Can this marriage be saved?
No, not Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, who finally appear to be getting a divorce. At issue is the football marriage between Wes Welker and the New England Patriots.
Over six seasons in Foxboro, the 5'9 wide receiver has been the little engine that could. In five of those seasons, he has totaled more than 100 receptions for over 1,000 yards, topping 1,300 yards each of the last two years. His one “subpar” year, coming off a major knee injury and surgery sooner than anyone expected, saw him catch 86 passes for 848 yards.
Welker has been Tom Brady’s go-to guy in critical situations, more often than not getting smashed as he goes over the middle to get the ball. During the 2012 season, he led the NFL’s top-ranked offense in receiving yards and was second in touchdowns.
By most accounts, Welker wants to be back in New England and the Patriots brass would like him to return. The two sides appear to be closer to a long-term deal than at any point in the previous offseason.
So why is Welker likely to test free agency? Someone is playing with fire here. The only question is whether it is Welker or the Patriots.
At 31, Welker has never been able to see what the true market is for his skills. His value has always been set by the Patriots, who got him cheap from the Miami Dolphins in 2007 and had him play under the franchise tag last season.
This year the franchise tag was too rich for Welker or any of the team’s other top free agents, even after Brady restructured and extended his contract to free up more salary cap space. It is unwise to devote too much cap space to any one player, as it will handcuff the team from making other necessary moves.
Welker’s value is genuinely difficult to ascertain. He is arguably the best slot receiver in the league, but he is more than that. He is a first down machine. He can occasionally get open deep, though he is not a reliable deep threat like Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, or former teammate Randy Moss in his prime.
So do you pay him like a Fitzgerald or do you pay him like a top-flight possession receiver?
“He's the wide receiver that you need for your dirty work,” Moss recently told the Boston Herald. Moss noted that Welker “takes the short routes and takes them 20, 30, 40 yards for the first down or maybe the touchdown.”
How much of that is due to the Patriots’ system? It is frequently noted that Welker did not light the world on fire in Miami, though he did catch 67 passes for 687 yards in limited playing time -- just two starts -- in a season marred by less than stellar quarterback play.
Brady proved to be an upgrade from Joey Harrington, but Welker can point to a season where he had more than 100 receptions and 1,000 yards without No. 12. Brady was injured almost the entire 2008 season, yet Welker caught 111 balls for 1,165 with Matt Cassel at quarterback -- just ten yards less than his performance as part of the record-setting 2007 offense.
To put this in perspective, Moss caught nearly 30 fewer passes and totaled 485 fewer yards with Cassel throwing him the football.
Same system, true, but significantly lower quarterback quality. Welker and Kevin Faulk played a huge role in preventing a steep drop-off in the Patriots’ performance that year. If Welker could up such stats with Cassel, he could certainly do so with Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers.
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.