AS the word spread through New England of Rob Gronkowski’s reported new six-year, $54 million deal one couldn’t stop but wonder— “why now?” The timing of the contract certainly puts into question how much of a priority their franchise wide receiver really is to the front office. Wes Welker remains a player with only one year of security albeit making a nice chunk of change for a single season’s work.
The truth is that this shouldn’t have come as a surprise at all to fans of Patriot nation that have paid attention to the team’s approach to building and maintaining a successful franchise. As much have fans have criticized Belichick and the Patriots for not showing players the money, they have in fact spent millions of it toward keeping their own players in New England uniforms for years to come. Case in point: Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, Matt Light, Jerod Mayo, and of course Tom Brady were all home grown players who earned very lucrative deals. Going back a few years, Rodney Harrison, Randy Moss, Ty Law, Ty Warren, Corey Dillon, and Drew Bledsoe were all paid very handsomely during their tenure in New England.
What Bill Belichick won’t do however is pay a player for what he has done in the past as opposed to what they expect him to do in the future. The Patriot system (affectionately termed Beli-ball by yours truly) is one that takes aspects from Billy Bean’s famous strategy as general manager of the Oakland A’s and combines it with a “wait and see” approach to Free Agency. That allows for the ripple effects of big dollar signings to trickle down into rosters and eventually cause the release of some very serviceable players. The Patriots are also masterful when it comes to value in both free agency and the draft, knowing when teams are both very hot on a particular player or have decided that he needs to be gone at any cost. This was never more obvious as when the Patriots traded for Randy Moss in 2007 knowing he had plenty left in the tank and just needed a change of scenery. It was also true in the case of Rodney Harrison who had grown tired of losing in San Diego and was allowed to reach Free Agency in 2003. Add to the list acquisitions like Antowain Smith, Otis Smith, Roman Phifer, and Mike Vrabel who all were undervalued by their former teams yet contributed mightily to the 2001 Super Bowl victory.
Lastly, the team employs a payroll structure that allows only a certain percentage to be allocated to one position on the team. This was never more evident as when the Patriots shocked the world by trading Richard Seymour to the Oakland Raiders in 2009 for a first round draft pick. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to insiders that knew a younger Vince Wilfork was a much higher priority to get locked up for the future on the Defensive line and funds had already been spent on a younger Ty Warren. There was just no way of keeping the Patriot version of “The big three” under contract and content without crippling other areas of the team. Seymour at his peak (age 29 when he was traded) would have insisted on a long-term deal that would have broken the bank and made New England overpay for a probable decline in his production as he entered the final years of his deal.
So after examining all the aspects of the Patriots front office strategy it is probably a little clearer why the Welker contract is so challenging. At 30 years of age Welker enjoyed his best season in a Patriot uniform (which just happened to be a contract year.) Now at age 31 and fully recovered from an ACL tear, the big question is if he can repeat his 2011 season production before he calls it quits. As fans we have all seen some of the greatest players ever to suit up decline rapidly in the span of a year. The hits and miles associated with 122 receptions a season have certainly taken some toll, but the question is how much?
The Steelers watched as 34-year old Hines Ward declined in production from 95 receptions in 2009 to just 59 catches the very next season. In 2011 he was barely a factor with assorted injuries and posted only 2 touchdowns, his lowest total since his rookie year in 1998. Those are the kind of statistics that make a GM cringe especially if there is a large salary cap number associated with that player. Those handcuffs can be the difference between making the Playoffs or an early start on the off season— and that is exactly why the Patriots will take their time on this one and make sure they get it right.