- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Back in the 2006 season, the New England Patriots were off to a 4-1 start when they reached their off weekend. They used it as an opportunity to take care of contract-related business, extending center Dan Koppen's pact five years.
Some view the bye week as a checkpoint when it comes to contracts, the one chance during the season to step back from the daily grind and potentially address the long-term future of a core member of the team. If the club takes a similar course this year, and it makes sense to think they'd be exploring it, the top candidates are receiver Wes Welker, linebacker Jerod Mayo and offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer.
Of the three, Welker's status has drawn the most attention because he's in the final year of his deal and producing big results, while Mayo and Vollmer have contracts that don't expire until the end of 2012.
"He's just a special guy. He's a phenomenon," owner Robert Kraft said of Welker on sports radio WEEI on Friday. "It's our hope that he'll be someone who will be with us the rest of his career."
Added team president Jonathan Kraft on WEEI: "We're so lucky to have him. Wes is somebody we hope and believe will be a Patriot for hopefully the rest of his career, but at least a while to come after this season."
If the words sound familiar, it's because they are similar to what management said about offensive lineman Logan Mankins ... defensive lineman Vince Wilfork ... cornerback Asante Samuel ... kicker Adam Vinatieri ... and ... you get the point.
Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't.
When projecting where things head with Welker, it's a challenge because the sides have been mum. From a common-sense perspective, it's hard to imagine they won't reach a deal, even though nothing seems imminent at this time. Welker has done everything the team asks, and more, while the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady bring out the best in him. It's a pairing that works for both sides.
So maybe the better question to ask is "What's fair market value?"
Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald represents the top of the receiver market, having inked a reported eight-year deal that could pay him as much as $120 million. New York Jets receiver Santonio Holmes' five-year contract worth approximately $50 million, signed in July, is another consideration when factoring market value. That's a similar deal to what receiver Brandon Marshall received in Miami.
No receiver has more catches than Welker since 2007 and he is still getting better. He will also be 31 next season. Those are likely key points in any discussions, along with the fact the team holds some leverage in the form of the franchise tag if it gets to that point. Welker's leverage, of course, is that the team's offense isn't the same without him.
In the end, only the two sides doing the negotiating know where things stand, and they've been quiet. Robert Kraft's remarks Friday shed light on the team's general thinking, although it was what one expected based on the team's past dealings.
"We're a team that's not about trying to encourage and sign people who want the last dollar. If money is the most important thing, we'll have trouble getting a deal done," he said.
"Whether it's Wes Welker or Tom Brady or Logan Mankins or any player, when we decide what our limit is on what we can afford to pay a player, it's not like whatever we don't pay to that player the Kraft family are putting in their pockets," he continued. "It's about trying to build a team and have certain disciplines, and knowing that you need a team of 53 players on your roster. So whatever money we don't give to Wes Welker is going to go to other players to build a team."
That's where Mayo and Vollmer could currently come into play. If talks don't progress far enough with Welker at this time, the Patriots could turn their attention to two younger players they'd presumably want as part of their long-term plans.
In that case, Mayo and Vollmer would fall into the Ty Warren category of players who have more than one year remaining on their current deal, but might be interested in the security of an extension that wouldn't likely be at open-market/top-dollar numbers yet would be rich enough to create a desire to sign it. Warren, the former Patriots defensive lineman, inked that type of extension with the team in 2007.
To this point of the football year, the Patriots have taken care of their business on the field.
This week gives them a chance to consider off-field business, and just like on the field, it all starts with Welker.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
21hEric D. Williams