Wes Welker’s work during the Patriots spring organized team activities and minicamp was no mirage.
It’s now in the books as another step in a speedy recovery from reconstructive knee surgery. And the next step comes Thursday.
Welker is ready to open training camp and compete in all drills – contact included – with his teammates, according to an NFL source. He still has to pass his pre-camp physical, but there is little doubt he’ll do so.
The Globe reported in June of a “likelihood’’ Welker would be available for the team’s opener Sept. 12 against the Bengals, and this is a big step in that direction.
The significance of the decision to let Welker practice Thursday is underscored in the team’s roster management.
The club has the option to place Welker on the Active Physically Unable to Perform list prior to training camp. That would keep the Patriots All-Pro receiver out of practice, but leave open the possibility he would be placed on the Reserve PUP, which would sideline Welker for the first six weeks of the season and allow the team to use his roster spot for another player.
To be eligible for the Reserve PUP in September, players must start training camp on the Active PUP.
In essence, by putting Welker on the field this week, the Patriots would burn the chance to fill his place on the roster for the first six weeks of the season, which is significant with the league’s stringent roster limits.
Welker tore his ACL and MCL in the team’s regular season finale in Houston Jan. 3. He allowed the MCL to heal, before having the ACL reconstructed Feb. 3. Welker also had offseason surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff suffered during the season.
Welker returned to practice at OTAs in the beginning of June, but was limited to individual drills during those practices and into the team’s full squad minicamp June 15, 16, and 17. Welker spent much of the spring rehabbing in California with a specialist, and did football-specific drills with quarterback Tom Brady in his time there as well.
The next step is full participation in football drills during practice.
Welker’s recovery timetable and the surgical procedure he underwent were not unlike what Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers went through in 2008. That January, Rivers tore his ACL, played in the AFC title game against the Patriots, had surgery days later, and returned to be a full participant in San Diego’s offseason program.
When the Patriots open their season, it will have been more than seven months since Welker had the surgery. Add that to what Welker’s already accomplished, and his availability for Week 1 seems a certainty.
"Seven months out? Yeah, it’s definitely a possibility," Dr. James Gladstone, co-chief of sports medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, told the Globe in June. "That would be good for anyone to get back that quickly, sure. But if he’s doing the things you’re describing at four months, then it’s quite possible, if not likely."
Welker is currently at 29 in our rankings, which is lower than where he normally would be if he was fully healthy. Preseason action will tell the full story. If Welker looks crisp in those games, feel confident in drafting him. This is also good news for guys like Tom Brady and Randy Moss.