On Saturday August 23, 2014 in Denver, Broncos’ wide receiver Wes Welker received his third concussion in 10 months during a preseason game against the Houston Texans. Safety D.J. Swearinger shouldered Welker in the head near the end of the first half. The play after Welker left the field, Peyton Manning threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders and then went after Swearinger to give him a piece of his mind for hitting Welker. In a post-game press conference Manning stated: “Obviously I’m concerned about Wes. I didn’t like seeing him come out of the game with a blow to the head. He had one of those last year that kept him out for a while”.
Wes Welker is most likely the best slot receiver in NFL history. Welker, who played for Texas Tech in college, was signed as an undrafted free agent with the San Diego Chargers in 2004. He left the Chargers that year and went to Miami to play for the Dolphins, where he was mostly used on special teams.
Welker’s career as a slot receiver took off when he signed with the New England Patriots, where he played from 2007-2012. With the Patriots, Welker reached 500 receptions in 70 games, which set the franchise and NFL record. He also ranks in the top five players for most yardage, and since joining the Patriots in 2007, he has caught more passes than any other player in the league. Welker was a staple in the Patriots offense and Tom Brady’s go to receiver. It was in New England where he truly capitalized on his role as a slot receiver and became synonymous with excellence in this position. After getting released by the Patriots, he went on to play for the Denver Broncos. After initial success in Denver, his career was sidelined when he suffered 3 concussions in a 10-month period.
Welker has become the face of concussions in the NFL. He is particularly susceptible to concussions as a slot receiver. Welker continuously made horizontal runs from the outside into the middle of the field, where the opposing team’s secondary charges at full speed to break up passes, and tackle receivers after the catch. Not only that, but Welker who is 5’9, is usually eye-level with defenders’ shoulders. Aside from the accumulations of hits throughout his career, Welker suffered three big concussions with the Broncos that caused him to miss games and practices. After the second concussion (which knocked him out for about a month), Welker began to wear a special, extra-large helmet to protect his head. He was wearing it when he got his third concussion and teammates and fans can only hope that it prevented an even larger one.
Welker, who is currently 34 years old, is not signed to an NFL team. A wide receiver and offensive threat as experienced and successful as he is should have been snatched up as soon as his contract with the Broncos expired. The reason he isn’t playing? His concussion history. In May of 2015, Dr. Stanley Herring of Seattle (one of the country’s leading concussion experts) cleared Welker of any possible concussions. Welker stated in an interview: “I knew there were concerns out there but on top of that I wanted to know for my own peace of mind. If there was something wrong, I wanted to know… For me, everything came out all good”.
Welker, who is still unsigned, would play again if given the chance. But it seems like coaches and players don’t want to see him take that risk. One of Welker’s former teammates Champ Bailey discussed in an interview his concern for Welker to continue playing. He has witnessed Welker’s concussions firsthand and expressed concern about the risk for permanent damage. Bailey stated: “It’s a serious thing when you start talking about your head, for him to have to worry about that at a young age that he is now, he has to think about those years to come”. Bailey goes on to say: “I understand why he has that desire to play. He feels like he has things — he wants the ring, he’s been to two really good programs that should have gotten him a ring, and he didn’t get it”. Does the desire of the Super Bowl and the love of the game outweigh the risk that Welker would put himself in if he did continue to play?
A few weeks ago, reports came out that Welker was working out with the New York Giants. Coughlin was impressed with Welker and his quickness in the slot, but didn’t sign him. The Giants need a consistent veteran receiver like Welker in their offense, so why did Coughlin let him go? The answer seems clear: by signing Welker, the Giants would be putting a lot on the line if he suffered another concussion. It is a risk that until extremely desperate, the Giants and other NFL teams don’t want to risk.
So what is the future for Welker? It is a shame to see such a talented, quick, and experienced football player unsigned this far into the season, but it may be good for his long-term health. Although he has been cleared to play, it seems clear that continuing to play football could seriously jeopardize his long-term health. For Welker the love of the game outweighs the risk. Time will tell if a team is in desperate need of a receiver as talented as Welker and if that is the case, he will be back between the lines.