It was one of the more perplexing questions of the first couple of weeks of the NFL season: Just what the heck is going on with wide receiver Wes Welker and the New England Patriots?
The NFL's leading receiver in three of the last five seasons, Welker played just 64 percent of the Patriots' snaps in the season opener, then watched as Julian Edelman started in Week Two.
That led many in Boston to wonder whether Welker was being phased out of the Patriots' offense. Some in Buffalo wondered, too.
"You are kind of surprised," Bills cornerback Terrence McGee said. "I mean, he was leading the league in catches last year, wasn't he?"
He was, by a lot. Welker had 122 catches in 2011, 22 more than any other receiver. Despite those gaudy numbers — and the fact he's long been a favorite of quarterback Tom Brady — Welker was unable to work out a long-term contract with the Patriots. He's playing under the franchise player tag this year, with a salary of $9.5 million.
That couldn't have sat well with Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Welker is also 31, and New England doesn't usually hand out long-term contracts to players on that side of 30. Edelman is just 26, leaving some Boston media members to speculate he was being auditioned for Welker's role.
Things changed in Week Two, though, when 22-year-old tight end Aaron Hernandez suffered an ankle injury. Welker caught five catches for 95 yards in that game. Then, in last week's loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Welker played 72 of 82 snaps - the most of any Pats' receiver — and caught eight passes for 142 yards.
Of course, Edelman did not play in the second half, and Hernandez was still out, so questions will persist until the offense is again fully healthy.
"Wes is an important of the team, and Wes is somebody that we tried this offseason to sign long term, and we just weren't able to get there. That's not a function of either side doing something wrong, I think it's just a matter of, when you sit down at a negotiating table and two sides have a perception about what's right, and you get close, and you just can't get all the way there," Patriots President Jonathan Kraft said over the weekend in a radio interview with 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. "And that's what the situation was with Wes. I'm hopeful that Wes will finish his career a New England Patriot."
Welker feasted on the Bills last season in the teams' first meeting, catching 16 balls for 217 yards and two touchdowns. The 5-foot-9, 185-pounder plays bigger than his listed size.
"I'm pretty sure they're going to do something to get him his touches," McGee said. "He's definitely a tough guy. He goes in there, he'll make blocks. Outside of all the catches he makes, he'll put his head down when he gets the ball to try and get those extra yards. He's one of those receivers you can tell who's worked to get where he's at."
Hernandez won't play Sunday. In the four games he missed the previous two seasons, Welker played in three of them. In those three, his average catches went up by three and targets went up four compared to games in which Hernandez was also in the lineup. Edelman's role also could be limited Sunday because of that hand injury, so it's a good bet Welker will play a big role for New England.