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March 13. 2013 9:59PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Welker out, Amendola in


New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker (83) during the AFC Divisional Round playoff game against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)
SIX MONTHS later, the Patriots finally delivered their message, and in decisive fashion. The hints and whispers of September were muted by injury, and silenced by need, but Wednesday afternoon New England screamed it loudly and clearly enough that it resonated all around the NFL.

The Patriots are done with Wes Welker, a conclusion they apparently reached when they tried to reduce his role at the start of 2012, and a decision that 118 catches couldn't reverse. If they wanted to retain him they certainly could have, but they were unwilling to trump even the two-year, $12 million offer he accepted from the Broncos.

The brevity and bargain of that deal saying everything about how hard the Patriots tried to keep the franchise's all-time leading receiver - especially when followed later in the day by news that New England had signed ex-Ram Danny Amendola to a five-year pact worth $31 million.

"Agreed to terms on a 2-yr deal with Wes Welker," Broncos vice president John Elway tweeted 24 hours and 54 minutes after the Patriots dared Welker to walk. "Excited to have Wes join the Broncos. His production & toughness will be a great asset!"

Tom Brady knows that better than anyone, and two weeks after restructuring his own contract in a way that freed money for a potential Welker deal he was "beyond enraged" upon learning of the terms to which Welker agreed with Denver, according to CSNNE.com. "Disgrace" and "disservice" were words Brady used in describing the situation, that report said - and it makes all the sense in Foxborough that he'd be angry, considering how much the quarterback counted on his buddy.

Even after catching only three balls in the season opener, then getting on the field in Week 2 only after Aaron Hernandez sprained his high ankle, Welker finished the year with 118 catches for 1,354 yards. That's exactly as many yards as the rest of the Pats' receiving corps combined. The others had four more catches, though that total, 122, is as many as Welker had himself a year prior.

And that's not unique to last season. Since the start of 2008, Welker has 560 catches for 6,284 yards - while New England's other receivers have caught 76 fewer passes while gaining less than 400 more yards over the course of five full seasons.

The Patriots don't typically pay for past performance. And they shouldn't. Not for an oft-pummeled receiver who'll be 32 in about six weeks. But the Pats could've beaten two years and $12 million without taking on serious long-term risk, especially considering that Welker still appears plenty capable of playing at a Pro Bowl level.

This past season he ranked second league-wide in catches. Eighth in receiving yards. First in yards after the catch (688). Tied for fourth in receptions inside the opponents' 10-yard line. And tied for second in the AFC in first-down catches on third down (21). Then he added 16 catches for 248 yards in two playoff games, and scored the Pats' only touchdown in the AFC championship.

His detractors say Welker was a product of the system, and that his job was easier than that of an outside receiver who makes plays down the field. But the Patriots went 76-20 and averaged 502 points in his six seasons. If it was that easy, every team would do it.

Other critics point to his increasing number of dropped passes - and specifically a pair of high-profile drops, one in Super Bowl XLVI and another in January's AFC title game. But they should consider the context of those would-be catches, and what it says about the receiver's importance and his ability.

As he leaves it can't be overlooked that in those biggest of moments not only did Brady look to Welker, but Welker managed to work his way wide open despite the defense knowing the ball was headed his way.

Now that challenge figures to fall to Amendola, whose new contract makes even clearer that the decision to move on from Welker wasn't really about money (just compare the size and duration of the deals), who's two inches taller and four-and-a-half years younger than Welker, and who played for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in St. Louis.

Amendola has had trouble staying on the field the past two seasons, with a broken collarbone limiting him to 11 games and 63 catches for 666 yards in 2012, however the Patriots prioritized him with the expectation he'll be healthy enough to adequately fill Welker's role - and perhaps to even help the offense evolve to the next level, where it's truly centered around the twin tight ends they made major commitments to last offseason.

There's risk there, of course, particularly given the Patriots' struggles to find reliable weapons at receiver. But Amendola's familiarity with McDaniels should help ease the transition. So should the focal-point presence of Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez, and former Ram teammate Brandon Lloyd (if he sticks around). The club could also still re-sign ., who they like.

Remember, it was Hernandez and Edelman that started Week 2 against Arizona, while Welker stood on the sideline and watched. While word that Welker was being phased out began to be whispered.

The Patriots were trying to tell us something then. It wasn't until Wednesday, though, that they finally made us listen.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.

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