- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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The New England Patriots and receiver Wes Welker didn't reach a contract extension by Monday's 4 p.m. ET deadline for franchise-tagged players. That means Welker will play the 2012 season on a one-year, $9.5 million deal, leading to the question: What happens after that?
1. Plays out 2012 and plays under franchise tag again in 2013. The Patriots still retain some leverage in their talks with Welker, as they could once again assign him the franchise tag in 2013. The tag next year would be $11.4 million. From a team perspective, the $11.4 million is a lot to digest, especially when considering quarterback Tom Brady's cap charge will be around $22 million. With the cap not expected to grow much, if at all, it sets up a scenario where Brady and Welker could account for about 25 percent of the team's cap space, which isn't ideal for a team that values a strong middle class on its roster. But in a last-resort scenario, if the Patriots felt they couldn't afford to lose Welker, this option is in play for them.
2. Plays out 2012, becomes an unrestricted free agent, signs elsewhere. If the Patriots aren't comfortable with the $11.4 million franchise tag, they could take a similar approach to what unfolded with kicker Adam Vinatieri in 2006. In that year, the club decided not to tag Vinatieri, allowing him to test the open market but with the intention of keeping an open dialogue with him on a new contract. Yet the Indianapolis Colts swooped in to sign him, and at that point, the Patriots had no leverage to block the move. The Patriots then drafted kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round. In this case, the Patriots could also be eligible for a 2014 compensatory draft choice if Welker signs elsewhere in 2013.
3. Plays out 2012, becomes an unrestricted free agent, then re-signs with Patriots. Assuming this latest negotiation hasn't created ill will with Welker, another option is for him to test the open market in 2013 and still return to New England with a short-term extension. Some analysts have noted that Welker's value to the Patriots is greater than to other teams, and the open market in 2013 could ultimately reflect that. But as was witnessed with Ray Allen and the Boston Celtics, sometimes the high bidder doesn't always win.
4. Plays out 2012, gets franchise tag, then an extension. This would be the Vince Wilfork approach. In the 2010 offseason, the Patriots assigned the franchise tag to Wilfork simply to buy more time before finalizing an extension. Based on the current gap between the Patriots and Welker, it's hard to imagine that happening, but a lot can change from year to year.
5. Traded in 2012. A major longshot, as it's hard to imagine the potential return in a trade being greater than what Welker would offer the Patriots this season.
6. Gets franchise tag in 2013 and then is traded. Similar to what the Patriots pulled off with quarterback Matt Cassel in 2009 (tagged and dealt to Chiefs) and Tebucky Jones in 2003 (tagged and dealt to Saints), they could utilize the tag as a vehicle to eventually trade Welker. This type of approach would come with risk -- what if no team is interested? -- but could be attractive because it would give the Patriots some control over where Welker lands (e.g. keeping him away from a rival like the Jets). This type of scenario could get complicated because Welker would likely have to agree to an extension before a team would be willing to acquire him.