What Bill Belichick has done in New England is nothing shy of remarkable. The Patriots have dominated the AFC since Belichick anointed Tom Brady as his starting quarterback in 2001.
For all of Belichick's success, the Patriots have failed to do one thing under his tenure -- develop wide receivers. Aside from Deion Branch and David Givens, Belichick's list of drafted wide receivers is uninspiring at best, and it's why the Patriots need to re-sign free agent Wes Welker.
Here is a list of the wide receivers drafted in New England since 2002 when Branch and Givens were drafted by Belichick.
2003: Bethel Johnson, second round.
2004: P.K. Sam, fifth round
2006: Chad Jackson, second round
2008: Matt Slater, fifth round
2009: Brandon Tate, third round
2009: Julian Edelman, seventh round
2010: Taylor Price, third round
2012: Jeremy Ebert, seventh round
Easily, the most productive of the bunch is Slater, who blossomed into a special teams captain for the Patriots. Slater, however, is not a threat in the passing game, and seldom plays offensive snaps.
Aside from Edelman, who was a quarterback in college, there's no other noteworthy draftee among that list. The Patriots whiffed entirely on two second-round picks and two third-round picks, while not particularly striking any gold in the later rounds.
For a team that has the best coach and quarterback in the league, it's particularly odd that the Patriots have been inept at developing wide receivers. Tight ends? No problem. Just ask Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Ben Watson and Daniel Graham. Wide receivers? Forget it.
With only four draft picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, and a few holes on the roster, New England can ill-afford to whiff on its first, second or third rounder this year. The Patriots could lose Alfonzo Dennard for quite awhile, depending on his sentencing. Belichick could lose Aqib Talib in free agency, and we all know that New England's secondary has been its Achilles heel the last few seasons.
It's not that the Patriots wouldn't be good without Welker. New England would be a playoff team even without him. Assuming they stay healthy, the Patriots' offense currently boasts Brady, Gronkowski, Hernandez, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Lloyd (for now). That's nothing to sneeze at, but it also lacks the Welker element.
Just how good has Welker been in New England? Nothing shy of elite. In six years with the Patriots, Welker has 672 receptions for 7,459 yards and 37 touchdowns. Welker blew out his ACL in late 2010, and responded by leading the league in receptions in 2011. Football analysts, Patriots fans and Patriots critics preached the demise of Welker early in 2012, when Welker had a diminished role the first two weeks of the year. Welker finished 2012 with 118 receptions and 1,354 yards.
When the Patriots acquired Welker in 2007 for second and seventh round draft picks, they immediately signed him to a five-year, $18.1 million contract. During the life of that contract, Welker caught 554 passes for 6,105 yards and 31 touchdowns. Not too shabby for just $18.1 million.
Welker was slapped with the franchise tag last offseason, when his bargain five-year deal was up. Last season, Welker earned $9.5 million, more than half of his earnings the previous five years.
For comparison, the Jacksonville Jaguars gave Laurent Robinson a five-year, $32.5 million deal in 2012, with an $8 million signing bonus. Robinson set a career-highs in receptions (54), yards (858) and touchdowns (11) in 2011, spending time both in the slot and outside for the Cowboys, but his body of work is nowhere near Welker's. Robinson's 54 receptions in 2011 aren't even half of what Welker has averaged in his six years in New England (112).
Welker could easily have held out last year after being slapped with the franchise tag -- and would anybody really have blamed him? Welker, however, knows that the Patriots especially frown upon holdouts, and clearly, the slot receiver wants to be in New England.
But Welker also needs to get paid. Welker's next contract, the one he'll sign with somebody over the next month, is almost certainly his last chance at a big payday.
If Laurent Robinson received a five-year contract worth over $30 million with only one good year to his name, it's likely that Welker would receive very rich offers on the free agent market -- richer than the Patriots would offer. New England would be particularly wise to prevent a team with lots of cap room (hello, Cincinnati) from negotiating with Welker, and sign him in advance of Mar. 9, the first day teams can begin negotiating with free agents.
No, the Patriots shouldn't pay Welker for what he's done in the past. Rewarding Welker with a contract based on past statistics would simply be foolish, and it would undoubtedly lead to an albatross of a contract. That's simply not the way Belichick and company operate. That doesn't mean that the Patriots shouldn't pay Welker. It's clear that Welker still has plenty left in the tank, and giving Brady's No. 1 target a three-year deal based on what he's likely to do the next few seasons seems more than reasonable.
Will that require the Patriots to offer more than they normally would? Probably. But in rare circumstances, the Patriots do pay players other than Tom Brady. Just ask Logan Mankins, who had a very public and ugly hold out.
The Patriots have found themselves in this situation before. Deion Branch held out prior to the 2006 season and was eventually traded to the Seattle Seahawks for a first-round draft choice. Brady still led the Patriots to the AFC Championship game before squandering a 21-3 lead to the Colts and eventually losing, 38-34.
In 2006, Brady's leading receiver was Reche Caldwell, who hauled in 61 catches for 760 yards and the Patriots were still moments away from going back to the Super Bowl. What if Brady had Branch that season, his go-to receiver? Yes, the Patriots did score 34 points in the AFC title game that season, but the entire course of the season would have changed with Branch on the roster.
The situation isn't quite as dire in 2013 as it was in 2006. If Welker does leave, Brady still has Gronkowski and Hernandez to throw to and will likely have another wide receiver or two on the outside, as it's unlikely that Lloyd will remain with the Patriots. While Brady is familiar with his tight ends, giving Brady an entirely new wide receiver corps in 2013 just doesn't seem like the best formula for winning next year's Super Bowl. Without Welker, the Patriots will still make the playoffs, and they'll still win the AFC East. But without Welker, the Patriots aren't going to be the favorites in the AFC, and they'll force themselves to morph the offense yet again.
With Welker, the Patriots are simply a better team, and possibly the best team in the league. Brady's new contract says that he has five years left, and those years are best served trying to win the Super Bowl each and every year, and not attempting to develop wide receivers for success two years from now.
Welker has become an essential thread in the team's fabric, the same fabric that includes Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Mankins (who all received long-term contracts). It's time for the Patriots to pay Welker, and focus on giving Brady and the Patriots the best chance over the next five years of winning even more Super Bowl titles.