Wes Welker loved the idea. Of course he did – he did it first.
This offseason, as he has every offseason, Randall Cobb was looking for a challenge, a way to improve. He’d had a breakout year in his second NFL season, leading the Green Bay Packers in receptions (80) and receiving yards (954), but the mature-beyond-his-years wide receiver was still dissatisfied with his performance. While he saw growth and improvement, he also saw too many areas where he simply wasn’t good enough. From his route-running, to his releases at the line of scrimmage, to how he went into and came out of his breaks, to how he gained separation from opposing cornerbacks, Cobb saw too many shortcomings in his game.
“We’re talking about being a true pro, a student of the game, and just that mindset – not accepting being classified as a good player; he wants to become a great player,” Packers wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. “He wants to maximize his opportunities, maximize his moment, and that’s what it’s about. It’s about improving on a daily basis. You admire that. I mean, you wish you had 60 guys like that. Because guys like that win championships.”
So together, Cobb and Bennett came up with an idea: They would spend a portion of the offseason dedicated to breaking down the film of wide receivers league-wide who resembled the 5-foot-10, 192-pound Cobb – whether it be in stature, height, athleticism or their role in their offense.
Among the players they decided to study were the Carolina Panthers’ Steve Smith, the New York Giants’ Victor Cruz, the San Francisco 49ers’ Michael Crabtree and, yes, Welker, the now-Denver Broncos wide receiver who in 10 NFL seasons with Miami, New England and Denver ranks 27th all-time in receptions.
A five-time Pro Bowler who caught at least 100 passes in five of his past six seasons, Welker enters the Broncos’ game Sunday against Jacksonville with 799 career receptions for 8,895 yards and 45 touchdowns, including 31 catches for 315 yards and seven touchdowns so far this season.
And what did Welker, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Texas Tech in 2004, do when he was a younger player desperate to improve? ‘
Exactly what Cobb is doing with him.
“I mean, that's what I did,” Welker said when told of Cobb film work. “I studied Wayne Chrebet and Tim Dwight and some of those guys.”
The 5-10, 188-pound Chrebet had his biggest season with the New York Jets in 1998 (75 catches, 1,083 yards, eight TDs) and the 5-8, 180 pound Dwight had most of his production as a returner, although he did catch 50 passes for 623 yards in 2002 with San Diego.
The 5-9, 190-pound Welker signed with San Diego when he went undrafted, but the Chargers released him at the end of camp. He spent three seasons with the Miami Dolphins before being traded to New England before the ’07 season, and he flourished with the Patriots. After catching only 96 passes his first three NFL seasons, he caught 112 in 2007, 111 in 2008, 123 in 2009, 86 in 2010, 122 in 2011 and 118 in 2012.
After signing with the Broncos as a free agent this offseason – much to the disappointment of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady – Welker is on pace to catch 99 passes for 1,008 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.
While Welker joked that “if you catch as many balls as I have” other players are bound to wonder about his production, he also said it’s “for sure” an honor that Cobb has so much respect for him. And for Cobb, watching Welker made sense. He enters Sunday’s game at Baltimore with a team-leading 25 receptions for 325 yards (third on the team) and two touchdowns (tied for second), putting him on pace for 100 receptions for 1,275 yards and eight TDs.
“It’s a copycat league,” Cobb explained. “You break down everything. Whenever you break down yourself, you break down your releases, you break down in and out of your breaks, you break down leverage, you break down different things. So just trying to pick up and add different things from all those guys and seeing how they use their body type, how they use their quickness, their speed, their strength, just using all those different things and adding them into one as far as mixing them with myself.”
The film study was done in two segments: Cobb and Bennett would sit together in the wide receivers room and watch plays together on the projection screen, or Bennett would send specific cut-ups of various players to Cobb on his iPad playbook while emailing notes about what to watch most closely on each clip.
“I would pre-plan as far as what we were trying to get accomplished – ‘Look at this, look at that,’” Bennett said. “Maybe it’s the release, maybe it’s the stem, maybe it’s the technique used to create more separation, things like that. The goal is to improve, so we’re talking about the way we use our hands to get off press, things like that. Not just talking about it, talking through technique, ‘Here’s what we want to do,’ but now, seeing video of different guys around the league.
“There’s a reason why a guy like (Welker) has had the production that he’s had. When you look at the success he’s had, it validates things. That’s (only) one example. All of those guys, we felt brought something different to the table.”
With Smith, who’s in his 13th season in Carolina, Bennett wanted Cobb to not only look at his techniques – Smith has 790 career receptions for 11,655 yards (24th-most in NFL history) and 64 TDs, including 18 catches for 203 yards and one TD this season – but also his approach.
“The one thing that certainly jumps out when you’re watching him on tape is just his tenacity, his attitude, his will, his passion,” Bennett said. “And that’s Randall. That’s how he plays the game as well. So that’s a natural for him to study and want to look at the things that he was able to accomplish.”
The approach has been working. Offensive coordinator Tom Clements said Cobb has improved his route running this season – “He’s a smart player, he understands defenses and he rarely makes a mistake,” Clements said – and has also continually improved his rapport with quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
And while Cobb said he will likely do the same thing next year with other receivers, Bennett looks at Cobb’s career arc and has a prediction of his own.
“I think he certainly benefitted from those guys we looked at. He took some of the information and was able to make it his own,” Bennett said. “I think people will probably be studying him at some point.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.