- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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The salary cap is an issue for all 32 NFL teams. Therefore, the New England Patriots had to set a hierarchy between Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker in considering long-term deals for the pass-catchers.
On Friday, New England made its choice, and it was a wise one. The Patriots agreed to a six-year contract extension first with Gronkowski, their Pro Bowl tight end. ESPN's Adam Schefter reports the extension is worth $54 million.
Gronkowski is 23 and coming off a record-setting season in which he caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. He is the most valuable player of the three, and his rookie contract was set to expire in 2014.
Hernandez, 22, also is coming off a career year. His rookie contract runs out in 2014. Welker, 31, signed a one-year franchise tag tender for $9.5 million and will be an unrestricted free agent in 2013.
The chances of New England keeping this dynamic trio together beyond 2013 are slim. Gronkowski, Hernandez and Welker are among the best at their respective positions, and paying them all market value would tie up too much of the salary cap in three players who have similar roles.
Welker pushed for long-term security this offseason. But the Patriots wisely balked because Gronkowski was the primary target.
With "Gronk" in the fold for the long haul, New England's next step is to choose between Hernandez and Welker. The Patriots have a shot to sign one of the two players to a long-term extension, especially if they wait another year. That will be an interesting decision, considering the Patriots already have a tight end in front of Hernandez, but he's nearly a decade younger than Welker.
But signing Gronkowski first was a no-brainer. He has yet to enter his prime and is arguably the best tight end in the NFL. But 2012 might be the last time you see Gronkowski, Hernandez and Welker together on the same team, depending on what the Patriots decide to do next.