Welker's future as a Pat will be New England's priority this offseason.
The Pats slapped the franchise tag on Welker last offseason, paying him $9.4 million for his services in lieu of a long-term extension. In doing so, New England bought itself another year to evaluate Welker as he enters his 30s—and potentially hammer out a new contract.
But now, like the fiscal cliff the U.S. Congress set before itself this winter, New England may not be able to push the issue any further into the future. Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston detailed the major hangup with franchising Welker again:
Given the way things have unfolded, I see the Patriots assigning another franchise tag on Welker in the offseason because he's too valuable to let walk. But here's one issue that looms: If Welker is tagged at $11.4 million, and you combine that with quarterback Tom Brady's approximate $22 million cap hit as a result of his 2012 restructuring, that's about 27 percent of the team's cap space on two players.
So if the Pats franchise Welker, they'll be faced with a real salary cap crunch that may affect their ability to make significant additions and retain players like Julian Edelman, Sebastian Vollmer and Aqib Talib.
Going top-heavy with respect to their depth chart is also not a tack the Pats like to take with respect to roster building.
According to AsktheCommish.com, the cap hits for the Pats' 20 highest-paid players totalled just over $73 million going into this season. For reference, the top-heavy New York Jets incurred over $104 million in cap hits on their 20 highest-paid players (credit to Sons of Sam Horn member "thehitcat" for running those numbers).
We've seen what happened to the Jets—when the injury bug hit, they didn't have the depth to stay afloat. The Pats don't want to go down that road, even if it means losing their top wide receiver.
There is, of course, the very real possibility that the Patriots franchise Welker in order to buy time to sign him to an extension. Any thoughts from Welker on that issue?
I’m still just focused on this year and what I need to do to help this team get better.
Now that's a man who knows how to toe the company line.
So we're not getting much from the Welker camp. And as usual, there's nothing from the organization either—coach/GM Bill Belichick runs a tight ship with respect to media leaks.
We did get a little bit of an outburst from former Patriot employee Ty Law, who now works for Comcast SportsNet. Law gave Welker a little contract consultation following the Pats' 23-16 win over Jacksonville in Week 16:
You’re the best in the game. Your numbers speak for itself. Get your money.
The question, as always, is whether the Pats will be the team to give him that money. They've had to make tough decisions on stars with impending salary cap issues before—just ask Lawyer Milloy, or perhaps Richard Seymour, or even Deion Branch.
The issue with a long-term deal may come down to years—the Pats were unwilling to offer a three-year deal to Welker in 2011, citing potential durability issues resulting from the torn ACL he suffered in January 2010.
Of course, Welker has done quite a bit to dispel those concerns, putting up back-to-back 110-catch seasons in 2011 and 2012 (and playing in every game). But if Welker still demands a three-year deal—one that would guarantee him money through his 35th birthday—the Pats would likely balk.
After all, he's a player who relies on short-area quickness, lateral separation and the ability to make would-be tacklers miss in the open field. As a slot receiver who works the seams and runs heavy crossing and out routes, he also takes some brutal hits.
As a result, even a player with Welker's dedication and high motor is susceptible to some erosion of skills in the coming seasons. Of course, in football, that's an ever-present concern with any free-agent signee. The question then becomes whether the Pats feel Welker's value to the team is worth the risk of a heavy investment in a player that may soon exit his prime.
Clearly, the Pats have a big decision on their plate. Without question, Welker has been a huge part of their success since 2007. Still, they need to get younger and deeper at wide receiver, and they have significant needs in their secondary and on both lines.
So does New England feel Welker is worth the significant investment it will take to retain him? Only time will tell.