyg16761214736713
John Gilliam1971crd261442837327712min1447103576651
Clyde Goodnight1948gnb2482844832744was10111500-89839
Keenan McCardell2001jax3116931110626319tam14616706-15948
Bill Schroeder2001gnb301453918924620det14365955-35773
Gary Clark1992was301664912524210crd1463818418818
Eric Martin1993nor321666950324111kan10213071-48480
Terrell Owens2008dal35166910521023317buf1655829510026
Henry Ellard1993ram321661945222712was1674139765765
J.D. Hill1975buf271436667722611det1120-5838
Roy Jefferson1970clt271444749722319was144770143029
Eggs Manske1936phi24121732502184chi1192253917
Tony Bova1943phi26101741952142crd9192872-7315
Jim Benton1942ram2692334512123chi9132353-8510
Andre Rison1994atl2715811088821013cle16477013-26759
Rob Moore1994nyj2616781010620914crd156390758226
Anquan Boldin2009crd2915841024420720rav166483774030
Eric Moulds2005buf321581816420322htx16575571-35085
Derrick Alexander1997rav2615651009920221kan15549924-5435
Billy Parks1971sdg231041609420214dal12182981-31969

The gold standard was set by Harold Jackson, who ranked as the #3 receiver in 1972 with the Eagles and then as the top receiver in the league with the Rams in ’73. Then last year, Brandon Marshall had a dominant season in his first year in Chicago. While Marshall (who had an easier transition because he was reunited with Jay Cutler) and Terrell Owens (a couple of times) had immediate success after switching teams, that’s still more the exception than the rule (of course, this ignores players like Randy Moss in 2006-07, because he was too unproductive in Oakland to make the cut-off). There’s no reason to think Welker will bust like Muhammad and Thigpen, but it’s risky to expect business as usual when receivers switch teams. Few positions are as heavily dependent on the players around them as wide receiver, and there is a learning curve involved when dealing with a new team, new coach, new system, and new quarterback. Making matters worse, these types of wide receivers are usually acquired by a poor passing team that expects the new receiver to be the savior. On the other side of the coin, generally speaking, the team letting the receiver move on usually has a reason for doing so.

Of course, few of those factors apply when talking about Welker in Denver. He’ll be playing with Peyton Manning and can take over the role filled by Brandon Stokley last year. Manning loves throwing to his inside receiver and a player that runs precise routes and can dominate the short and intermediate areas of the field fits Manning’s game well. I doubt Welker comes close to the numbers he produced in New England simply because there are too many talented mouths to feed (Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas aren’t going anywhere) in Denver. But Welker doesn’t need to put up monster numbers in 2013 to make the move pay off for the Broncos. As Mike Tanier noted, the signing will only slightly upgrade the Denver offense, but should significantly hinder the Patriots. In an AFC that appears to feature just two heavyweights, that’s more than enough to make Denver the clear frontrunner to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVIII. Then the Broncos capped off the day by adding Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie. It’s early on, but it’s been a good week for Denver so far.

{ 11 comments }
  • Sunrise089 March 14, 2013, 1:09 am

    Chase, I’m willing to defer to you since I think you do excellent qualitative analysis (especially since Football Perspective isn’t supposed to be a qualitative site), but do you really think 1) Stokley -> Welker is a smaller jump than Welker -> Amendola + Edleman? And, 2) will feeding Welker in Denver really be harder with Decker and Thomas than it was with Gronk and Hernandez, plus RBs catching passes in NE?

    I know nothing about Mike Tanier, so maybe I should give him more credit. To me though, his article was a lot of hand waiving. Welker is a system player, but ‘system’ is defined by ‘one of two completely different offenses Welker found himself in.’ Likewise assuming there is a fixed pool of production Welker can draw from in Denver, and all he can add is his YPC, seems very silly. Welker’s superior skills, if they exist, generate more yards and first downs, and hence more attempts. Putting Jerry Rice circa 1990 and Marvin Harrison circa 2000 on the Jets last year doesn’t mean they only get to share the 85 receptions their top two WRs managed.

    I think Tanier article illustrates how criminally underrated Welker is, and it bums me out that he’s only switching teams when his physical skills will degrade due to age. Yes he had Brady, but great WRs have had great QBs throughout the league’s history. I’m hardly an expert at diagraming plays, but while I’m sure there are some throws Brady gets to Wekler other QBs wouldn’t, just like Mike Wallace on a go route might make Tannehill look better, can’t a lower end QB throw a screen to Welker and get a stat boost through YAC? Is that throw hard? Sure some of the stuff over the middle might be, but again for every option route Welker got to run in NE, wouldn’t the super precise route running on prescribed routes between the hashes be easier for any QB to throw the ball to?

    Reply
    • Chase Stuart March 14, 2013, 10:52 am

      Sunrise089,

      You shouldn’t defer to me on anything. I think you bring up some good points.

      I think the reasons to expect Welker’s numbers to drop are:

      — The Patriots run a ton of playhs — they ran 101 more than the Broncos last yera and threw 53 more passes. That’s because they run a quick-tempo offense and set a league record with 444 first downs. So the numbers of all of their players are inflated. Now if you think the first downs are due to Welker, and the Broncos will run a similar style of offense, then you have a point. My opinion is that Fox is too conservative for that. I suspect if Denver’s offense becomes better, they’ll just end up running more in the 4th quarters of games.

      — Regarding supporting casts, the key to remember is Gronkowski and Hernandez missed a combined 11 full games and parts of others. So I think feeding him will be harder just because of the assumption that guys like Decker and Thomas will stay healthy.

      — Manning led the NFL in completion percentage, NY/A, and ANY/A. On some level, there’s a question of how much better can their offense really get? Denver already has an outstanding passing offense, so as good as Welker may be, the law of diminishing returns applies here.

      Reply
    • BLACKnBLUEnGOLD March 14, 2013, 12:30 pm

      Welker’s raw numbers might drop, but I think his efficiency stats will get a boost in Denver, based on his supporting cast. Denver’s talented pass-catchers are complementary players to Welker. They’re outside receivers who play a vertical game and force defenses to pull more defenders out into deep zones. All of the talent in New England last year was tight ends and slot receiver types. Some teams might be willing to take their chances with fewer deep defenders against them because nobody on New England was scaring people by getting deep on a consistent basis. I mean, does anybody really think Brandon Lloyd is as good as his one monster year?

      If I were scheming for NE, I’d run a lot of combo coverages with a decent corner manned up on Welker and a lot of players in underneath zones, and I’d venture to guess that your average NFL defensive coordinator is quite a bit smarter than I am. You can make it hard to get the ball to a slot receiver when the guys on the outside suck. Denver has Decker and Thomas who can outrun physical corners and go up and take the ball away from the fast ones, so you’re asking for trouble if you don’t keep two safeties deep. That means more room for Welker to operate. Brandon Stokley just had what was probably the second-best season of his career in that offense, and Welker isn’t 36 or practically talentless like Stokley is.

      I suspect Welker will take a significant number of targets away from the tight ends and backs in Denver. There’s no reason to throw the ball to Joel Dreessen or a back in the flat when Wes Welker is always open.

      Reply
      • Chase Stuart March 14, 2013, 12:33 pm

        I agree that Welker’s a good fit. The problem with the Patriots is that they’re versatile enough to run effectively out of multiple formations and they don’t always let the defense get set; that enables the quick pass to Welker to be even more effective.

        I think the Broncos offense is going to be great next year, but again, marginal returns. They were great last year.

        Reply
        • BLACKnBLUEnGOLD March 14, 2013, 12:44 pm

          Welker was effective in a no-huddle, quick-snap offense, but he doesn’t need a no-huddle, quick-snap offense to be effective. Most of his best years in NE, Tom Brady spent a lot of time at the line of scrimmage changing routes and blocking schemes, and Welker ran a lot of option routes, which is how Manning runs an offense and uses a slot receiver. I’m sure Denver will run plenty of no-huddle, too, since the team’s real offensive coordinator is out on the field, anyway.

          Reply
          • Chase Stuart March 14, 2013, 12:46 pm

            To be clear, I’m a big fan of Welker’s game. I think the Pats made a big mistake letting him go.

            Reply
  • Neil Paine April 2, 2014, 9:18 am

    Oh shit. My apologies in advance for the FiveThirtyEight data lab post on this exact topic coming later today.

    Reply
    • Neil Paine April 2, 2014, 9:19 am

      And somehow this post is from March 2013 as well… How did I miss this the 1st time around?

      Oh well. At least I used receiving AV in mine, so that’s one difference.

      Reply
      • Chase Stuart April 2, 2014, 1:43 pm

        No worries, dude. This post is garbage anyway since it doesn’t use True Receiving Yards.

        Reply

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