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Patriots Place Franchise Tag on Wes Welker

Wes Welker (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

It was refreshing to hear Wes Welker discussion and not have it be about whether or not he should have caught that Brady pass in the 4th quarter of the Super Bowl. Monday, as was speculated, Wes Welker was given the franchise tag by the New England Patriots. The Patriots waited until the final hours before officially placing the tag on Welker, which created some drama considering this was a team that once traded Richard Seymour a week before the start of the NFL season.

First, the facts: Welker can sign the franchise tender at any time prior to the start of the season and he will be guaranteed $9.4 million for the upcoming season. That salary figure is based on the top five average salaries of the highest paid wide receivers in the NFL. The figure does not take into consideration signing bonuses paid to the top five players. Welker can once again become a free agent at the end of next season and the Patriots have the option of placing the franchise tag on him again.

So, let’s examine this from the perspective of Wes Welker, the Patriots and how it plays with the media and fans.

Wes Welker

Without direct comment from Welker, we can only speculate what he’s thinking, but it’s likely he would much rather have a new contract in front of him than the one-year franchise tender. Since being acquired from the Miami Dolphins prior to the 2007 season, Welker has been one of the most prolific receivers in the game. In the last five years with the Patriots, his 554 receptions rank first in the NFL. He is fourth in receiving yards with over 6,100, 1st in yards after the catch with 3,220, and 18th in the league in touchdowns with 18.

He has been Brady’s go-to guy in all situations and remarkably, after tearing his ACL in the season finale in 2009, did not miss a game to start the following season. He has far outperformed his previous contract and whether you think he’s a slot receiver or not, the numbers don’t lie. Welker’s agent David Dunn surely presented the Patriots with those numbers, but the most the Patriots were willing to commit to, according to reports, was two years guaranteed at $8 million per year.

Welker’s Options

Welker now has a few options at his disposal, with none of them ideal.

He can sign the tender and play under a one-year guaranteed contract and become a free agent again next season. The Patriots could once again franchise him, but Welker’s franchise number would rise 20% (close to $13 million). So it’s either a two-year guaranteed deal at $22 million or free agency if Welker can remain healthy.

Welker could hold out, and force the Patriots to offer him a long-term deal. Or Welker could sign the tender if the Patriot guarantee him they will not franchise him after next season. They averted a holdout with Asante Samuel in 2007 by offering him the same deal. It’s a gamble for a guy who is going to turn 31 on May 1st.

Finally, Welker could wait and see what the Patriots do in free agency and continue to negotiate for a long-term deal. The caveat is that both sides need to agree on a multi-year deal by July 15th.

The New England Patriots

The Patriots said all the right things Monday in their press release about the tagging of Welker. They mentioned how the tag allowed them more time to negotiate and hopefully Wes would be a Patriot for a long time. Time will tell if that’s lip service by the Patriots or sincerity.

People have called tagging Welker a no-brainer for the Patriots. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, 21 of them used the franchise tag on various players. This is an interesting time for many NFL teams. There are some teams with a lot of money to spend like the St. Louis Rams. There are teams such as the Patriots in the middle of pack in salary cap space, and there are teams like the Steelers, who are being forced to trim salary just to get under the cap.

The lockout has once again produced a strong crop of free agents who will be on the market in a week. The new National TV contracts do not kick until the 2014 season so the cap will stay pretty consistent the next two seasons.

The Need for Welker

The Patriots and Welker have not been really close to a deal all season according to reports. The Patriots offer of two years and $16 million is far below what Welker could earn on the open market. Welker is twice the receiver Santonio Holmes is, and Holmes is earning $10 million a year with the Jets.

As great as the Patriot offense has been the last two seasons, they once again showed they do not have a receiver that can get outside the numbers. Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Welker are not explosive downfield threats like Vincent Jackson, Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. Not having this weapon allowed the Ravens and Giants to play up and tight on their receivers, and the result for the Patriots was an inability to create plays down the field.

The two clearest examples of this were Brady interceptions to Matthew Slater and Rob Gronkowski, who could not create separation on downfield throws. Chad Ochocinco was supposed to be that receiver, and he was a complete disaster.

Other Franchise Tags Around the NFL

The Patriots have glaring needs at outside receiver, defensive end and in the secondary. Monday, some intriguing players who could have helped the Patriots were also franchised or re-signed. Cross off your Christmas list safeties Dashon Goldson (49’ers), Tyvon Branch (Raiders) and Michael Griffin (Titans), linebackers Anthony Spencer (Cowboys) and Ahmad Brooks (49’ers re-signed), and defensive ends Cliff Avril (Lions) and Kroy Biermann (Falcons resigned ).

The free agent pool is still deep with big ticket but expensive defensive game changers Mario Williams (DE Texans) and Cortland Finnegan (CB Titans). As well as explosive offensive wide outs like Vincent Jackson (Chargers) and Brandon Lloyd (Rams). One note about Lloyd, he played for Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in Denver and in St. Louis, and he’s been linked with the Patriots for the past month. Don’t get your hopes up; he’s going to take the best deal.

What the Welker tag has done at the very least is guaranteed the Patriots the same offensive personnel as last season. They can’t stop with the Welker franchise tag. They can either spend on the defensive side of the ball or draft a wide receiver in the first round to stretch the field. If they do pair a Lloyd or Jackson with Welker, it would give Tom Brady one of the best offensive arsenals in the league. The only problem could be the fallout in the locker room if the Patriots offer a multi-year deal to a receiver and leave Welker on the one-year franchise tender. That could get ugly.

Another option is that the Patriots make no big splash in free agency. Let’s face it, when they have gone all in it hasn’t worked as well, so don’t be surprised if the Patriots do not land one or two of the top 20 free agents appearing on lists all across the internet.

The Media and Fan Reaction

The Patriots fan is always heavily biased toward the team. In this case, agreeing with the franchise tender is not being a “fanboy.” Welker takes a beating as a receiver, is not a game-breaker and can be taken out by bigger, physical defenses. He is 31, and has already had one major knee injury. The Patriots have several holes to fill and they need to fill them quicklybecause Tom Brady isn’t getting any younger. The AFC is wide open, and a player here or there can make all the difference and after free agency, the Patriots can always restructure a couple contracts to get Welker a multi-year deal.

Most of the local media is pretty sensible on this issue. Michael Felger, right on cue speaking on his radio show Monday, harped on the point that Welker has been a good soldier and deserved a multi-year contract. Felger is a salary cap denier, so you just can’t talk reason with him. Tony Massarotti spoke on what little leverage Welker had because he did not hold out last season. I haven’t read any comments from Ron Borges or Chris Gasper, but most likely they will try to take the opposite stance of the majority of the media, whether that stance is accurate or not. I expect with Borges more diatribes about how the Patriots took advantage of Welker and are always looking for a bargain etc.

Final Thoughts

Welker remaining with the Patriots for the 2012-2013 season was scenario #1 in my blueprint to New Orleans. Goldson, Branch and Griffin were three players I thought the Patriot should target on defense because of the glaring need at the Safety position. The Patriots can now explore corner options like Cortland Finnegan and Carlos Rogers (Redskins). There are also some pretty good pass rushers who could be had for relatively short-term deals and respectable money. I am talking about Jon Abraham (Falcons), Jeremy Mincey (Jaguars) and Patriot free agents Andre Carter and Mark Anderson.

NFL Free agency begins in a week. Unlike Major League Baseball, the NFL dominoes start falling within the first 48 hours. Patriots fans looking to put the Super Bowl behind them are hoping for a big splash.

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