Wes Welker and 3 Other Starters the New England Patriots Could Lose in 2012
Wes Welker's production in New England has been second to none.
Welker became the first and only player to compile three seasons of 110 or more receptions from 2007-2009. His stat line declined in 2010, but Welker was merely months removed from extensive knee surgery following an injury in the last game of the 2009 season.
Welker surprised most when he returned for the first game of the 2010 season and went on to put up solid numbers for the remainder of the year.
This season will likely decide Welker's fate in New England because his contract expires soon after.
The Patriots will need to determine whether a further investment in Welker is in the best interest of the team. He'll be 31-years-old with a surgically repaired knee at a position which rarely favors experience over youth.
Julian Edelman is buried on the depth chart beneath Welker and his contract extends through 2012. Many believe Edelman will be utilized as a stopgap at the slot position if and when the team moves on from Welker and that may happen soon.
So who else could else has an expiring contract following the 2011 season?
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3. Brandon Meriweather
For first-round picks that actually pan out this would normally be a time when fans began clamoring for the team to re-sign the player, but the situation is a tad more complicated for Brandon Meriweather.
While he has made two Pro Bowls in his four seasons, Meriweather has also made countless headlines for the wrong reasons.
The 27-year-old safety has attracted a lot of negative attention in a short amount of time. His illegal hit to the head of Todd Heap last year made him a poster boy for the league's crackdown on such tackles. His alleged involvement in a shooting incident this March has only lessened his chances of being re-signed after 2011.
Meriweather has the talent to succeed in the NFL and he has flashed that ability multiple times, but he may be too much of a headache for New England to deal with moving forward.
2. Dan Koppen
Dan Koppen has been a model of consistency at center for the Patriots.
This man has managed to play eight seasons in the National Football League and he's only missed nine games in his career with seven of them coming in an injury-shortened 2005 season.
With his 2005 season taken out of the picture, Koppen has a near-perfect average of 15.7 starts per season, a testament to his durability and ability.
It may be time, however, to begin discussing life without Koppen on the New England offensive line.
He'll be 32 at the start of the 2012 season and may also be without a contract. The Patriots will likely have to obtain a capable replacement if they plan on moving on from Koppen because there doesn't appear to be one currently on the roster.
Koppen's durability at center over the majority of the past decade has allowed the team to largely ignore the position, but that policy may soon change with the veteran entering his early-to-mid-30s.
1. Deion Branch
Deion Branch is undoubtedly entering the twilight of his career.
Turning 32 in July, Branch's 2011 season will be his 11th in the NFL and his sixth with the New England Patriots.
It's not inconceivable to imagine Branch playing beyond 2011, but it does get hard to imagine him doing so at a high level for much longer. In 11 games with the Patriots last season, Branch racked up 48 receptions to the tune of 706 yards and five touchdowns.
He faded down the stretch, only catching four balls for 58 yards over the last three games, but his other performances were evidence enough that he can still be a valuable commodity in New England's offense.
The current Patriots roster doesn't yet have any clear up-and-coming threats to Branch's status on the team.
While there are youngsters and developmental projects like Brandon Tate, Julian Edelman and Taylor Price, these players have yet to step up and demand more playing time with their production.
Hypothetically speaking if none of these players develop and no roster additions were made then there could be room for a Branch re-signing. It's a lot more likely that Branch's production won't warrant a re-signing and the team moves on from him in 2012.