NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
It isn’t hard to see how important wide receiver Wes Welker has been to the New England Patriots since joining the team in 2007.
Welker has been among the NFL’s top two in receptions in four of the past five seasons, and has been among the league’s top two in receiving yards for two of the past three. In the process, he has redefined the slot receiver position, advancing the role from a tertiary option to the primary weapon in the Patriots offense.
Welker, however, is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2012 season. The Patriots used the franchise tag to keep Welker in New England for this season, but if they want to keep him beyond this season, they are going to have to be ready to pay up.
The Patriots may be best suited in saving money by letting Welker sign elsewhere, and instead use a portion of the money they save to re-sign their other slot receiver, Julian Edelman, who will also be an unrestricted free agent.
The Patriots could re-tag Welker at a figure of $11,418,000 for the 2013 season, but they are unlikely to have him back unless they sign him to a long-term contract next season.
Understandably, Welker wants a long-term, big-money contract, and he deserves one. He remains one of the league’s most productive wide receivers at 31 years old. Because he is on the other side of 30 and not a prototypical, big-play wideout, he would not come close to receiving Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald money, but should still be able to command a contract on the open market for four or five years at the salary of second-tier top receivers.
On the other end of the equation, the Patriots’ hesitancy to commit to Welker with a long-term contract also makes sense. The Patriots have started a movement in recent years to keep their roster young aside from a few veteran standouts, and moving on from Welker seems to be a logical next step.
The Patriots have already committed big money into long-term contract for their two most explosive players, their 23-year-old tight ends. This past offseason, the Patriots signed Rob Gronkowski to a six-year, $53 million contract extension that runs through 2019, then followed suit by signing Aaron Hernandez to a five-year, $40 million extension through 2018.
For salary cap reasons, the Patriots have to be very cautious about signing another offensive skill player to a big contract. The Patriots were able to afford to pay Welker a franchise-tag deal this season, as Gronkowski and Hernandez are both still on their rookie deal figures for this season. The Patriots cannot afford to pay Welker what would likely be upwards of $8 million for the long term, however.
The Patriots are also risk of losing Edelman, but the Patriots should be able to sign him to a two- or three-year deal at a much cheaper rate than Welker. Even simply in terms of just personnel, keeping the 26-year-old Edelman may be the smarter move.
Welker is the NFL’s best slot receiver, and taking him off the roster would certainly be a big blow to the Patriots’ intermediate-passing game, the basis of their offense. Welker is more replaceable, however, than either Gronkowski or Hernandez would have been, and for as good as Welker is, a large part of his success can also be attributed to how he fits in the Patriots’ offensive system.
Edelman has enough slot receiver ability to step up and play a part in filling Welker’s shoes, while he also adds additional value for his ability to contribute in a wide variety of areas.
Edelman showed just how valuable he could be as arguably the most valuable player of the Patriots’ 59-24 over the Colts on Sunday.
Edelman had his most productive receiving game of the season, gaining 58 yards off five receptions, most of which came off his ability to gain yards after the catch on screens and short passes. But he also did so much more. He gained 47 yards on an end-around run, forced a fumble inside the 15-yard line on kickoff coverage and gained a whopping 117 yards on just two punt returns, including a 68-yard touchdown return.
Edelman has fantastic versatility and can help the Patriots in so many ways. On offense, he has the ability to be a very valuable in the passing offense, while he can also be a rushing threat. He has tremendous value on special teams as a dynamic punt returner, as well as being a very solid player as a tackler on kickoff and punt coverage.
Edelman even displayed last season that he can provide emergency depth in the secondary. He spent some time late last season playing nickel cornerback and safety when the Patriots’ defensive backfield became decimated by injuries, and more than held his own.
Any time the Patriots can keep a young, versatile player without having to overpay, you can count on them to do it. Therefore, the Patriots not only should, but should be expected to, make a strong effort to re-sign Edelman to a long-term deal sooner rather than later. If that is the case, they may in fact be signing Edelman to fill the shoes of Welker, because they may be unable to re-sign the latter, especially if they keep the former.