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Wes Welker's absence will hurt Broncos in September

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The Denver Broncos will be without the best slot receiver of the past decade for the first four games of the 2014 season.

It's no coincidence that Wes Welker played a prominent role in the two greatest statistical offenses of all time -- the 2007 New England Patriots and last year's Broncos.

Welker is the best inside route runner of his generation, a safety blanket who reads defensive keys on the same wavelength as future Hall of Fame quarterbacks who have mastered the mental side of the game. Consistently beating single coverage, he's exactly where he's expected to be when Peyton Manning's internal clock strikes zero.

It's hard to place a value on that skill. No one needs to be reminded that trust is crucial to Manning's playing style. The Broncos can move Emmanuel Sanders, Andre Caldwell or even backup tight end Jacob Tamme to the slot, but they won't have the same mind meld as Manning and Welker in tight spaces such as key third downs and in the red zone.

When we predicted last summer that the Broncos would break records on offense, it was because we saw Welker and Julius Thomas destroying single teams while the defensive attention went to outside receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.

When Welker missed a Week 15 home game versus the Chargers, that security blanket was sorely missed by Manning. The Broncos failed to top 20 points for the first time all season, as just one player managed to reach 50 receiving yards.

Prior to Welker's Denver arrival, the 2012 Broncos finished second in the NFL at 30.1 points per game. That's still a touchdown less per game than Manning has averaged with Welker in the lineup.

Welker's absence isn't a death knell. Particularly against subpar defenses, Manning's aerial attack can still be lethal with Caldwell and talented second-round draft pick Cody Latimer in three-wide receiver sets.

Where Welker will be missed is in matchups with teams featuring physical defensive backs that rough up Denver's outside receivers at the line of scrimmage. It just so happens that two of those teams -- the Seahawks and Colts -- beat the Broncos last season and loom on the September portion of this year's schedule.

The latest "Around The NFL Podcast" previews the Packers-Seahawks opener and announces nominees for the new "Team of ATL."

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