ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Spurning Tom Brady for Peyton Manning had nothing to do with the cash, the catches or the cachet.
Wes Welker just wanted to play in Denver’s star-studded offense and continue his quest for a Super Bowl ring in the Rockies.
So, he traded Picasso for Michelangelo. Or maybe it was the other way around.
Welker is loath to compare the two premiere passers of his generation, suggesting that’s like asking an art aficionado to choose between the greatest.
What the Broncos had to offer was the chance to play with two rising young receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.
They combined for almost 2,500 yards and two dozen touchdowns in 2012, so Welker figured there was no way he’d post the kind of numbers in Denver that he did in New England, where he averaged an NFL-best 112 catches over the last six seasons.
Welker is on pace for 104 receptions and he’s already matched his touchdown total from all of last season with six, putting him on pace to challenge Randy Moss’s record of 23 set in 2007, when Brady threw for an NFL-record 50 TDs.
Manning is on a 64-TD pace, and Welker has a lot to do with that, even when he’s not the one spiking the ball in the end zone.
By commanding so much attention in the slot, he’s freeing up Thomas and Decker for more 1-on-1 opportunities and both have exploited those mismatches.
Throw in tight end Julius Thomas, and Denver’s “Fearsome Foursome” has 97 catches for 1,236 yards and 15 touchdowns so far.
No wonder Broncos boss John Elway said in the summer that he was “truly jealous of the weapons that Peyton gets to throw to.”
Any quarterback would relish this group of hard-working, selfless route-runners who stay on point every snap because they know if they can get open, the ball will probably be hitting them between the numbers.
Welker has proven especially effective in the red zone, weaving his 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame free for TDs with everyone eyeing Manning’s bigger pass-catchers, who average 6-foot-3 and 233 pounds.
“Well, he’s extremely difficult to cover,” Manning said. “... We get the screens to him, we’ve got the quick stuff to him. We put him in the backfield (Sunday). That was something we haven’t shown before. It’s a credit to him that he has that type of versatility. You can do different things with him.”
Welker hasn’t just made the Broncos’ high-octane offense run smoother, but he’s burnished the Broncos’ defense, as well.
Coach John Fox said his defensive players were even more enthusiastic than his offensive players when Welker chose Denver’s two-year, $12 million deal over New England’s $10 million offer “because we don’t have to cover him anymore except in practice.”
Cornerback Chris Harris was especially excited.
He’d had enough tussles with Welker to know this was going to be a good thing for both of them, and all those hours they put in against each other in the spring and summer are paying off as the leaves turn color.
“You’re seeing what he’s doing to the slot corners,” Harris said. “And I’m going out there, I’m not even getting thrown at. So, it’s kind of works both ways.”
It’s rare for one player to make such a big difference on both sides of the ball, but Welker isn’t one to relish his impact mid-stream.
He knows there’s plenty of progress still ahead.
After all, it took several seasons for him to get on the same page as Brady, and he and Manning are still working out the kinks.
“It doesn’t just happen overnight,” Welker said. “You almost have to mess it up on the field first and come back and talk about it and get it right the next time.”
Dallas coach Jason Garrett, who was the quarterbacks coach in Miami in 2005-06 when Welker was just starting out with the Dolphins, said he expected nothing less than Welker’s seamless transition in Denver.
“He’s a very difficult guy to cover. Quarterbacks love throwing it to him,” said Garrett, whose Cowboys (2-2) host the Broncos (4-0) Sunday. “So, really no surprise for me how quickly he got himself acclimated and how well he and Peyton are playing together.”