By: Ian Logue/PatsFans.com
May 29, 2012

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When you assemble as much talent on one football team as the New England Patriots have over the past few seasons, eventually it reaches a point where tough decisions have to be made because you can't keep everybody.

Unfortunately, that's how it's starting to appear with wide receiver Wes Welker.

The veteran was given the franchise designation earlier this offseason and recently elected to sign his one-year $9.5 million tender. The bad news is Welker recently revealed that the talks on a long-term extension have "gotten worse", and unless something changes it's starting to look more and more like it may be the final contract he'll get here in New England.

Taking a look at what lies ahead, the reasons are starting to come into focus a little more and fans may begin to understand why #83 may potentially only have one more year catching passes from Tom Brady.

Welker, who is 31, had a career year last season after finishing with 1,569 yards on 122 catches. He carried much of the load last season after the next closest receiver - Deion Branch - finished with less than half of that total at 51 catches for 702 yards. This offseason we've seen the Patriots focus on bringing in younger guys who also have a strong ability to get open, which combined with teams trying to focus on shutting down tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, should hopefully spread things out and allow Brady more options this year.

The bad news is, how the numbers stack up after the season among the receivers may end up being the reason why Welker becomes the odd man out.
Could this be the final season we see Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowksi together in the Patriots offense?

Gronkowski (23) and Hernandez (22) are clearly the future of this offense and are two guys New England needs to keep in the fold. Judging by previous drafts it's clear that Bill Belichick was looking to find guys like them. Since 2000 Belichick had taken at least one tight end in 9 out of 12 drafts and had most fans trying to understand the reasoning behind it.

After watching what Hernandez and Gronkowski have done in their first two seasons, we understand exactly what he was hoping to accomplish. The only problem is they obviously had to sift through quite a few guys in order to get there.

It started when they selected Dave Stachelski in 2000 (5th round, Boise State), who never even made it out of training camp. From there they grabbed two more the next year in Jabari Holloway (4th round, Notre Dame) and Arther Love (6th round, South Carolina State) in 2001, followed by Daniel Graham in 2002, (1st round, Colorado), Spencer Nead in 2003 (7th round, BYU), Ben Watson in 2004 (1st round, Georgia), Andy Stokes in 2005 (7th round, William Penn), along with another duo in 2006 in Garrett Mills (4th round, Tulsa) and Dave Thomas (3rd round, Texas).

Out of all of those players only Graham and Watson stuck, with both of them being taken in the first round. Graham became a great blocking tight end but was never really much of an offensive threat, while Watson had some success in the passing game but was inconsistent catching the football.

Belichick didn't take another one from 2007 to 2009, but finally in 2010 he hit a home-run after taking two tight ends for the third time in the same draft during his tenure. Both immediately became impact players in the offense, and with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels back in the fold it should be interesting to see how New England's offense utilizes them this season.

As a result if Welker's wondering why a deal hasn't gotten done yet, it's probably because the front office is trying to figure out how to make sure these two players don't slip away when their deals expire after the 2013 season. We caught up with Christopher Price from WEEI in our most recent podcast, who felt that any numbers being discussed with Welker were definitely being done with the knowledge that they've got two big contracts on the horizon.

"I don't know if one series of negotiations is directly affecting the other, but I can tell you for damn sure that the Patriots are negotiating this Welker deal with those two deals in mind because you're going to have to deal with those sooner rather than later, and every day you don't deal with those the price is going to up on them," said Price. "I don't know if they're directly related in this instance, but I think that you can draw a connection between the two situations."

There are quite a few out there arguing that Welker's price tag shouldn't be as high as it is because his production is due to New England's offensive system. As you look at it further, while Welker is definitely one of the best slot receivers in the game, it's tough not to feel there's some truth to that when it comes to the idea of paying him #1 receiver money.

Welker's biggest season obviously came in the same year in which both Gronkowski and Hernandez became a focal point in the Patriots passing game. Gronkowski finished with 90 grabs for 1327 yards and 17 touchdowns, while Hernandez was next with 79 catches for 910 yards and 7 touchdowns.

From there New England didn't have a viable threat in the passing game in critical situations, with just Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco both combining for 66 catches, nearly half of Welker's production. As the year went on Branch clearly slowed down and Ochocinco was never able to get a grasp of the no-huddle offense, and opposing defenses started to adjust to the fact the Patriots really didn't have another receiver to complement Welker.

Taking a look back at last season, Welker started off fast but he wasn't able to sustain it. He caught 51 passes for 785 yards and 6 touchdowns through the first six games of the season, but over the final 12 he caught 71 passes for nearly the same yardage total at 784 and 3 touchdowns.


Gronkowski and Hernandez became the go to guys in the red zone as the season went on last year. (FILE:Icon/SMI)
There was also a big shift in the red zone as the team clearly started targeting Gronkowski and Hernandez as the year went on. Through those first six games Welker was their leading red zone receiver inside the 20, catching 10 passes for 74 yards and five touchdowns, while Gronkowski and Hernandez each combined for 10 catches and seven touchdowns.

Through the final 12 Gronkowski and Hernandez were both targeted 18 and 16 respectfully, while Welker saw Brady go his way just 8 times. Gronk caught 8 touchdowns while Hernandez grabbed 3 over that same span. Welker caught just one.

During the postseason Gronkowski and Hernandez finished as the team's two leading receivers in both yardage and scoring, with Gronk finishing with 258 yards and 3 touchdowns, while Hernandez had 188 yards and 2 scoring grabs of his own.

Needless to say the Patriots are probably already starting to look at the future and it's tough to not make the argument that they may be better served to let Welker go in order to make sure those two guys don't go anywhere. As good as Welker's been if these two continue to improve and play at a high level, we'll find out if their presence has the same effect on other guys like Brandon Marshall, Jabar Gaffney or Donte Stallworth - among others - to also step in and potentially have success in New England's offense. If that happens, it may only end up further hurting Welker's case for a big payday.

The bad news is it may be coming down to a situation where a long-term deal for Welker may be out of the price range to allow them the fiscal ability to retain their young duo. It took Belichick over a decade to find them and he's obviously seen how prolific this offense can be now that he's got them. With who they have for talent this year, one would have to think they'll even be that much better.

In the end it all comes down to a numbers game and who they can or can't afford to pay, but you would have to believe keeping two young guys of the caliber of Gronkowski and Hernandez will be the priority. It probably wouldn't even surprise most fans if we see some effort to try and potentially lock them up as early as this season. With that being said, a long-term deal for Welker would take away from the amount they'd be able to use to secure those two, and it's clear the value he's looking for doesn't seem to equal the value placed on that position by the front office.

We all know Welker is a special player, but so are Hernandez and Gronkowski - and they're both nearly a decade younger. Robert Kraft recently said it will take two sides to get a deal done, and if Welker is willing to compromise based on the amount of guaranteed money the team is willing to give him (usually the most important part of the deal) to try and fit himself into their long-term plans, then hopefully it may work out.

In a perfect world, they'd be able to keep everybody. All we can do now if an extension for Welker isn't reached before this season is enjoy watching him hopefully have one more productive year as a Patriot.

Otherwise all we can do is cross our fingers and hope that he's not lining up somewhere else within the division next season.

A special thanks to James Christensen of NEPatriotsDraft.com who contributed to this article.


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