Could 2012 be the last season we see Wes Welker in a Pats uniform? (Getty Images)
According to multiple reports, the New England Patriots will not endeavor to close the gap of approximately $5 million that complicates a new long-term deal for receiver Wes Welker. The Patriots, who franchised Welker to the tune of $9.515 million, have until tomorrow afternoon to meet the NFL's deadline for closing long-term deals with franchised players. If they miss the 4:00 p.m. deadline tomorrow, Welker will play under the tag, and the Pats couldn't sign him to an extension until after the last regular-season game of 2012.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft has said that while Welker is very valuable to the team, "it requires intelligence ... what's going to happen in the next few years with the cap, you have to have a core group of players that you can plan around as the foundation of your team," per Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe.
Most likely, Welker -- who has led the NFL in receptions three of the last five seasons -- will play out the entire 2012 season under the tag, and the two sides will see where they are in the offseason. The Pats could tag Welker again in 2013, but it would cost them $11.418 million, or 120 percent of the 2012 tender.
That's pretty rich for a 31-year-old slot receiver, but Welker is no ordinary player, especially in the current Patriots' offense, which has no single dominant wideout. In 2011, he caught 122 passes (one shy of his career high), and set career marks in receiving yards (1,569), touchdowns (9), and longest pass caught (99 yards). In an NFL where offensive formations are more multiple than ever and the slot receiver/slot corner battles happen in prime real estate, it would be easy to see Welker as a prime receiver on many teams. He has never seen fewer than 124 targets in any season since 2007, and his 173 targets in 2011 was another career high.
The Patriots, however, have other issues to address. They're tied Rob Gronkowski up with a six-year, $54 million extension, but they'll have tight end Aaron Hernandez's contract to deal with before the end of next season, and it's quite possible that Hernandez will aim hard for receiver money, because he's so rarely lined up in the roles seen as traditional for his position.
Welker could be seen as atypical, as well. Outside of college spread offenses, it's rare for any team to rely so much on a slot guy, but Welker has caught the most passes in the NFL since he was traded to New England by the Miami Dolphins before the 2007 season. His 554 catches puts him far ahead of Brandon Marshal (474), Reggie Wayne (472), and Roddy White (471), the three receivers who come closest to that mark.
When Welker came to the Pats, he signed a five-year, $18 million deal that was seem by some as a bit extravagant. That he will make half that amount in 2012 alone, and many think he's being done dirty, tells you just how far he's come as a player. We'll find out after this season just how fungible the Patriots think he is.
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