Would you rather have a 5 foot 9 receiver who weighs 185 pounds, runs a 4.61 40-yard dash, and has a 30 inch vertical or a 6 foot 5 receiver who weighs 236 pounds, runs a 4.35 40-yard dash, and has a 45 inch vertical? Or perhaps the question should be, would you rather have a receiver who has 45 receptions for 740 yards through five games or the receiver who has an NFL record 9 touchdowns through five games?
I am referring to Wes Welker of the New England Patriots and the Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions. They are polar opposites of each other. Welker made his living for years in the slot running, terrorizing linebackers on underneath routes. Johnson has been drawing double teams from the secondary and making athletic catches with men right on his back.
That is not meant to undersell Welker. He has been doubted his entire career. He came out of Texas Tech with obscene numbers. He caught 259 balls for 3,019 yards and 21 touchdowns through four years. His unimpressive NFL combine times left many convinced his numbers were a product of the Red Raiders run and gun system. Welker then signed as an undrafted free agent with the San Diego Chargers in 2004 and made it through training camp only to be cut after the first game of the season.
Next he went on to the Miami Dolphins where he emerged as a special teams star. Wes Welker is only the second player in NFL history to return a punt and kickoff for touchdowns, kick an extra point, and make a tackle in a game. The Dolphins gave a chance as the third receiving option in 2005, though the franchise’s quarterback shuffle gave him little opportunity to shine. With forgettable numbers he came into the 2006 season fearful of being cut, but he became the team leading receiver with 67 receptions for 687 yards and a touchdown.
Why give all this history? Because his is a story of perseverance. Welker signed a one-year contract with the Pats in 2007 and caught 112 passes for 1,175 yards and 8 touchdowns playing the slot as Randy Moss went to have his own career season. He has been a staple in the offense ever since, with a high of 123 receptions in a season and a low of 86. Welker is tearing up the linebackers and secondary racking up 6.4 yards after the catch and amassing 33 first downs. That is a first down 73 percent of the time he catches a pass from Tom Brady.
Welker’s detractors claim his numbers are the product of a system or that Tom Brady is responsible for his success. Certainly the magical connection between Brady and Welker helps, but this is a guy that caught 67 receptions for an offense led by Joey Harrington. In reality, New England Patriots tickets are big sellers in part because Wes is so good creating space and finding running lanes in the middle of the field, where so many receivers would prefer not to venture. Though he is not a model of the athleticism so many expect in the league, Welker has proven that his heart and quickness should earn him a big contract this upcoming offseason.
While Welker has been flourishing with Brady at quarterback, Calvin Johnson has been waiting for a chance to develop a similar connection with an able passer in Detroit. The Lions have had Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky, Daunte Culpepper, Drew Stanton, Shaun Hill, and a developing Matthew Stafford taking snaps behind center. This wild inconsistency has not helped his development. While Wes Welker has been criticized for being benefiting from the system, Calvin Johnson has taken flak for his relatively feeble statistics.
Johnson came out of Georgia Tech in 2007 as a seven-tool receiver with tremendous size, hands, speed, strength, body control, and hand-eye coordination. The Lions took him with the second pick in the draft after being called one of the best receivers in the history of college football. He signed a six-year for a possible $64 million with $27.2 million guaranteed and became the highest paid receiver in the NFL at the time. Obviously, with that money on the table and being that high of a draft pick, much was expected out of him.
His rookie season he finished the season with 48 receptions, 756 yards, four touchdowns, and a new nickname, Megatron. The critics waited until his third season before doubting his ability to reach his potential. Well, through five games this season he has 29 receptions on 47 passes thrown his way for 451 yards, 9 touchdowns, and 24 first downs. Johnson is being constantly double-teamed and is one of the few options for Matthew Stafford, who still has a tendency to overthrow his receivers, anyone with Detroit Lions tickets can attest.
So, do you prefer the overachiever or the prototype? Personally, I would take the player who I know can excel in any situation, and that is Calvin Johnson. His numbers may not equal Welker’s, but he has had to endure a humiliating 0-16 season and still has the drive to take on a cornerback and safety for an overthrown pass.