For the second consecutive season, the New England Patriots have a big decision on their hands with one of the smallest players on the roster.
Wes Welker played the 2012 season under the franchise tag, which earned him $9.5 million.
Set to become a free agent once again, what will the Patriots do? What should they do?
Here's a look at what Welker means to the Patriots, and what his future might hold.
The Lone Constant in 2012
Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman all missed time in 2012. With everything crumbling around Welker, even amid speculation that he was being phased out of the offense, he just continued to put up monster numbers.
This should come as no surprise; this has been the case since Welker joined the Patriots.
No Tom Brady in 2008? No running game in 2009? None of these things stopped Welker from being a world-class receiver. Outside of 2010, coming off an eight-month recovery from an injury that should have sidelined him for a year, and a midseason trade of Randy Moss that eliminated the team's No. 1 deep threat, Welker's production has never wavered.
The lone constant in 2012 has been the lone constant since 2007.
No. 1 Target in the No. 1 Offense in the NFL
Back in 2009, Bill Belichick famously said, "Offensively ... if you just take Moss away in the deep part of the field, and get down on Welker, we're done. We're done. We can't run the ball, we can't throw it to anybody else. We're done."
Since then, the Patriots have focused on developing an offense that does not run through any one particular player, but Welker's role has remained crucial, especially in the most important situations: third downs.
Teams know Brady is going to Welker on third downs, but they still can't stop it. That should tell you all you need to know.
In case not, here's an anecdote: on 3rd-and-10 against the Denver Broncos in Week 5, for example, Welker got matched up on one of the league's best slot cornerbacks Chris Harris.
There was nothing tricky about the route, the concept, the formation, or the timing. It was just a great job by Welker of getting away from the press coverage, creating separation, finding the open part of the field and making a bee-line.
Welker's dominance on third down is not by some miracle of magic. He's just that good at what he does.
Over the past two years, Welker has been targeted 87 times, more than twice as often as the next closest third-down target, Aaron Hernandez, with 42 targets.
This year, Welker was far and away the Patriots' most frequent target on third downs, with 19 more targets than the next closest receiver, Brandon Lloyd.
Not only that, but Welker also had the second-highest completion percentage on passes thrown his way with 69.8, behind only Julian Edelman, who had eight receptions 11 targets—a much smaller sample size than Welker's.
From a national perspective, Welker's 43 third-down targets ranked 10th in the NFL, and his completion percentage was the highest by far among receivers in the top 10, beating out the next closest by 9.8 percentage points. His 30 third-down receptions tied for the fourth-most in the NFL.
But Oh, Those Drops...
Wes Welker led the league in dropped passes with 15, but is focusing on that shortsighted? ProFootballFocus.com seems to think so, which is why they track Drop Rate. The metric accounts for a receiver's dropped passes in relation to the number of catchable passes thrown his way.
Look at the list of the league's 10 highest totals in drops (via ProFootballFocus.com).
Notice anything? Seven of the 10 receivers listed here were targeted at least 137 times, and all of them had at least 100 targets. With a drop rate of 11.28 (15 drops, 133 catchable passes), Welker is safely outside the 10 highest drop rates for receivers with over 40 catchable passes thrown their way, though.
Welker has dropped a lot of passes over the past 12 months, but two of them will be more in focus than the other 15.
The above example also pokes a hole in the "dominance on third down" theory, as explained above, but two singular drops should not serve as the anecdotes by which Welker's importance to the Patriots is measured.
That is turning a blind eye to his contributions in his career.
New England's Financial Portfolio
They could franchise tag him, tag-and-sign, tag-and-trade, let him walk or (the least likely scenario) work out a long-term deal without using the franchise tag to buy more time.
The Patriots were fine biding their time through the 2012 season, and as we all found out last offseason—and as Welker found out the hard way—the dollars have to make sense for the Patriots to pull the trigger.
ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss brings up a valid point, in regards to why the franchise tag may not be in their best interest, given how the team likes to spend their money:
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—not the type of cap distribution the Patriots prefer because it affects the ability to build depth.
The Patriots have $18.6 million in cap space (according to John Clayton of ESPN), but that's before assigning Welker the tag. That means if the Patriots put the tag on Welker, they will have just $7.2 million with which to negotiate long-term deals for other free agents (which include Sebastian Vollmer, Julian Edelman, Danny Woodhead and Aqib Talib), and they must still leave some room to sign their draft picks.
It's a tricky situation, indeed.
The Patriots called Welker's long-term value to the team into question by not getting a deal done this year.
That allowed Welker another opportunity to prove his value, and he capitalized by being the lone constant in the offense and remaining one of the league's most productive receivers.
At this point, as I said back when the prospect of a long-term deal in 2012 died for good, it would make little sense for the team to tag him twice in a row when they likely could have had him for a lower price tag on a two-year deal.
Perhaps Welker's performance changed the Patriots' collective minds in regards to his importance to the offense, but it may have also driven his price tag up a bit.
All this makes the prospects of a long-term deal seem rather slim.
Despite his value to the team in past years, Welker could find himself on the short end of the bargain once again.
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 otherwise specified, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.
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