On Monday, teams in the NFL can begin assigning the franchise tag to potential free agents, therefore restricting the player from hitting the open market -- albeit at a hefty one-year price. Though he has been instrumental in New England's success since arriving in Foxboro in 2007, the Patriots will reportedly not use the franchise tag on Wes Welker this year and instead will let the slot receiver test the free agent market.
According to the Boston Herald, the Patriots are not going to use the franchise tag on the 32-year-old wide receiver, partially because the cap hit would preclude New England from making major moves this offseason. If the Patriots were to use the franchise tag on Welker for a second-consecutive year, Welker would make $11.4 million dollars in 2013.
Since coming to Foxboro in 2007, Welker has been nothing but dominant out of the slot. In six years with the Patriots, Welker has led the league in receptions three times (2007, 2009, 2011), and has amassed more than 1,165 receiving yards in all but one season (2010). Overall, Welker has 672 receptions for 7,549 yards -- and has added 1,185 yards worth of punt returns, too.
Because of how valuable he has been to New England's offense, former Patriots offensive lineman Matt Light believes that the Patriots should simply pay Welker, contrary to New England's typically shrewd offseason operations. Light's rationale seems to differ with Bill Belichick's way of handling offseason negotiations -- Light believes the Patriots should pay Welker because of what he's done, whereas the Patriots seem to pay players on what they believe they're going to do in the future.
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Welker was ranked No. 1 atop SB Nation's free agent eligible wide receivers this offseason and should find no shortage of lucrative contract offers on the open market. Other teams in the league might be apprehensive in offering Welker a mega-money deal, since Welker's success has been tied to Tom Brady and the Patriots' offensive system.
Welker's highly productive 2008 season should help quell some of those apprehensions. When Brady missed the 2008 season, rendering the now-inept Matt Cassel the team's starting quarterback, Welker caught 111 passes for 1,165 yards and three touchdowns. Though it was five years ago, Welker still proved that he can catch passes from a quarterback other than Brady and be successful.
Whether or not Welker will find a slam-dunk contract from another team remains to be seen, but it's likely that a team will offer Welker a contract worth more money than the typically frugal Patriots will.
As frightful as it might be for Patriots fans, the Patriots do have potential ways to replace Welker should he leave. Julian Edelman has been viewed on the outside as a lesser Welker, but he has had difficulty staying on the field and simply doesn't have the same rapport with Brady that Welker has -- and may never. Danny Amendola worked with Josh McDaniels in St. Louis, and is also an unrestricted free agent. Unlike Welker, Amendola is entering the prime of his career -- his age 28 season.
Amendola, however, has played in 16 games over the last two seasons combined, and is not the most durable player in the league.
Welker probably won't be as successful with another team, and the Patriots won't be as good without him. It takes time for quarterbacks and wide receivers to develop chemistry together and we all know Brady and Welker have certainly developed that. Welker also isn't any more likely to win a Super Bowl anywhere else, despite being 0-2 in Super Bowls since coming to New England. Welker will be hard-pressed to find a better quarterback in the league to play with as well.
The Patriots and Welker both need each other, and the two sides will have to realize that sooner rather than later. It might require both parties to swallow some pride and meet halfway at the negotiating table, but until that happens, the possibility of Welker playing football elsewhere next season is very real.