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When New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker made his first practice appearance in June during OTAs, his performance generated a lot of buzz. His performance in training camp thus far is no different.
By the time I arrived in New England, Welker's sharp route-running, his pass-catching on the fly and even his ability to absorb contact had already been widely reported. But Tuesday was going to be different. On Tuesday, Welker would face practice drills against a different team, the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints to be exact, that might not be inclined to take it easy on him. After all, who wants to get beat -- even in practice -- by the guy in the brace, the guy who's just seven months out from reconstructive knee surgery?
|Wes Welker makes a move around Saints defender Chip Vaughn during Tuesday's practice.|
Let's put it this way. The buzz continues. Welker practiced fully with the first team in the morning, participating in a variety of drills including one-on-ones and 11-on-11s, even in the red zone. During the course of practice, the blue functional brace on his left knee was the only indicator Welker was still in recovery from a major injury. He moved with good lateral quickness in both directions and showed that he could cut both inside and out. He made grabs in the presence of contact and even made a couple of nice moves after the catch.
Perhaps his most impressive maneuver, from my particular perspective, was during one-on-one drills when Welker came back for a ball from quarterback Tom Brady and had to stop sharply to make the catch. Welker was trying to evade the defensive back, who forced him to come toward the ball quickly, but he then had to decelerate on a dime to make the play. He made the catch, both knees flexed, trunk bent over from the momentum. While he did lose his balance slightly and put a hand to the ground to steady himself, the fact remained that he made this play rather uneventfully.
This is the type of play that places a good deal of shear on the knee, a force that the reconstructed knee should be able to absorb, but also one that tests the muscular strength around the knee, the balance and spatial awareness sense of the athlete and, perhaps most importantly, may test the athlete mentally in terms of wondering how the knee will respond. Will it be strong enough to support me? Will it buckle? Will it feel the same when the play is over? Welker's treatment of that moment just like any other in the practice was a solid sign.
When it comes to an injury like Welker's, the final phase of rehab has far more to do with regaining confidence in the knee than with overcoming significant physical hurdles. Given how far along he looks to be with his physical progression, I was curious as to what he thought he still needed to achieve in order to get back on the playing field. As it turns out, he's right in the middle of that final get-my-confidence-back-in-my-knee phase.
Because only Welker really knows what his body feels like when functioning at 100 percent, I asked him where he'd rate himself now. Welker said it's hard for him to put a percentage on it, adding, "It's definitely not where I want it to be but, you know, we're slowly getting there."
So what's missing?
"I think," Welker replied, "making the move that I made whenever I injured it and make sure that I can really hit that foot in the ground and go and feel confident with it and just not really worry about anything happening."
While his physical progress is encouraging and exciting, regaining confidence and trust in his knee clearly remains one of Welker's biggest hurdles. The more practice reps Welker takes, the more that confidence will build; however, overcoming any lingering anxiety will not fully occur until he engages in real competition. And right now it's still too soon to predict which week that will come.