In an offseason in which Welker's contract situation has been the Patriots' most discussed topic, it's Rob Gronkowski who will reportedly enter the season on the heels of a big payday.
This isn't to say that Welker and the Pats won't come to some sort of long-term agreement between now and the season's opening kickoff, but Gronkowski's reported six-year, $54 million deal only decreases the likelihood of that happening. Inking Welker to a big-time contract inherently becomes more problematic when you tie up more money elsewhere, regardless of how team friendly Gronkowski's deal may be.
A new deal for Gronkowski is hardly a surprise. It was basically a certainty, and the only issue was how much money it would take the lock up the big tight end for the foreseeable future. But given the Patriots' reluctance in the past to negotiate new contracts with players until their rookie deal runs out, coming to an agreement so soon — while talks with Welker seem to be on again, off again — is a bit out of the ordinary.
The Patriots' decision to make Gronkowski a top priority clearly shows how important they view him to their offense. That's understandable given the season the 23-year-old had in 2011. Gronkowski racked up 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 18 total touchdowns (17 receiving, one rushing), all while becoming an even more feared blocker than he already was. It was arguably the greatest season by a tight end in NFL history, and the thought of Tom Brady delivering passes to the big man for the remainder of the quarterback's career is obviously too good to pass up, especially when you factor in how friendly the financial terms are for New England.
But the drawback is when it comes to Welker — not just in terms of financial flexibility, but in terms of what kind of message this sends to the veteran receiver. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone opposed to inking Gronkowski, but just as signing the tight end to a mega deal inherently makes signing Welker long-term more difficult, it also sends a message that Gronkowski was the team's top priority. That's something that was fairly obvious for the long run, but with the attention that Welker's contract status is receiving and the ongoing jockeying for position between the two camps, already shifting attention to a player under contract for the next two seasons has the potential to ruffle some feathers on Welker's end.
Welker has shown in the past that he's a consummate professional, but he's also a star receiver who wants — and deserves — to be paid like one. Watching another superstar get the big deal that he so desperately seeks can't be easy for the 31-year-old wideout, regardless of who that player is or what the exact contract terms are.
The most interesting question now becomes the exact impact Gronkowski's new deal has on the contract talks between the Pats and Welker from here on out. Will there be any increased animosity at the bargaining table? Will Welker's demands change in some way?
Perhaps nothing changes, but those are a couple of questions the two sides are now faced with. And the ultimate answer (Welker's future beyond the 2012 season) is as hazy as its ever been. Locking up Gronkowski is a huge step forward for New England's future, but it could also prove to be a giant leap backward in the efforts to re-sign Welker, who is only under contract for the upcoming season after inking a $9.5 million franchise tender.
None of this even factors in Aaron Hernandez, who is under contract until 2014 but will most certainly become the subject of contract speculation before long. Gronkowski has always been the guy the Pats could least afford to lose out of the trio, but a decision between Hernandez and Welker is now inevitable.
The Patriots did what they had to do with Gronkowski, but the deal isn't without its perils. And those perils will impact Welker more than anybody.