Pressure now on Gronkowski, Hernandez

March, 13, 2013
3/13/13
7:43
PM ET
The dependable security blanket is no longer with the New England Patriots. Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker bolted New England on Wednesday to sign a reported two-year, $12 million contract with the Denver Broncos.

Welker and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had an uncanny chemistry that was unmatched in the NFL. But what was underrated most about Welker was his durability and toughness -- and that will be missed significantly in New England.

Despite being 5-foot-8 and taking big hits, Welker has missed only three games in his eight-year career with New England and Miami. He played the full 16 games in six of those eight seasons.

Welker was the most dependable offensive skill player New England had. His exit puts a lot of pressure on tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to stay healthy in future seasons.

Gronkowski and Hernandez are talented enough to fill the void Welker leaves behind. But they cannot do it unless they are able to stay healthy.

Both have injury concerns. Gronkowski and Hernandez have missed a combined 15 games since being drafted by the Patriots in 2010. Last season alone, the duo played in only five regular-season games together. Gronkowski broke his forearm and Hernandez was slowed throughout the season by a bad ankle injury. Both were in and out of the lineup.

Meanwhile, Welker was always there to pick up things. When Gronkowski went down, Welker and Hernandez were dangerous enough to win games. When Hernandez went down, Welker and Gronkowski went to work.

The Patriots just lost the one constant that kept their offensive machine going. New England can still thrive without Welker. But Gronkowski and Hernandez must prove they are durable enough to take on the extra workload and stay healthy for the full 16 games.

James Walker | email

ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter

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