- Mike Reiss, ESPN New England Patriots reporter
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When the Patriots lost to the Jets earlier this season, receiver Wes Welker was sidelined with a knee injury. Now Welker is back, the Jets are coming to town, and the natural question is: How much of a difference will that make?
A big one, obviously, so how about this question: Is Welker the Patriots' most valuable player?
A compelling case can be made for the incomparable Welker.
His 64 receptions tie for second most in the NFL, a total even more impressive when considering he missed two games.
He has been targeted 82 times by quarterback Tom Brady, according to ESPN's Stats & Information, which means his completion-to-target percentage (78) is easily the best of any receiver with more than 35 targets.
Meanwhile, his 662 receiving yards are fifth-most in the league. Of that total, 355 have come after the catch, ranking him third in the NFL.
And if it's not as a receiver, Welker is making a mark as a punt returner, his 69-yard return Sunday in Indianapolis the latest reflection of his excellence in that area.
"He's one of the best players on our team, one of the best in the league," Brady said. "Whenever he's not playing, you have to make up for it in other ways. Julian [Edelman] stepped in there the last time and did a good job against [the Jets]. But there is only one Wes Welker out there."
One of the most impressive elements of Welker's production is that opponents often know what's coming yet they still can't stop it.
He has six or more receptions in 21 of his past 23 regular-season games, and since 2007 he's averaging 7.4 receptions per game, the highest total in the NFL over that span.
In short time, Welker has evolved into Brady's top security blanket, the player most relied upon when the blitz is coming and whose instincts to run crisp option routes and sneaky receiver screens is one of the defining parts of the team's offense. While the long bombs to Randy Moss more easily catch the eye, Welker is "Mr. Consistent" in the short and intermediate areas of the field, most lethal working in the slot.
"Obviously, he's a tremendous player and he's a tough matchup problem for anybody," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "He's a tough dude. I think you can cover him outside, but he's one those guys that, I don't want to say he's impossible, but the task is large when he's in the slot to try to cover him."
It is often said that Moss's presence in the deep parts of the field open things up for Welker underneath, and surely, there is some truth to that. But this season, one could argue it's the other way around when considering that Welker has nine catches for 85 yards and a touchdown on third down, while Moss has 16 for 211 yards and three touchdowns.
Opponents have more often keyed on Welker on crucial third downs, creating more opportunities for Moss.
That, in many ways, is the mark of a most valuable player -- one who makes his teammates better. Welker did the same thing, but in a different form, for quarterback Matt Cassel last season when the Patriots had the highest percentage of passing yardage after the catch in the NFL.
So when it comes to the Patriots' most valuable player this season, there are a few worthy choices. One couldn't go wrong with Brady, Moss or even defensive lineman Vince Wilfork.
Welker is right there, too, his value highlighted that much more on a week like this.
Wes Welker might be the Patriots' most valuable player.