The Patriots and their wide receiver will have to get open quickly.
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Nevertheless, salary caps are relatively flat this year and it may be hard for Welker to get the money he wants — and probably could have commanded last year — on the open market. There are a number of quality free agent wide receivers out there, and Anquan Boldin and Percy Harvin could soon join them.
From the Patriots’ perspective, the risk is that the cupboard is bare at wide receiver. The Patriots likely need to acquire another wideout even if Welker stays, especially if the team decides not to pick up Brandon Lloyd’s $3 million option after a good but not great 2012 season. If Lloyd goes, special teamer Matthew Slater is the only receiver with game experience still under contract. Slater has one career reception.
Without Welker, the team will likely have to spend considerable money at the receiver position anyway. Having some combination of tight end Aaron Hernandez and wide receiver Julian Edelman replace Welker is risky, because neither player has been as durable. Ditto tight end Rob Gronkowski, a monster on the field who has been injured at critical moments of the last two seasons.
Edelman’s return isn’t guaranteed either. He is a free agent and there have been reports of talks with the Cleveland Browns. Danny Woodhead, the Pats’ top pass-catching running back, is also a free agent. Tight end Jake Ballard sat out last season and is coming off a serious knee injury.
The Patriots could use speedster who can take the top off defenses even with Welker. If they rely on Welker substitutes, like any of the above mentioned or the St. Louis Rams’ Danny Amendola, they will have no choice but to bid for a deep threat with a high price tag.
This is what sets up the one scenario where things may get out of hand, causing Welker to leave the team. If Welker tests the waters too long, the Patriots will have to make moves in free agency that account for his departure. That may further reduce what they are willing to pay Welker. Maybe that knowledge brings him back to the table faster. Maybe it causes him to go elsewhere.
Welker’s detractors emphasize his inopportune drops, which can be explained by the team asking him to do too much. It remains to be seen whether Welker becomes one of the Patriots’ unfortunate drops himself.
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