It's hard to believe Wes Welker has only been with the New England Patriots for just six seasons. In that span, he's caught more passes than anyone else in the NFL, become New England's all-time receptions leader and set the NFL record for most seasons with 100-plus receptions.
In a broader sense, Welker has transformed how slot receivers are viewed around the NFL, and now everyone is looking for the "next" Wes Welker.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Welker, aside from his stats, is his durability. When it seems like almost every other wide receiver is always nursing a hamstring injury or something else, Welker has missed just four games in six seasons.
Factor in the number of huge hits he's taken and always bounced up from, and it's even more admirable. Said Welker to Boston.com:
“I put a lot of emphasis on myself to be tough, and try and be the toughest player in the NFL. I think I have to do that to make up for a lot of other things as far as my size and everything else. I’m constantly telling myself to tough it out and be tough. I think it has served me well.”
New England had initially considered signing the restricted free agent to a "poison pill" contract that would've made it impossible for the Dolphins to match. Instead, Robert Kraft stepped in, the Pats added a seventh-round-pick and Welker was a Patriot.
Bill Belichick reflected on what he saw in Welker (via WEEI.com):
BB: He killed us in Miami. I remember it. We had someone double 83 [Welker] down there, when he was playing in the slot in Miami and he we still couldn’t cover him. He caught nine for 110 – whatever it was – and then he returned a punt 70 yards down to the one-yard line against us. He killed us. The next time we played him, we doubled him, but we still had trouble with him.
Q: So you traded for him?
BB: You got it. That’s it. If you can’t beat him, join him. If you can’t stop him, then try to get him on your team. That’s basically the philosophy.
It didn't hurt that the Patriots were at the top of every football conversation in 2007. Between Spygate, the 16-0 regular season, the bombs to Randy Moss and the uncoverable little demon in the slot, Welker became front-page news during his first year in New England and went on to record five seasons of 110-plus catches.
Welker has continued the torrid pace he began six years ago, with his only "down" season coming off an ACL injury that he returned from in seven months. And by "down" season, that was 86 catches for 848 yards and seven touchdowns.
Yes, there was a missed catch that might've sealed a Super Bowl and a drop that might've made the 2012 AFC Championship a little closer, but it's hard to be overly critical of a player who is targeted as much as Welker is.
Still, the plays you do or don't make on the biggest stages are the ones that everyone remembers most clearly.
Welker is showing no signs of slowing down. His last two seasons were the best of his career, totaling 248 catches for 2,923 yards and 15 touchdowns despite the two bad plays in the final games of both that stick out like two sore thumbs.
There's no question Brady-to-Welker has been the most dependable part of the Patriots offense since they were united, so how did we get to this point, where Welker is free to walk away while still being such a vital piece of the attack?
Not extending Welker after his 2010 season was a missed opportunity, and when he turned in the best year of his career in 2011, it only made things that much harder. The Patriots knew they couldn't afford an asset like Welker to hit free agency in 2012, so it wasn't a surprise when they used the franchise tag on him.
There was some acrimony during the 2012 offseason, but ultimately, Welker signed his franchise tag and took a "leap of faith."
Early in the season, it looked like the Patriots were phasing Welker out, possibly with the hopes of trading him. But once Aaron Hernandez and Julian Edelman went down with injuries, Welker was thrust back onto center stage, and he responded with the second best season of his career.
Despite his production, the Pats' offense sputtered again in another playoff loss.
Earlier this offseason, it seemed like there was renewed hope that the Patriots and Welker could figure out a deal. That started a back-and-forth from Welker having "mild disdain" for the Patriots to a deal being imminent to Welker testing the market.
Really, if they've gotten to this point, it makes sense for Welker to at least see what is out there. He knows what the Patriots are offering, and while it's about more than just money, there's no harm in hearing how the rest of the NFL values him.
Logic and history tell us that Welker simply cannot keep up his seemingly unstoppable pace. While he hasn't lost a step yet, at 31 years old, he's already over a precipitous cliff for receivers, especially slot ones who take a beating.
The Patriots, however, are in no position to simply move on from Welker, even if they really should. The receiver-depleted Pats have misfired in free agency and the draft since their success in 2007, and now at the start of free agency, their backs are against the wall.
They need to define what the future at the wide receiver position will be.
Some think Welker was played like a fiddle by the Patriots, but his loyalty has only endeared him to Patriots fans more. Regardless, he couldn't be hitting the free-agency market at a worse time.
The cap barely went up, half the NFL has no money to spend and even those that do have plenty of their own free agents to re-sign as well.
It's likely the Patriots are still the best fit for Welker and he knows it, but if he jumps ship for more lucrative waters, it will be an early and unglamourous ending for arguably the best receiver to ever play in New England.