I understand that most Patriots fans are going to look at the title of this post and immediately jump straight on me, but hear me out first.

The Patriots are known for their business like approach and have never been afraid to cut ties with someone they feel could have long term negative implications on the cap. Look at former Patriots Lawyer Milloy and Richard Seymour as examples over the years of fan favorites that head coach Bill Belichick has cut or traded without even batting an eyelid during his tenure here. He is constantly thinking three, sometimes four years down the line and it is the reason the Patriots have been able to sustain their success and beat the newly devised, modern NFL system on a consistent basis.

Here is where I sweeten the pot for you…and this is the only situation in which I would ever entertain the thought of letting Wes Welker go…in his place, the team signs Mario Williams. Williams is likely to walk as a free agent and with the Houston Texans unable to afford the cap hit from the Franchise Tag, it’s nearly impossible that they can afford to pay him even a “home town” discount and bring him back in 2012. Williams missed eleven games with a torn pectoral muscle in 2011, which may concern some, yet the team didn’t seem to skip a beat in defense. You could argue they steadily improved further without him as the season wore on; Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin did a fine job rushing the passer and J.J. Watt had a solid rookie campaign at DE. Over his five year career, Williams has racked up 53.0 sacks and 241 tackles.

The offseason should be interesting for Patriots receiver Wes Welker. (FILE:Icon/SMI)

So let’s just say we entertain the thought of moving on from Welker and then bringing a defensive play maker like Williams in. The first question and easily the most important is this: can you replace the production left by Welker leaving? The 2011 All-Pro Wide Receiver caught over 100 balls for the fourth time in his five year career as a New England Patriot for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns. That’s a lot of production. My answer, however, is yes we can. Someone rightfully pointed out to me on Twitter that the 2009 Baltimore playoff loss showed us what life without Welker could look like. However, this is a different team thanks to the emergence of the tight end position here in New England.

Welker is playing more of a traditional split end for the Patriots right now than he is slot receiver, which isn’t ideal for his 5’9″, 185lb frame. I have often wondered whether this has actually hurt the Patriots against more aggressive defenses, and one of my biggest criticisms of the receiver is his struggles against press coverage. To beat the Patriots right now all you really need to do is clog the middle and bump Welker to throw the timing off of his routes with Brady. Once you’ve done that, if your front three or four is good enough, you can feel comfortable with keeping up with this team’s high powered offense. This is why we have seen the emregence of a real need for a deep threat who can go down the field and not just over the middle.

So who lines up in the slot? Namely Hernandez, Gronkowski and Edelman when called upon. The Patriots do like to use Welker in motion to get him lined up in the slot, but it’s not an every down occurrence. I feel that Hernandez, who caught 79 balls for 910 yards and seven touchdowns, could work well with Edelman who, when called upon, has seemed to fill Welker’s shoes more than adequately. He was arguably our best player against Baltimore in in the 2009 playoffs filling in for the injured Wes Welker. Slot receivers aren’t hard to replace, however, it isn’t easy to find that elite split end who can open up the field for you. They haven’t had much luck in developing that position, which has been shown by the team’s inability to draft an effective down field threat.

The Patriots could tag Welker, however the cap hit would be $9.4 million of the estimated $20 million that the Patriots will have free at the start of the year. You could argue he is worth that for one more year, but does the team want to swallow it? The Patriots must put aside $5 million for rookie salaries and sign other key free agents also. They have to ask themselves a similar question as to the above and think about long term cap implications of signing him to a big, lucrative deal. “Is he worth the money? – and – “Can we replace him?” They could sign a front heavy deal of three or four years, however, when talking about the cap you have to consider other factors.

The team has Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins and Tom Brady all signed up in long term deals and, with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez both due pay days before free agency in 2014, you have to think about signing these two very young prospects as well. Would it be good to have so much money tied up in just your offense?

If the Patriots can indeed fill the void, then believe they must potentially tag Welker and then seek a trade. It’s also a case of “get what you can while you still can”. Right now you could get value picks for a trade involving Welker, but in a couple of years you will struggle to get much more than a fourth rounder…if that. If the team can make up the production then it seems logical to think towards the future even further by adding to the abundance of draft picks they already possess. I will even argue that Welker has been a product of the system (feel free to jump on me now) in which the Patriots have managed to get a lot of receivers to thrive out of. After all, it has had its failures, but what team hasn’t? The team has an elite quarterback who can get these guys the ball and a potential future replacement who needs younger weapons developed for him and soon.

The wide receiver position is already a need in the draft and free agency, so to wait to fill the void could eventually make that need become even greater. I don’t think there has ever been a  better time to try and move on from your ageing, leading receiver. The free agent market is full of receivers who could become perfect fits in the Patriots system and the draft has huge depth in this class also. There are three names that stand out to me: Robert Meachem, Brandon Lloyd, and Reggie Wayne are in the free agent market. Granted Wayne is older than Welker, but he would be a cheaper option and could fit in right away after so many successful -and durable – years in the Indianapolis Colts’ intricate offensive system under Peyton Manning. My favorite by far is Meachem at 27 years old, 6’2″ and 212 lbs. He has the elite height and speed in order to spread the field perfectly for the team at split end. In the draft I would look at either Mohamed Sanu or even Juron Criner who are two less speedy receivers but guys who run precise, crisp routes and possess good hands and football knowledge with good size.

The next issue with bringing in fresh receivers is can you make up for the relationship that Welker shares with Brady? Again, I think the answer is “yes” and that lies in Deion Branch. Branch caught 51 passes for 702 yards and five touchdowns in 2011 and has showed since returning that he still has the route running capability and chemistry with Brady that he possessed prior to being traded away in 2006. He would be that veteran who teaches whichever rookie the Patriots might choose to draft. Ultimately, in this situation, I think it would be the end of Chad Ochocinco, Johnson or whatever you want to call him nowadays. Branch would be signed to a veteran’s minimum (with a little bit added on potentially) and if they got a similar production out of him, it would be deemed a big success.

Now let’s talk about Mario Williams. Despite his injury, at 27 years old he should heal up pretty well and be good to go for the long term future. The Patriots really lack a playmaker/disruptive defensive lineman who can take their defense up a notch. Williams has shown he can fit the team’s versatile new hybrid scheme by moving from a 4-3 DE to a 3-4 OLB under Wade Philips’ regime in Houston and he has the size, speed and ability to become the best in the league, if he isn’t there already.

The cons are that he’s going to demand top money for his position. You may convince him to take a little less with the chance of a ring but ultimately you have to expect to be paying him in the range of at least $10 million. It’s pretty impossible to sign both he and Welker, so you’ve got to make do with one and I would argue that while we can fill the void and survive on offense without #83, the defense desperately needs the boost Williams would provide. It would make this team massively better without a doubt and we could see a shift back to the early dynasty days where our defense was feared by everyone.

A big signing like this would still take up a lot of cap room, cap room which the team may not see justifiable for a soon-to-be 31 year old receiver. So again the team needs to ask itself if it can handle the hit, justify the signing financially and still sign other important free agents coming off of your team. I believe you can. Under the new CBA you are allowed to carry over the remaining cap space you had from the previous season with no catch what-so-ever. The only requirement is the owner must state exactly how much and sign for it no later than 14 days prior to the start of the season, meaning that requests must be submitted by 28th February this year. The Patriots have $6.7 million free in which they can carry over to 2012 if they wish to.

The advantage to signing Williams would potentially prevent you from needing to sign a defensive end high which would enable you to hit skill positions such as receover at #27 or #31 in the first round. He solves the need long term and, if he is able to walk freely from Houston, would not require wasting a draft pick and therefore you can address other key needs such as receiver, cornerback or safety.

So to sum up the scenario; tag Welker, trade him away, sign Mario Williams long term and shore up that defensive front for the next three to four years with an additional draft pick. Make up for Welker by resigning Branch and bringing in an experienced free agent with a draft acquisition high and using the Tight Ends as we have done for the past two years.

I think we can replace Wes Welker. The tight ends will fit in fine over the middle and Edelman can fill a role if need be while bringing in a player like Lloyd, Wayne or Meachem will give the team that down the field threat which Welker doesn’t bring to the table as a split end. A further draft pick would solidify the future of the position with a hit in the first round of the draft who would benefit greatly from the experience of someone like Deon Branch. Signing Williams would be an instant upgrade on defense which is easily the team’s major concern right now, whereas I believe they can move on on offense without Welker.

It would be a tough, business-like decision to trade Welker away but not one that would surprise me. The Patriots could opt to re-sign Welker, however I don’t feel it would be practical for a long term lucrative deal to be offered. It would certainly be beneficial to the offense if they were to be able to sign him to a home town discount which isn’t out of the realm of possibility. What you have to look at is not the production of last season, but potential production down the line. Just how many more hits can Welker take and how long can he line up outside as he gets older?

These are all questions that need to be asked and it isn’t as straight forward a business decision as some may think, however easy it may seem with your hearts.

Like what you read? Check out the rest of my blog ’4th & Long’ for more! If you would like to comment and offer your insight into this article, feel free to leave your thoughts! You can follow me on twitter; @DamoJarrett

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