Welker situation is issue No. 1
How will the Patriots approach contract negotiations with their top receiver?
Bill Belichick's remarks Monday could have just as easily applied to receiver Wes Welker as they did the New England Patriots' 2011 season: "It's not about one game or one play or anything, it's the whole body of work."
Welker's inability to haul in an inaccurate throw from quarterback Tom Brady late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVI, a play that could have helped seal a victory but instead helped set the stage for the New York Giants' remarkable comeback, has been sliced, diced, analyzed and then dissected some more in recent days.
Some have asked if the play could impact contract negotiations between the sides, as Welker is scheduled for unrestricted free agency. It shouldn't. Belichick's words reinforce that thought.
No receiver has caught more passes than Welker over the last five seasons and his value to the team isn't diminished by the heavily debated Super Bowl play. The same issues that have held up an extension to this point remain in play.
From the team side, a big part of this is projecting the future. Welker turns 31 on May 1, and while it's easy to forecast top-level production over the next two or three years, what about the fourth, fifth and possibly sixth years? There is no shortage of receivers who have declined sharply after they hit the mid-30s, the Patriots recently experiencing it themselves with Randy Moss.
Is Welker, who at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds takes some of the biggest hits dished out in the NFL because of his fearlessness going across the middle, an exception?
That's a challenging projection in the negotiation from the Patriots' side, and it strengthens the line of thinking that a shorter-term deal or a year-to-year type of setup with the franchise tag are smarter options for the team.
Then there's Welker's perspective. What more could a player do to earn a team's investment?[+] EnlargeCary Edmondson/US PresswireWes Welker led the NFL with 122 receptions this season and was second in yards with 1,569.
The production is unmatched, and his commitment to the club was evidenced in how he rehabbed from a torn ACL in the 2010 offseason to unexpectedly have himself ready for the start of the season. If the Patriots aren't offering a market-value, long-term extension -- which would match the $9 million- to $10 million-per-year pacts signed by Brandon Marshall (Dolphins) and Santonio Holmes (Jets) -- it's understandable why Welker would balk. Marshall signed a five-year, $56 million deal with $25 million in bonuses/guarantees, while Holmes' contract is five years for $45 million, with $22.5 million in bonuses/guarantees.
The issue for Welker, whose value is arguably greater to the Patriots than to any of the league's other 31 teams, is that he has little leverage.
As is often the case with negotiations like this one, the franchise tag looms large. The Patriots will certainly tag Welker if the sides can't strike an extension before free agency begins March 13. Assuming Welker signs the franchise tender, it would be a one-year deal at $9.4 million (the average base salary of the top five receivers from 2010).
Welker doesn't have to sign the tag, and that is the shred of leverage he has against the Patriots. If he feels as strongly as offensive lineman Logan Mankins did in 2010 -- when Mankins didn't sign a restricted free agent tender and missed training camp and seven regular-season games before reporting -- Welker could sit idle in hopes the club improves its offer based on what the on-field picture looks like without him.
That approach has seldom worked, however. In fact, it traditionally leads the club to take an even harder stance.
While Mankins ultimately received his long-term extension, it was only after returning to the team and playing out the 2010 season at a bargain-basement price (prorated portion of his $1.54 million tender). The Patriots were ultimately generous with Mankins after placing the franchise tag on him in 2011, paying a top-of-the-market price, and part of the thinking was surely that he played '10 at such a low cost.
Perhaps they'll ultimately do the same for Welker, noting that he far outperformed the five-year, $18 million-to-$21 million pact he signed in 2007 when the team acquired him in a trade from the Dolphins (hard to believe now, but at the time some felt the Patriots overpaid). To this point, though, the negotiations haven't produced enough momentum for either side to think an extension is close.
These are the variables in play when it comes to Welker and a possible long-term extension with the Patriots, and if they sound familiar, well, they should.
They are, in many ways, the same issues that were in play with defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, cornerback Asante Samuel and kicker Adam Vinatieri, among others the team has tagged in the past. They are the same issues players with other teams have as well.
In this case, both sides seem to want the same thing. It's just a matter of finding a middle ground.
"I think Wes wants to be here and we want him here," owner Robert Kraft said last month. "Hopefully when the season ends, both sides will be wise enough to consummate something."
Welker's missed connection with Brady in Super Bowl XLVI doesn't alter that outlook.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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