Jon Scott: Welker is – as Tom Brady so aptly named him – like man's best friend (a Labrador retriever). He was everywhere in camp, and even when he was on the wrong field during minicamp, you could hear the receivers and the receiver coach yelling for him. Welker ran – not jogged – ran to his position drills, and then proceeded to out-hustle the other receivers in those drills for the next 10 minutes. The guy is amazing.
When I interviewed Wes, I was immediately drawn to his Southern drawl, and his very personable approach to the media. He's an instant hit, with his QB, the coaches, his teammates and the media. Like Tim Dwight, Welker is blessed with that "little white guy" quickness that will do well in New England's offense.
As we (the media) sat on the bleachers watching practice, the conversation wasn't about Randy Moss, it was about Welker. His name came up constantly. Teams are going to have a major problem covering him in this Pats offense. Sure, Moss, Stallworth and Watson are going to get their catches, but we all felt Welker is going to be the grease in the gears. He will be the third-down target Brady trusts. You can see the chemistry building already. We expect big things out of Welker up here.
Q. There's a perception that the addition of Randy Moss, in addition to Welker and Donte' Stallworth, will make the New England offense unstoppable. Is that the feeling you have?
JS: Unstoppable? No. Hard to cover? Undoubtedly.
Just as we saw last year when the Patriots played the Vikings and Minnesota had one of the best rush defenses in the league, the New England coaches completely changed how they attacked Minnesota by spreading the ball around using three- and four-wideout sets. By the end of the game the Patriots blew the doors off one of the top-ranked defenses in the league at that point, and showed how to game-plan for Minnesota.
Expect the rest of the NFL to watch carefully how the first few games of the 2007 season play out with New England's offense. They'll try to see how teams like the Jets and the Chargers game-plan for the high-powered offense. It won't take long for teams to find ways to defend the Patriots, and their spread offense. The feeling I get just watching these guys, is that it won't matter how teams defend the Patriots. If the line can give Brady enough time, then he's going to find ways to get the ball to the open guy.
What Brady does better than most other quarterbacks in the league is to find the open man. With all the weapons at his disposal, I think he'll have a much easier time finding out where he wants to go. It's just a matter of those receivers (or backs) to make plays after he gets the ball to them.
Q. How will the Pats use Adalius Thomas, and how big of an impact do you think he can make for the Pats defense?
JS: Watching Adalius Thomas at minicamp gave us an early indication of how the team may move him around. He's big – real big – compared to the other linebackers, and he moves pretty quickly. If New England can move Thomas around, let (Junior) Seau and (Tedy) Bruschi man the middle while (Mike) Vrabel and (Rosevelt) Colvin manage the outside, you're going to see some unique five-inebacker sets.
Thomas gives New England that wild-card factor it's been struggling to find since its last Super Bowl appearance. I think he'll have multiple roles on the team, but look for him to be moved around. That's the early indication, and one that makes the most sense for this defense.
Q. What player is most likely to have a breakthrough season, and what player might well experience a significant drop-off?
JS: Breakout seasons are hard to predict in New England. Many experts thought Chad Jackson would have a stellar season last year, and then he suffered a number of injuries limiting his playing time. If pressed, I'd have to say Wes Welker would have a banner year. I know he caught 67 passes last year, but he now has Tom Brady getting the ball to him. It is more likely Welker will blow past his 10.3 ypc average from Miami. If he does have the kind of year we expect, then he'll put himself on the map of top wideouts in the NFL, not just live off the reputation he has as a quirky little possession receiver who can return kicks.
A significant drop-off has to be Reche Caldwell. As I noted in the NFL Rountable, Caldwell is fighting for playing time, and possible roster spot, with four new receivers plus Chad Jackson and possibly Troy Brown. The Patriots used Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell as their primary receivers in the 2006 postseason. Expect that to change significantly with Randy Moss, Donte' Stallworth and Wes Welker as the players who will be given Caldwell's playing time.
Q. The Patriots are viewed by many as an early Super Bowl favorite. Give us one reason for optimism for the other teams in the AFC East?
JS: I can't.
OK, I will for the sake of the question, but honestly, unless Tom Brady gets wiped out, or the injury bug strikes again in Foxboro, I don't see a lot of other opportunity for other teams in the division. You'll notice New England took it upon themselves to not only add talent, but to create the ability to completely morph both their offense and their defense based up on the opponent's strengths.
Much was made of Eric Mangini's success against the Patriots last season. Some labeled him "Mangenius." The part they're overlooking is that Mangini knew how to game-plan against last year's offense because he had been doing it for so long. New England didn't have the talent to completely change their look (on offense or defense), so they struggled to win the battle of execution. With four new WRs, a healthy group of linebackers, and some depth in the secondary, the Patriots now have the ability to change formations rather than rely on the experience of the personnel on the field. They'll adjust to each opponent, sometimes using multi-receiver sets, other times using multi-tight end (H-Back) looks.
The one thing that has always worked against New England, and Miami fans know this, is pressure on Tom Brady. If Miami – or any other division opponent – can get to Brady before the receivers get open, then that's one way they can win. There's always hope in that area. The Patriots' offensive line struggled at times to protect Tom Brady. He took some vicious hits, but was able to bounce back. If the O-line can be exploited, that may be the key to derailing their Super Bowl aspirations.