It took Wes Welker three NFL seasons and a fortuitous trade to become a game-changing prototype.
Welker was an undrafted rookie whom the San Diego Chargers cut after Week 1 of the 2004 regular season. He gained some traction with the Miami Dolphins before his career shot upward with a trade that sent him to New England in 2007.
From there, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound slot receiver became one of the game's most prolific pass-catchers. Welker made five Pro Bowls and recorded 110-or-more receptions five times over the next six seasons with coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
“They were one of the first offenses to use the slot receiver on first and second down, where most offenses were doing it just on third down,” Welker, 38, the 49ers’ first-year wide receivers coach, said on the 49ers Insider Podcast.
“And really being able to take advantage of defenses that would stay in base personnel and basically try to match me up on a linebacker. New England always did a great job of trying to find those matchups.”
The game has changed over the past decade, as teams are not relying solely on a Welker-esque body type to be their slot receiver. Sure, the 49ers have Trent Taylor, who regularly draws comparisons to Welker, but the club also has Jordan Matthews (6-3, 215) running routes from the slot.
“There are certain quarterbacks that like more quick, in-and-out-of-breaks, sitting in the hole, that type of deal,” Welker said. “And some quarterbacks just like bigger targets. There are different ways, depending on what your scheme is and what the quarterback likes.
“And then also a lot of it is just having a smart guy that understands coverages and how to attack it, then using his skill set, whether it’s more bodying guys up and shoulder-punching through, or using quickness and acting like you’re breaking out and breaking in. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to it. You see both sides of it.”
Welker said he has yet to formulate a solid opinion on which style of slot receiver that 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo prefers, but he’s leaning toward the smaller, quicker player.
Welker said the 49ers’ passing game has a lot of flexibility because of the number of players who are capable of lining up in the slot.
“We have a lot of guys who can do it,” Welker said. “With all the formations and the way we move people around, I think it can be a lot of guys. I don’t think it’s just limited to Trent.”
Taylor had 43 receptions as a rookie – the same as tight end George Kittle in 2017 – before struggling with a back condition last season. Welker has been impressed with what he has seen from Taylor during organized team activities on the team's Santa Clara practice field.
“He’s been one of the bright spots in the spring and doing a really good job of winning on those choice routes and really understanding coverage and space and doing a really nice job out there,” Welker said.
Veteran addition Jordan Matthews has been impressive this spring, as he gives the 49ers a different body type out of the slot. Matthews, 26, registered eight touchdown catches in both of his first two seasons before being limited with injuries over the past three years. He signed a one-year contract with the 49ers in the offseason.
Welker also mentioned Richie James, Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis as returning players who can run routes from the slot. The team also expects to have the option of using rookie Deebo Samuel in the slot.
“The more guys you can have that can play all over the field, and we can formation people up, and do different things, can put the defense in more conflict,” Welker said.