The New England Patriots have begun an interesting trend of locking up their key players long term before their contracts become issues.
It began with linebacker Jerod Mayo during the 2011 season; that trend rolled into the 2012 offseason with "The Gronktract" for tight end Rob Gronkowski; and as we speak, the ink is drying on a new deal for Aaron Hernandez, according to ESPN:
The deal has big-time ramifications for several parties which are affected either directly or indirectly.
Why do a deal this early, with two years remaining on his deal?
Early deals like this usually come with a bit of give-and-take. The player often takes a team-friendly deal but gets the added security of a longer term.
This was the case when Gronkowski signed his deal. Yes, he signed the largest contract ever for a tight end, but the numbers work out favorably for New England, with Gronkowski on the books for $6.9 million on average.
Players are always looking for job stability (Aren't we all?), and Hernandez gets that; in turn, the Patriots are not handcuffed into meeting contractual demands at the risk of losing a key player.
UPDATE: Greg Bedard of The Boston Globe reports the deal is worth a maximum value of $40 million and is an extension of five years, making Hernandez's total contract a seven-year, $41.115 million pact averaging around $5.87 million per year. The deal gives him more in the first four years than Rob Gronkowski's deal, and comes with more guaranteed money.
Tight ends have taken the NFL by storm, and with the extension, the Patriots have assured that they have two of the best tight ends in the league through the 2018 season.
Speculation grew as to how the Patriots would utilize their tight ends when the team brought back offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who is a proponent of the spread attack.
This contract ensures that the two tight ends will remain big parts of the offensive game plan for years to come, regardless of who is coordinating the game plan, and regardless of who's pulling the trigger.
Quarterback Tom Brady isn't going to play forever; this contract ensures that whoever takes his spot (unless he somehow makes it through the 2019 season) will have two standout weapons to throw the ball to.
But one of those weapons will not be...
With two big contracts handed out on the offensive side of the ball lately, the Patriots may be hesitant to dole out the big bucks to a 31-year-old slot receiver.
Oh, wait, they already were hesitant.
Here's what I wrote when Gronkowski's deal got done:
"Don't forget, either, that the Patriots still have tight end Aaron Hernandez to consider in a couple of years. Perhaps the Patriots are less eager to re-sign the 31-year-old receiver because they are looking to keep their two young tight ends, and there's only so much long-term money to go around."
Never mind that Hernandez can be utilized in similar ways as a tight end as Welker is in the slot or that Hernandez is practically the same player as Welker with a bigger build.
The writing was on the wall for Welker's future with the team when the Patriots handed him the franchise tag without getting him a long-term deal, but if you needed a final indication that he won't be back with the team beyond 2012, this is probably it.
Welker may begin to sees things from New England's perspective in terms of his value to the team as compared to his contractual value. It's much more likely that he will play out his franchise tag and walk away.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained first-hand.