ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** No orange puff of smoke rose from the roof above Broncos headquarters Wednesday afternoon, but if they'd fired a few celebratory flares into the air, it wouldn't have drawn scorn from the residents in the southeast Denver suburbs.
Wes Welker's impact is potentially profound, on multiple levels.
On the field, the problems for foes are obvious -- which is something the Broncos witnessed first-hand in their fruitless games against the Patriots the last two years. You can cover two targets among Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Welker -- but it's nearly impossible to adequately cover all three. And with quality fourth and fifth options, the offense became an irresistible force; since the middle of the 2011 season, the Broncos defense has allowed an average of five touchdowns a game to the Patriots -- and 1.96 per game to everyone else.
Substitute Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker -- both 1,000-yard receivers last year -- for Hernandez and Gronkowski, and you have an offense that can pose the same unanswerable questions. Throw in the effectiveness of tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme down the seam and against linebackers, respectively, along with whoever catches passes out of the backfield, and the Broncos have the array of weapons to match the Patriots -- and the Colts of Manning's years.
If you don't think there are enough balls to go around for Welker, Thomas and Decker (which maybe should be shortened to WTD) think again, because Manning was the quarterback for one of just four seasons in which a team boasted three 1,000-yard receivers. That team, the 2004 Colts, was paced by Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley, who along with Tamme handled most of the slot work for the Broncos last year.
But Welker takes slot production to a new level.
Nobody had more yardage after the catch than Welker in 2012. No one in 2011 or 2008 did, either. He also led all wide receivers in that statistic in 2007 and 2009, but was narrowly beaten out by a pair of running backs (Brian Westbrook and Ray Rice, respectively).
Since joining the Patriots in 2007, the only year in which Welker did not beat all other wide receivers in YAC was 2010 -- the season immediately after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament. But he proved in the last two years that he was fully healed, and he is no more of an injury risk than any other receiver who'll be 32 this year.
Welker's age relative to the deal the Broncos struck illuminates the other aspect of his arrival.
First, the per-year cost -- $6 million, per multiple reports -- is a bargain for a commodity much more proven than new Miami Dolphin Mike Wallace, who took his talents to South Beach for twice that amount per season, even though he comes off a pedestrian campaign in which he moved the chains just 27.8 percent of the times he was targeted, which ranks 119th of the 137 players who were targeted at least 50 times. (Welker, by comparison, got first downs on 41.4 percent of the 174 times he was targeted, ranking 35th.)
Second, the length of the contract is right -- two years for a receiver who turns 32 in May. The ages of 32 and 33 remain highly productive for wide receivers who make it that far; there have been 48 1,000-yard seasons for 32-33 year-old receivers in NFL annals, compared with just 34 such seasons for any receiver 34 or older. Thirty-five wide receivers have had at least one 1,000-yard season at the age of 32 or 33. Barely half (18) of that group broke 1,000 yards after turning 34.
Welker's contract will expire at the same time as the deal Thomas signed as a rookie, which puts the Broncos in position to secure him for the long term. This will ease the expected eventual transition from Manning to Brock Osweiler, giving the Broncos a better chance at building a long-term, sustainably competitive team, along the lines of perennial contenders like the Steelers, Giants and Packers, prudent clubs who know which assets to keep, which to discard and how to use the draft to re-stock.
It's a winning deal in the moment, and it doesn't push the Broncos into a cap crunch in the future -- which is exactly what John Elway and his staff wanted most.