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Target practice: Wes Welker remains Tom Brady’s favorite receiver

12.22.10 at 12:23 am ET
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Since the start of the 2009 season, roughly one in every four times a Patriots quarterback has passed the football, it’€™s been in the direction of Wes Welker.

Targets have been compiled by the NFL since the start of the 2009 season, and while it remains an imperfect stat ‘€” a badly thrown ball from a quarterback can often go against the record of the receiver as opposed to the quarterback ‘€” it remains a good indication of the confidence level a passer might have in his pass catcher. And it’€™s clear that Welker has an extraordinary chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady.

A look at the NFL box scores reveals that since the start of the 2009 season ‘€” including the playoff defeat to the Ravens last January, when Welker wasn’t on the field ‘€” the Patriots have completed 714 passes on 1,077 targets for a target rate of 66 percent. In the last 31 games the Patriots have played, Welker has missed three of them. In that time span, a Patriots quarterback (usually Brady ‘€” backup Brian Hoyer only has 29 pass attempts since the beginning of 2009) has thrown 278 passes in Welker’€™s direction ‘€” more than anyone else on the team ‘€” and the receiver has 206 receptions, a catch rate of 74 percent, best among anyone on the team with at least 50 receptions. In all, Welker has accounted for a team-high 29 percent of all Patriots’€™ receptions and been targeted on 26 percent of the New England pass attempts.

(The numbers are all the more impressive when you consider the fact that, according to STATS Inc., Welker ranks third in the league this season with 10 drops, trailing only Terrell Owens and Reggie Wayne, who each have 11.)

As for the rest of the pass catchers, predictably, the biggest numbers belong to Randy Moss. In just 21 games in New England since the start of 2009, he was targeted 166 times and caught 97 passes, which was good enough to put him second on each list by a wide margin. (He is far off Welker’s catch rate, however ‘€” Moss caught 58 percent of the passes a Patriots’€™ quarterback threw in his direction.) Overall, he accounted for 14 percent of the receptions and 15 percent of the targets.

The New England offense has seen a lot of turnover in the last year-plus ‘€” the trades of Moss and Laurence Maroney, the season-ending injury to Kevin Faulk in Week 2 of the 2010 season, as well as the departures of Ben Watson, Joey Galloway, Chris Baker and Sam Aiken. Many of those who left produced good numbers when it came to catch rates ‘€” Watson, Baker (71 percent each) and Maroney (78 percent) all caught at least 70 percent of the balls thrown in their direction in 2009.

But the Patriots have been able to keep those numbers high because of the addition of rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, as well as running back Danny Woodhead. All three youngsters also have catch rates over 70 percent this season, with Hernandez (45 catches on 64 targets, 70 percent), Gronkowski (32 catches on 42 targets, 76 percent) and Woodhead (31 catches on 40 targets, 78 percent) all providing some reliability in the passing game.

When it comes to Gronkowski, a lot of that has to do with his 6-foot-6, 264-pound frame.

‘€œIf you get it in his area, he’€™s going to catch it,’€ Brady said after the recent win over the Jets. ‘€œHe’€™s so tall. He’€™s got long arms. He’€™s got huge hands. Wherever you put it with him, he’€™s able to come down with it. So, he’€™s got a great what they call ‘€˜catch radius.’€™ That is, he’€™s got a huge wingspan, he’€™s able to snatch that ball wherever you put it.’€

In addition, the addition of Deion Branch (46 catches on 69 targets, 67 percent) and the continued growth of BenJarvus Green-Ellis (10 catches on 13 targets this season for a total of 77 percent) in the passing game are also part of the reason the team target rate has risen since 2009.

Here are the complete numbers, culled from the official box scores:

2009
Randy Moss: 88 receptions ‘€“ 144 targets.
Wes Welker: 123 receptions ‘€“ 162 targets.
Ben Watson: 32 receptions ‘€“ 45 targets.
Kevin Faulk: 43 receptions ‘€“ 60 targets.
Laurence Maroney: 14 receptions ‘€“ 18 targets.
Chris Baker: 15 receptions ‘€“ 21 targets.
Sammy Morris: 22 receptions ‘€“ 33 targets.
Joey Galloway: 7 receptions ‘€“ 20 targets.
Isaiah Stanback: 3 receptions ‘€“ 7 targets.
Julian Edelman: 43 receptions ‘€“ 62 targets.
Fred Taylor 2 receptions ‘€“ 3 targets
Sam Aiken: 21 catches ‘€“ 46 targets.
Michael Matthews: 0 catches ‘€“ 1 target.
Matthew Slater: 0 catches ‘€“ 1 target.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis: 2 catches ‘€“ 5 targets.
Brandon Tate: 0 catches ‘€“ 2 targets.
Totals: 17 games, 415 catches ‘€“ 630 targets.

2010
Wes Welker: 83 receptions ‘€“ 116 targets.
Randy Moss: 9 receptions ‘€“ 22 targets.
Kevin Faulk: 6 receptions ‘€“ 11 targets.
Brandon Tate: 22 receptions ‘€“ 42 targets.
Fred Taylor: 2 receptions ‘€“ 2 targets.
Aaron Hernandez: 45 receptions ‘€“ 64 targets.
Rob Gronkowski: 32 receptions ‘€“ 42 targets.
Sammy Morris: 5 receptions ‘€“ 8 targets.
Julian Edelman: 4 receptions ‘€“ 9 targets.
Alge Crumpler: 4 receptions ‘€“ 8 targets.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis: 10 receptions ‘€“ 13 targets.
Matthew Slater: 0 receptions ‘€“ 1 target.
Danny Woodhead: 31 receptions ‘€“ 40 targets.
Deion Branch: 46 receptions ‘€“ 69 targets.
Totals: 14 games, 299 receptions ‘€“ 447 targets.

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Ben Watson, BenJarvus Green Ellis, Danny Woodhead
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