THE EAGLES have had just a tiny bit of trouble with slot receivers the last few games. Eddie Royal's seven catches for 90 yards and three touchdowns added up to the most unwelcome surprise of several in a 33-30 loss to the San Diego Chargers. Donnie Avery busted loose for seven catches and 141 yards, including a couple of third-and-long backbreakers, in the 26-16 Eagles loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Against that backdrop, Wes Welker jitterbugs into the weekend picture.
Welker, 32, signed with the Denver Broncos as a free agent this past offseason, after a 6-year run with the Patriots that included three successive seasons with more than 110 catches, 3 years in which he led the NFL in receptions, and five Pro Bowl berths. In three games so far as part of Peyton Manning's varied arsenal, Welker has 19 catches for 190 yards and four touchdowns.
This does not seem like a promising development for the visitors and their 30th-ranked defense, though at least with both Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher healthy, the Eagles will be able to devote Brandon Boykin to the slot.
Boykin, the second-year corner the Birds think has star potential, said he isn't going to Denver in awe of the NFL's consummate slot receiver.
"I feel like it's a perfect matchup for me, being somebody that's just as quick, just as shifty," said Boykin, who noted he won't have to fight a height disparity, with Welker listed at 5-9 and Boykin at 5-10. "I don't think I'm at a disadvantage at all. I know he's a great receiver, but I'm a great cornerback. I pride myself on . . . rising to the occasion."
Boykin said being "shifty," like Welker is, is "better than being fast, when you're in the slot . . . You've got two-way goes and you're low to the ground, so nobody can really get a jam on you. All that works in his favor."
Boykin said he has studied diligently.
"I know his tendencies, I know what they do on certain downs and distances, but you can only do so much studying," Boykin said. "A lot of people can know what's coming and still not stop the play. It's really about me, it's not about Wes Welker, it's not about Peyton Manning. It's about our defense, sticking to our fundamentals and doing what we're supposed to do."
Eagles safety Patrick Chung seems unlikely to play Sunday, Chung not having practiced this week with a shoulder injury. Chung played 4 years with Welker in New England, practiced against him daily. What advice would he give Boykin and other Eagles defenders?
"Play to your help," Chung said. "Get your hands on him. But he's a good receiver; you can say all you want to say, if you're not doing your assigned technique, you're not going to be able to cover him. He's that good."
The Eagles' slot receiver, Jason Avant, also exemplifies the position's durable, hard-work, sure-hands mold. Avant is a bigger body who lacks Welker's low-center-of-gravity change of direction, but Avant studies everyone who plays the position, trying to get better.
"He's going to play hard, he's going to focus and concentrate the entire game. Usually, when guys are feeling bad for themselves in the third and fourth quarter, being out there [too] long, he's still going hard," Avant said. "Eventually, he cracks a lot of the defenses just by doing it over and over again. He does a great job on option routes, seeing the coverage. If you're in the slot, you've got to be able to recognize coverage. He does that really well."
When Welker talked with reporters in Colorado this week, he was asked if the Broncos' top-ranked offense has "swagger."
"We expect to go out there and score every time we're on the field," he said. "That's just the way we feel and the way we go out there and attack. Anything short of that is a failure to us."
Welker is a great story - undrafted out of Texas Tech, not even invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, cut after the preseason by the Chargers in 2004 so they could add - Eagles trivia here - safety Clinton Hart, who had been waived by the Birds after starting nine games in place of injured Brian Dawkins in 2003. Then-Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer has called it the worst decision he ever made, though Hart went on to play in San Diego until 2009.
Welker started to make his mark as a returner when the Dolphins picked him up in '04; he caught no passes as a rookie. When he became a restricted free agent after his third year in Miami, there was talk of a "poison-pill" offer from the Patriots that the Dolphins wouldn't be able to match. Miami traded Welker to New England for second- and seventh-round draft choices, which the Dolphins used on Samson Satele and Abraham Wright. This might have been a bigger goof than Schottenheimer's, given that Miami had 3 years to assess what Welker was capable of, instead of one training camp, before exiling him.
In New England, with Tom Brady, Welker became what Eagles coach Chip Kelly this week called "one of the all-time great receivers."
Kelly talked about Welker's "ability to control the middle of the field, create such mismatch problems for you. [He] challenges you from a personnel standpoint."
"To have that type of guy that can play between the two outside guys, between [Eric] Decker and Demaryius [Thomas], it makes it difficult just because of the way he understands coverage," Kelly said. "There's a lot of times when you think, 'Hey, that's a pretty good defense,' but he still comes up with a big play."
On Twitter: @LesBowen