Wes Welker’s Cinderella story has been playing out for years now.
Almost three years ago, Welker ranked No. 1 on Fox Sports’ list of the top 10 underpaid NFL players. In 2012, the wide receiver got the franchise tag by signing a minuscule $9.5 million extension with the New England Patriots.
It’s not that Welker has not proven himself (minus some big playoff drops)—2010 marks Welker’s worst season and that year's production ranks near most wide receiver’s best stats, with 86 receptions and 848 yards for the Patriots.
In the past two years the 31-year-old has combined for 240 receptions, 2,923 yards and 15 prosperous visits to the end zone. Clearly, the little guy has earned the right to suit up in the red, white and blue.
Here lies the problem: The Patriots are expected to have an average of $13 million in cap space. That's $13 million to figure out what to do with Welker, tackle Sebastian Vollmer, wide receiver Julian Edelman, cornerback Kyle Arrington, cornerback Aqib Talib, running back Danny Woodhead and lineman Trevor Scott.
However, the word around the league is the Patriots will not use the franchise tag on Welker, according to Will Brinson of CBS Sports.
So where does the stamp of approval go?
Does the money go toward the defense, whose secondary deteriorated in the AFC Championship Game?
Brady also needs protection, so signing Vollmer make sense as well.
Time will only tell what the Patriots have in mind for Julian Edelman, who could step up in Welker's absence. While his role originally seemed to be strictly for special teams, he proved to his teammates that he could preform under pressure, playing as a wide receiver in the absence of Rob Gronkowski.
On the Thanksgiving night massacre that debuted the butt-fumble seen across the world, Edelman returned a fumble for six points and caught a 56-yard touchdown pass. While injuries prevented Edelman from carrying out the season, he has demonstrated he deserves a second look for 2013.
However, former wide receiver and Hall of Famer Michael Irvin voiced his opinion on the cutting of the umbilical cord between Kraft’s empire and Welker by calling it “absolutely crazy.”
Irvin further explained, “Tom Brady loves throwing inside. You’ve got (Rob Gronkowski) who is going to give you vertical size and also get you up the field vertical, but you need that small guy that works in small spaces. Wes is that guy. As long as you have Tom Brady, you better have Wes Welker, or you will see Tom Brady not (playing) like Tom Brady.”
History has shown that the breakup would affect Welker more. He was hardly relevant when suited up in San Diego’s blue and yellow or Miami’s orange and blue (granted, his game improved in 2006). Now he ranks in as one of the best receivers in the game.
While the Patriots might not be able to immediately replace Welker’s 672 catches in six seasons (three times leading the league in receptions), they have the means to get a receiver who can give them a minimum of 80 catches. Options like Danny Amendola, Tavon Austin, Anquan Boldin and insiders such as Hernandez and Edelman linger in the organization’s mind.
If the Pats offer Welker any money, it would be a shock if he turned it down, no matter how small the paycheck. When Asante Samuel packed his bags in Foxboro for Philly in 2008, Welker said, “He chose money over championships.”
Samuel now urges Welker to chase the money himself.
But who really needs whom? Does Welker really need the money more than he needs Brady and Co., or do the Patriots need his guaranteed 100-plus receptions? It is clear that the relationship is one of mutualism, and only the 2013 season will potentially tell how one thrives without the other.