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Published: Thursday, 1/31/2008

Pats get a key receiver ... Moss too

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Wes Welker sets a Patriots record for receptions in a season with 112 - good for 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns. Wes Welker sets a Patriots record for receptions in a season with 112 - good for 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns.
WINSLOW TOWNSON / AP Enlarge

GLENDALE, Ariz. - There was no secret why the New England Patriots had an off year, by their standards, in 2006. The quarterback, Tom Brady, had few weapons in the passing game.

That certainly changed during the offseason that followed. Everybody sat up and took notice when the Pats obtained Randy Moss, arguably the best deep threat in the game, from Oakland for a fourth-round draft pick.

Far fewer noted that New England also brought in Wes Welker, giving up two draft picks to Miami.

That move didn't get past Patriots safety Rodney Harrison.

"I was ecstatic," he said. "I was so excited because [Welker] was probably the toughest guy to cover. Nobody could stick with him man to man. Now, he'd be somebody else's problem, not mine.

"When we went against the Dolphins he was just so quick, so tough, and he wouldn't mind coming in and crack-blocking on you. He could do so many different things. It was shocking he was even available because he's a great talent."

In 2006, Welker led the Dolphins with 67 catches. He also, for the third straight season, led the team in punt and kickoff returns. He had 156 touches in '06, which led all NFL receivers and specialists.

Why the Dolphins gave up such a talent for such a pittance - albeit more than Oakland got for Moss - is anyone's guess. During the season that followed, though, both Welker's former team and his current one chased perfection. The Dolphins failed, winning one game to mar what otherwise would have been an 0-16 season. The Patriots, meanwhile, will try to cap a 19-0 campaign on Sunday against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.

"I really don't think I want to comment on that," Welker said, a slight smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

All Welker did for the Patriots in '07 was set a season team record for receptions with 112, good for 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns. He has added 16 more catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns in playoff wins over Jacksonville and San Diego.

Nobody is going to confuse him with the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Moss. But when opponents design coverages to eliminate Moss - he has just two catches since the end of the regular season - the 5-9, 185-pound Welker is poison coming out of the slot and turns into a first-down machine.

"I knew what I could do outside as far as stretching the field with my speed," Moss said. "But I really didn't know how fast Wes was. I didn't know what he could do coming out of the slot. Once I saw him, I thought this could be something big because we can definitely play off one another. You've seen the results this year."

Sam Madison, a cornerback with the Giants, was a teammate of Welker's for two years in Miami.

"[The Dolphins] just didn't utilize him the way New England is using him and he's showing his worth," Madison said of Welker. "Once you get the ball in his hands, he does great things."

Troy Brown, the 15-year New England receiver who held the team's season catch record prior to Welker's arrival, said the difference for his teammate "was coming here and being put into a situation where he has good coaches and a good quarterback and people who know how to use him. The rest is up to him. He has a lot of talent. He's quick, he's not very big but he's tough, he catches the ball well and knows how to run with the ball after the catch. He's smart and knows how to get open."

Added Harrison: "Once again, it's a matter of [coach Bill] Belichick and [player personnel director] Scott Pioli grabbing guys who people overlook. They know football and they know football players."

This particular player, Welker, never takes a play off. When he's not catching the ball, the Pats consider him their best blocking receiver.

"As a lineman, when you have a guy like Wes, who's not the biggest receiver we've ever had around here, flying around and throwing his body in front of people, well, that's a lot of fun," said offensive tackle Matt Light.

Welker has heard about the size issue "pretty much since birth. When I came to New England I finally felt wanted. It was the first time in my life that had happened. I was excited about the opportunity because of the history of the organization, the type of players, and having No. 12 [Brady] back there.

"It was a great move for me and it has been a great season. But, now, all I'm doing is focusing on the here and now and getting ready for this next game. It's all that matters. With a pass rush like the Giants have, it's key that we get separation and get open quick and get positive yardage."

Welker has been a positive for the Pats since the day he arrived from Miami.

And, what's the big difference between the two teams and cities?

"Weather and women," Welker said. "And wins."

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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