There's no question Welker has been Tom Brady's go-to target in critical situations ever since his arrival in 2007. Despite taking numerous big hits, Welker has remained consistent as ever, with 2010 being his only slight dip in production as he returned from a torn ACL in just eight months.
But new contracts are not about past production, and with $18 million in free cap space, using the Franchise Tag again on Welker would eat up over 60 percent of it.
There is also little reason to think the two sides can figure out a long term deal now when they couldn't last season, and even if they could, it would still take a significant amount of money to keep Welker in New England.
With zero wide receiver and cornerback depth, and the long term interest of the team in mind, the only reasonable decision the Patriots are left with is to let Welker walk.
Welker will be 32 this offseason, already past the time when receivers start to break down, even ones who aren't 5-foot-9 and haven't taken a numerous amount of devastating hits in the middle of the field.
Welker has been a warrior, and his toughness is legendary, but how long can he realistically hold up?
The bigger question is whether or not the Patriots offense with Welker is still ascending. They have been dominant the last three seasons, but is keeping Welker in the fold a way to stay ahead of the curve, or just kicking the can down the road and hoping he remains healthy and dominant?
The Patriots extended Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez last year, two players who make their living in the middle of the field just like Welker does. If they can re-sign Julian Edelman, they should have enough pieces in place to give Tom Brady the targets he needs to maintain some element of this offensive attack that has been so efficient.
But letting Welker go would also give them the salary cap freedom to find some other wide receivers who can add a new dynamic element to the offense. There's no question the Patriots have lacked an explosive downfield element to their passing game since Randy Moss departed, but it doesn't even have to be put into that simple of a box.
For the past three seasons we've seen Welker at his absolute peak, and still the Patriots could not take home the Lombardi. As good as Welker is at getting open underneath and remaining remarkably consistent from his regular season production to his post season production, teams still have been able to slow down the Patriots offense and keep them off the scoreboard in the playoffs.
They must find a way to get to the next level against the best defenses in the league at the most critical moments.
What should the Patriots do with Wes Welker?
There's no denying what Welker has meant to the Patriots offense, and they were lucky to once again get a full year of healthy production out of him on the Franchise Tag, but allocating a large chunk of their salary cap again to him is playing with fire—both in the short term and in the long term.
Instead, the Patriots should let Welker depart and use the money to find and groom new wide receivers who can better compliment the interior presences of Gronkowski and Hernandez. They've often taken the "throw it all at the wall" approach over the years at certain positions, and this year it should be done with a new bunch of receivers, both in free agency and in the draft.
It's time for the Patriots to evolve their offense again. We've seen the peak of the Welker-based attack, and it was great, especially in the regular season against teams that were ill-equipped to defend it. But if you're not getting better, you're getting worse, and making another large investment in Welker will only delay the inevitable—at a detriment to the long-term viability of the team.