That's why, with the time for the Patriots to complete a new deal with Wes Welker just a few days away, some New England fans are feeling uneasy. The Patriots already have Welker under the franchise tag, meaning he'll play this year for about $9.5 million.
But Welker wants a long-term deal, and as a 31-year-old, he can't be blamed. The man is not only dealing with the effects of a nine-year NFL career, but he's also in one of the most dangerous positions in the game. As a 5-foot-9, 185-pound receiver racing across the middle of the field, catching balls in the slot, he's open to all kinds of maltreatment from the hardest hitters in the league. He's taken some brutal shots, but he's always bounced back and played on, especially with the Patriots.
Welker hasn't just taken his lumps for the team. He's also had otherworldly production over the past five seasons — everything a player needs to do to be set up for a decent contract. Yet he waits, getting older, with the likelihood that the Patriots will instead take the slightly cheaper franchise tag until his wheels fall off.
The sticking point here appears to be guaranteed money and the length of the deal — the Pats wanting two years, Welker wanting three. But looking at Welker's production since coming to New England, the discrepancy starts to seem ridiculous. Welker, a castoff at one point, exploded in the Patriots' system — thanks to both himself and the Patriots. It was a perfect marriage, the perfect player for the perfect position who brought results to the team that no one expected thanks to how the team equipped him. It was the kind of discovery that doesn't happen often.
Welker has amassed 6,105 yards and 98 touchdowns on 554 catches with the Patriots. His time in New England also included two Super Bowl berths, breaking several franchise records and redefining the slot receiver position in the league. Welker has also arguably been one of the main reasons the Patriots have been so strong over the past five years. While Tom Brady gets the credit for turning mediocre into magic every game, Welker has been the piece that's just kept ticking, providing the constant presence that has pushed the offense to greatness each year. It's hard to imagine at least the latest Super Bowl berth without someone of his caliber filling his role.
Contracts are based on what a player can do in the future, not what he's done in the past, but considering Welker's character and contribution so far, he can be expected to come through again. Waffling between two years and three, and over a few million each year, feels a lot like what the Yankees did with Derek Jeter a couple of offseasons ago. A player whose status with the organization should have never been questioned became stuck in a public dispute with the club, leaving a sour taste for both the player and his fans after a career where he certainly earned every high-priced penny.
Welker is no Jeter, but it's hard to argue against his significance to the Patriots. He was part of the record-setting 2007 when the Patriots were 16-0 and went to the Super Bowl. Most people remember that as the year when everyone saw what could happen if Brady had a receiver like Randy Moss, but Welker also turned heads that year. He had 1,175 yards on 112 catches and was the key underneath threat that allowed the Patriots to space their offense. While Welker's 100-catch, 1,000-yard seasons are considered the norm now, he was a pickup off the scrap heap then, and he blew everyone away with his production in that first year.
But Welker also carried the Patriots in other ways. When Moss flamed out, Welker was there. When the hard hits came, Welker was there. When the new guys came in, Welker was there. When Brady needed someone to flip a pass to, Welker was there. And in every step of his time with the Patriots, he was not only reliable, durable and exactly what the team needed but was also the epitome of what this Bill Belichick era has come to paint itself as. Welker is the Patriot Way, the star who values team, who mostly behaves (who can forget the Rex Ryan jokes?) and who lifts his teammates. When the Patriots looked to build a championship group, they were looking for players like Welker, and on top of putting up huge numbers, he's been the perfect guy for what the organization values.
In that way, Welker falls into the Jeter category, or even the category Brady may fall into one day — the "give the guy what he wants" category. No, it may not be wise to throw money at a deteriorating player, but if the player is still going strong and has only been good to the organization for many years, there should be a certain level of trust. The difference of two and three years here is ridiculous — the dispute should be whether the Patriots aren't giving Welker a guaranteed five years in thanks to the five years he gave them as an underpaid, overproducing receiver. An overpayment now would still even out long-term, considering what the Patriots have gotten back.
The Patriots and Welker are running out of time to polish off a deal before Monday's deadline, with questions of Welker's long-term future appearing to be relegated to next spring. But, just as there are plenty of reasons the Patriots should keep Welker in the fold at all, it's just as important for them to lock him up now. If the Ray Allen situation says anything, it's that players want to feel wanted. And while the Patriots certainly want Welker, they want him at a cheaper price, which is the same thing as him feeling not wanted at all.
The Patriots have cap difficulties to work with, but they also have a considerable part of their team to take care of. Yet Welker's value cannot be understated on a team that has had a very hard time getting new receivers adapted to the system. The Brady-Welker tandem has been productive in a way that Brady would have never dreamed of in those offensively challenged years before 2007, and Welker is one of the top reasons the Patriots went as far as they did last year. Last season's team was as overachieving as they come, with Belichick cobbling together the right pieces and inspiring the masses at just the right times to squeeze every ounce of potential out of the team before it fell in the Super Bowl. Without Welker, the Patriots would not have been there. He was too important to the team's attack, too vital in every drive, too key to keeping things moving whenever Brady needed him. It's not a stretch to think that a Patriots team without Welker could be more than a receiver short — it could be a few years back.
The Patriots have stocked up well this year, and they're certainly more than equipped for another Super Bowl run on both sides of the ball. But the one thing that could seriously dent the progress the team has made, especially on offense, is not having Welker around. This season, the Patriots could not have him around mentally, if he or other players are distracted by his lame duck status. Next year, they could not have him around in person, if contract negotiations don't happen in a way that pleases both sides. In the future, they could not have him around at all. And while the Patriots can run a potent attack through Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and the new transplants at the receiver position, the last few years should be evidence of how great the Patriots and Brady can be with a tool who is the perfect fit for the Patriots' system.
Welker is a professional, and he'll probably play well even without a long-term deal in place. But all of this fiddling over minor parts of the contract aren't necessary when it comes to a guy who has proven in every facet that he's exactly what the Patriots want.
Teams can't always pick the fan favorites and reward sentiment, but this isn't just a player everyone likes. This is a player who represents what the Patriots want to be all about. And if they want to keep going on magical Super Bowl runs, getting way more out of players than what everyone expected, they need to start rewarding the players who buy into their system and use it to be all they can be.
Welker won't let the Patriots down, and getting a deal done in the next few days could be just the mandate the team needs for another three years of greatness — both for Welker, and for the Patriots returning to the Super Bowl.