FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The conspiracy theories have been out there. Maybe Bill Belichick is scaling back receiver Wes Welker's playing time because the sides couldn't come to a contract agreement this offseason.
Let's dismiss that one right off the top. Decisively.
Belichick might be stubborn, but he's not that stubborn. If Welker gave the New England Patriots the best chance to win in the eyes of Belichick, he'd have been on the field more over the first two games of the season. There is no doubt about that from this perspective.
So what's changed?
The easy answer is Welker's salary, which has spiked from $2.15 million last season to $9.5 million in 2012. Maybe Belichick knows this is his last year with Welker, who has suddenly gone from bargain to one of the NFL's highest-paid pass catchers, and he's already planning ahead for when Welker's not around.
We're not buying it. Not at all. While there is certainly some future planning involved on a regular basis with the Patriots -- such as the Sept. 1 trade for slot receiver Greg Salas (signed through 2014) -- there is one aspect of that scenario that simply doesn't make sense.
If Belichick already was thinking about life without Welker in 2012, and is already "phasing him out" as some have opined, he could have simply moved on this offseason without paying him the $9.5 million. If anyone appreciates a good savings, in addition to eliminating distractions, it's the Patriots.
They were willing to pay the price, and take on any distraction, so let's consider another more likely scenario for Welker finding himself as the No. 3 option behind Brandon Lloyd and Julian Edelman on Sunday -- a combination of merit and an evolving offense.
When we think of why a player should be on the field at this stage of the season, we often consider what has happened in the past, but Belichick and his staff have a different focus -- what the picture looks like right now. It's similar to how a franchise-defining decision was made back in 2001, choosing Tom Brady over Drew Bledsoe.
The bulk of information at this point is drawn from offseason workouts, spring camps, training camp and six games (four preseason, two regular season), and while Welker has set a high standard since joining the Patriots in 2007, he hasn't consistently been at that level since signing his franchise tender. He also had a pass clang off his facemask in the season opener, and had a third-and-9 sideline pass sail through his arms on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Edelman probably had his best offseason and training camp, and remains an ascending player in his fourth season. Belichick confirmed this on sports radio WEEI on Monday, saying, "Julian has improved a little bit every year. I think he had a good training camp."
So the gap between Welker and Edelman, which once was quite wide, has seemingly narrowed a bit.
Then consider the changing nature of the offense under new coordinator Josh McDaniels. As tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have grown in their third NFL seasons, more of the offense is running through them. They are most often attacking the intermediate, middle areas of the field, the same area where Welker has made a living as the NFL's most productive receiver from 2007 to 2011.
The Patriots kept Gronkowski and Hernandez on the field for every snap in the season opener, becoming the second team since 2008 to run every play in a game with two or more tight ends. If ever there was a clear-cut statistic of what the Patriots hope to become on offense, with the tight ends the focal point, that's it.
The multiple tight ends help create favorable matchups and make the offense more versatile and more balanced between the run and pass.
With that in mind, consider what Belichick and McDaniels are thinking when filling out the receiver depth chart, assuming both tight ends are healthy.
Lloyd, who played every snap Sunday against the Cardinals, is the lone true perimeter threat. Lock him in.
Then the question becomes Welker or Edelman? And how do their strengths complement the other three (Lloyd, Gronkowski and Hernandez)?
In analyzing the 12 snaps that Edelman was on the field over Welker on Sunday, one area of note was Edelman's run-blocking. Stevan Ridley had runs of 20, 12 and 10 yards, and Edelman was involved on all three runs, blocking cornerback Patrick Peterson on the 20-yarder -- pushing him wide -- and cornerback William Gay on the other two.
Welker works hard on run-blocking as well, but perhaps this is an area the coaching staff feels just as comfortable, if not more, with Edelman.
On the other hand, Welker still offers more spark as a pass-catcher -- his receptions of 25 (solid sideline grab) and 36 yards (up the seam) giving a stagnant offense some life on Sunday. How many times have we seen that since 2007? When the Patriots need a big play or a spark, you still want Welker on the field.
And that's why it's hard to believe that Welker was truly being phased out, an issue that is now on hold with Hernandez likely to be out for at least the next few weeks with an ankle injury.
Welker simply is no longer the focal point of the attack, likely because of a combination of merit and an evolving offense.