Why the Patriots let Wes Welker walk away

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Wes Welker (left) was Tom Brady's favorite receiver.
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Wes Welker (left) was Tom Brady's favorite receiver.

New England spurned a fan favorite, but they're confident they can win without him

Wes Welker, one of the most prolific pass-catchers in the NFL, shocked Patriots fans on Wednesday by signing with the conference rival Broncos, leaving a huge hole in New England's offense.

One day later, New England already had his replacement.

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That the Patriots let one of the game's best receivers go so easily prompted outrage at home and criticism in the press. However, the signing on Thursday of Welker's replacement, Danny Amendola, signaled that the Patriots had been ready for life after Welker all along.

With Amendola, the Patriots found themselves a gifted slot receiver in the same vein as Welker. In 2010, with the Rams, he led the NFL in all-purpose yards with 2,364, 689 of those via receptions. And like Welker, he's been an effective kick returner, too. In 2009, he posted a league-leading 1,978 return yards.

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Unlike Welker though, Amendola doesn't have a reputation for dropping passes. And, at 27, he's five years Welker's junior.

The Patriots did have to pay slightly more, on a yearly basis, for Amendola's services. He's set to make $6.2 million annually over five years, versus the $6 million Welker will earn in each of his two years with Denver. But with the longer deal, the Patriots essentially locked up a younger, high-upside replacement for the remaining five years of Tom Brady's contract.

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To be sure, Welker's production can't be replaced by just one player alone. As Tom Brady's favorite target, he's caught more passes than anyone in the the NFL since 2007. What the Patriots can do, though, is replace that production by redistributing it to other players.

It's not as if the the Patriots are without options. They're fresh off one of the most dominant offensive seasons in NFL history, and Amendola will join a talented, young receiving corps that includes Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, and emerging superstar Rob Gronkowski. Even without Welker, that combo will be just as dangerous as any in the game.

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Under new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the Patriots had already begun to move their offense away from Welker last season in favor of those young receivers. While Welker remained an integral part of the team's attack, he accounted for just under 20 percent of the team's yardage, down from 23 percent the year before.

From Bleacher Report's Michael Shottey:

The Patriots believe that Tom Brady is the only cog their offense truly needs to excel. The pieces around Brady can change, and he'll still chase down history as one of the NFL's all-time best passers. [Bleacher Report]

The Patriots made signing Brady to a contract extension their biggest priority this offseason. Letting Welker walk shows that everything else is secondary.

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