Considering that New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker led the NFL last season with 122 receptions, and was second in the league with 1,569 yards, he certainly would have been worth the investment of a long-term contract extension this offseason.
That extension, however, did not come to pass. The Patriots were unable to sign Welker to a long-term extension prior to the July 16 deadline for franchise-tagged players. In fact, they never came close.
As a result, the Patriots still have Welker on a long-term contract extension, and are paying $9.5 million for the season. He will become an unrestricted free agent after the 2012 season.
Another key offensive player did get his long-term extension on Monday. Having already signed one of their two star tight ends, Rob Gronkowski, to a six-year, $53 million contract extension earlier this offseason, the Patriots inked their other, Aaron Hernandez, to a five-year, $40 million extension.
The Patriots chose the right player to sign to a long-term extension.
Welker is, without a doubt, the best slot and possession receiver in the NFL, and one of the best overall receivers in the league. He is 31 years old, however, and for as great as he is, some of his greatness is a product of the Patriots’ passing system.
On the other hand, Hernandez is a unique talent who may be the NFL’s most versatile tight end. Hernandez is not a prototypical, in-line blocking tight end, but he has the skills of a wide receiver combined with the size and ability to line up inside.
Hernandez is one of the NFL’s toughest players to match up against, given his combination of route-running skill, athletic ability and size. In only his second NFL season, Hernandez had 79 receptions and 910 receiving yards, both of which ranked among the top four among NFL tight ends last year, even though he was second on his own team in both categories.
On top of all that, Hernandez is only 22 years old, and even at the end of his new contract, he will only be 28, three years younger than Welker is already.
Signing Hernandez to an extension does not necessarily mean that Welker will not be brought back on a long-term deal. Given the financial commitment that the Patriots now have in both of their tight ends, however, they are much less likely to participate in a heavy bidding war with other NFL teams for Welker’s services.
The Patriots were smart in prioritizing Hernandez’s deal before Welker’s. Hernandez’s youth, unique skill set and versatility make him a better investment for the long-term future, and a more difficult player to replace.
Even if the Patriots do make a serious effort to re-sign Welker next offseason, his market value will be less than Hernandez, because of his higher age. On a contract similar to what Hernandez received Monday, a team would be committing an average of $8 million annually to a player who will be 36 at the end of his contract.
If the Patriots cannot re-sign Welker, it will certainly be a major loss for their offense, but they should be able to find another player, potentially even drawing from in house with Julian Edelman, to become successful in a similar role in their system. Hernandez, on the other hand, has a unique role that makes him a very difficult player to emulate.
Hernandez is now signed through 2018, while Gronkowski is signed through 2019. Considering Gronkowski is also only 23, that means the Patriots should have the NFL’s best tight end duo, assuming both players remain healthy and productive, for at least seven more seasons, a time through which neither player will have reached the age of 30.
Welker has been the Patriots’ receptions leader every season since his arrival in 2007, but even at the risk of losing him, the Patriots should rest assured knowing that they have two of the NFL’s most dynamic young offensive playmakers, forming a tremendous combination in the middle of their offense through nearly the rest of the decade.
Dan Hope is the New England Patriots game-day correspondent and an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.