Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) stands on the sideline with wide receiver Wes Welker during the second half of an NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
ENGLEWOOD, CO - JULY 25: Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker (83) stretches during day two of the Denver Broncos 2014 training camp July 25, 2014 at Dove Valley. (Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
JERSEY CITY, NJ - JANUARY 29: Wes Welker #83 of the Denver Broncos speaks to the media during an availability January 29, 2014 in Jersey City, New Jersey. The Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks will meet at Super Bowl XLVIII at Metlife Stadium on February 2, 2014. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - JULY 21: Wes Welker #83 of the Denver Broncos poses for a portrait at Half Hour Power at Cherry Creek North on Monday, July 21, 2014 in Denver, Colorado. The Denver Broncos training camp starts on July 24, and runs through August 15. (Photo by Kent Nishimura/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - AUGUST 23: Houston Texans strong safety D.J. Swearinger (36) puts a big hit on Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker (83) after a catch up the middle during the second quarter August 23, 2014 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium. D.J. Swearinger; was flagged on the play. (Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - AUGUST 28: Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) talks with Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker on the sidelines during their game against the Dallas Cowboys August 28, 2014 at AT&T Stadium. (Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
ENGLEWOOD, CO - AUGUST 01: Wes Welker of Denver Broncos (83) is warming up for Denver Broncos 2014 training camp at Dove Valley. Englewood, Colorado. August 01. 2014. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
NEWMARKET, ENGLAND - JULY 12: Frankie Dettori talks to Wes Welker, wide receiver for NFL Team The Denver Broncos, the owner of Undrafted at Newmarket racecourse on July 12, 2014 in Newmarket, England. (Photo by Julian Herbert - Pool / Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - FEBRUARY 02: Wide receiver Wes Welker #83 of the Denver Broncos speaks to the press after Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium on February 2, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Seahawks beat the Broncos 43-8. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker stands on the sidelines against the San Diego Chargers in the third quarter of an NFL AFC division playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, in Denver. Welker was wearing a larger than usual helmet after suffering two concussions in December. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - FEBRUARY 2: Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker (83) walks through the Seahawks confetti after being defeated by the Seahawks 43 to 8. The Denver Broncos vs the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey Sunday, February 2, 2014. (Photo by Hyoung Chang//The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Anna Burns, left, and Wes Welker are seen at the 30th Running of the Breeders' Cup World Championships Day 2, on Saturday, November 2, 2013 in Arcadia, Calif. (Photo by Dan Steinberg/Invision for Breeders' Cup/AP Images)
Newly acquired Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker speaks at an NFL football news conference announcing his $12 million, two-year contract, Thursday, March 14, 2013, in Englewood, Colo. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker (83) gestures to fans as he leaves the field after their 23-16 win in an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. Welker tied Jerry Rice's NFL record by making at least 10 receptions for the 17th time. He had 12 catches for 103 yards and a score. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
New England Patriots' Wes Welker walks off the field after the 24-34 loss to the Seattle Seahawks of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
FILE - In this Sept. 25, 2011 file photo, New England Patriots' Wes Welker (83) runs against the Buffalo Bills during the second half of an NFL football game in Orchard Park, N.Y. Welker might be overshadowed in the Patriots' passing game. But he did lead the NFL in catches and yards receiving, so the Ravens better pay attention in Sunday's AFC title game. (AP Photo/David Duprey, File)
BACK TO SLIDE
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) - The Denver Broncos will be without Wes Welker for the first four games of the season after the NFL said the receiver violated the league's performance-enhancing drug policy.
Normally, the league announces such violations on Monday. News of Welker's ban didn't come down until late Tuesday, after the league offices had closed and the Broncos had already finished drawing up blueprints for their opener against Indianapolis, undoubtedly with Welker playing a prominent role.
ESPN first reported Welker's suspension, saying the violation had to do with amphetamines.
Welker told the Denver Post in an email that he was "as shocked as everyone at today's news." He noted he's meticulous about what he puts in his body and would "never knowingly take a substance to gain a competitive advantage in any way."
The 11th-year pro who's been the NFL's top slot receiver over the last decade added that he never concerned himself with the league's drug rules but now realizes those policies "are clearly flawed."
While it takes multiple violations of the league's substance-abuse policies to trigger a suspension, a four-game ban is issued for a single violation of the NFL's ban on performance-enhancing substances.
"Tonight's news regarding Wes is very disappointing, but we understand the league's authority in this area," coach John Fox said in a statement. "While it's unfortunate to not have him to start the year, I have full confidence in our wide receivers and expect that group to continue playing at a high level."
Welker played a key role in the two greatest statistical offenses in NFL history: the 2007 New England Patriots and last year's Broncos.
He caught 73 passes for 778 yards and a career-high 10 TDs despite missing the last 3 1/2 games of last season. He returned for the playoffs and had 18 catches for 160 yards and a TD.
Without Welker, Peyton Manning will have to lean more on speedy wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who's played in the slot before, or tight end Jacob Tamme, who filled the role at times last year when Welker was out.
Tight end Julius Thomas is also better working the middle of the field. And if Sanders moves inside, that opens up playing time for rookie Cody Latimer or Bubba Caldwell opposite flanker Demaryius Thomas.
"I have no doubt that Wes will remain focused on his preparations for the season and stay in excellent shape during his time away from the team," Fox said.
Even before Welker's ban was issued, the Broncos were facing a daunting first month to open the season. Kicker Matt Prater has been suspended for the first four games for an alcohol-related violation of league rules and leading tackler Danny Trevathan is out for the first three games with a broken left leg.
Welker will miss games against Indianapolis, Kansas City, Seattle and Arizona.
The Seahawks and Colts both feature physical defensive backs that roughed up the Broncos' receivers at the line of scrimmage in wins over Denver last season.
Adept at getting open in 1-on-1 coverage and finding the holes in zones, Welker hit it off immediately with Manning last year after spending six seasons in New England with Tom Brady.
Welker was excused from practices for two days last month, apparently to meet with league officials about his pending suspension. He then played in a preseason game against Houston on Aug. 23, when he sustained his third concussion since Nov. 17.
Welker returned to practice Monday but declined comment afterward, saying he had to rush to a team function.
His latest head injury came when he tried to duck following a catch over the middle and absorbed a helmet hit by D.J. Swearinger.
Swearinger's hit knocked Welker from the game and drew a 15-yard penalty and the wrath of Manning. The quarterback raced up to say some choice words to the swaggering safety, drawing his first taunting penalty of his career. He was later fined $8,268.
"Obviously, I'm concerned about Wes," Manning said after the game. "I didn't like seeing him come out of the game with a blow to the head. He had one of those last year that kept him out for a while."
Welker will now be out of action until Oct. 12, when the Broncos visit the Jets.