One of the more surprising headlines on the first day of the NFL's free agency period was the news that the New England Patriots couldn't manage to strike a deal with receiver Julian Edelman and keep their leading pass-catcher from last season off the market.
But perhaps it shouldn't have caught us off guard. The echoes of last year's Wes Welker departure for Denver early in free agency were rather unmistakable. New England reportedly gave Edelman a deadline of 4 p.m. Tuesday to accept its three-year offer, but the two sides were not close to agreement when free agency opened and Edelman is now free to elicit offers.
The Patriots and Edelman will remain in communication and haven't given up hope of reaching common ground, but the possibility of New England losing a highly productive slot receiver for the second offseason in a row just increased dramatically. Especially since a pair of very familiar Patriots rivals -- the Jets and Ravens -- both are in need of receivers and reportedly have interest in Edelman.
Where have New England fans seen this movie before? Last March, of course, when Welker took his talents to Denver and helped Peyton Manning and the Broncos turn 2013 into a Super Bowl season in the Rockies. As they did with Welker, the Patriots apparently have valued Edelman at a level that suggests they view him as an interchangeable part in their offense, and not someone who enjoyed a breakthrough season in the NFL, catching 105 passes for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns, while emerging as Tom Brady's favorite target.
It's starting to become quite clear in Foxboro: It doesn't really pay to be Brady's favorite target. Welker left New England amid some acrimony last year, and now Edelman seems to be getting a version of the same back-of-the-hand treatment. Time will tell if it's a case of history repeating itself.
The irony of Tuesday's developments might be that the same player who benefitted the most from Welker's departure could again be in luck due to Edelman's possible exit from New England: Receiver Danny Amendola. It was Amendola's availability in free agency last year that clearly influenced the Patriots to make Welker a take-it-or-leave-it two-year offer of $10 million that, with incentives, could have risen to $16 million. The thinking was that Amendola, the former Rams' slot receiver, would prove to be a younger and cheaper version of Welker, capable of matching his production once Brady was doing the passing.
But a funny thing happened on the way to making that a reality. It was actually Edelman who stepped up and filled the Welker role for New England, despite re-signing with the Patriots last offseason for close to a minimum-level, one-year contract of about $1 million including incentives. By comparison, Amendola received a five-year, $28.5 million contract that included $10 million in bonuses and guarantees, before struggling through a so-so season in which he caught 54 passes for 633 yards and just two touchdowns, while missing games due to both a groin injury and a concussion.
Amendola was reportedly being shopped around the league this week, and potentially was in danger of being released by the team if he could not be dealt. That move does not seem to be as likely now that Edelman's return is in question, leading to the easy conclusion that the Patriots should have held on to either Welker or Edelman, but might somehow be forced to make due with their third-best option at slot receiver. New England might have boxed itself in on Amendola by not getting Edelman re-signed, and that's not going to make Pats Nation happy.
Edelman is likely seeking to at least match the $5-million-plus yearly salary the Patriots gave Amendola, and you would think given New England's experience with losing Welker, the two sides would be able to agree on some amount in that ballpark. Especially since Edelman is also a dangerous punt returner, averaging 10.7 yards per return in 2013. After all, the salary cap somewhat surprisingly rose $10 million to $133 million this season, and is reportedly headed up significantly in each of the coming two years, to perhaps the range of $160 million by 2016. There is money to spend on the players who prove themselves, and the vast majority of the cap has to be spent under the CBA's rules in the coming four years.
Taking a quick read of Edelman's market on Tuesday, I found that teams around the league were somewhat surprised that he even made it to free agency, believing that he would come to terms with New England. There's interest in him to be sure, but it's not a red-hot market at the moment and might take time to develop. Teams do seem wary and a bit tentative when it comes to receivers under 6-foot, as even Welker himself found out to some degree last offseason.
Patriots observers say the predicament with the team's slot receiver position is at least partly the fault of New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who aggressively pushed for Amendola's signing last year, having coached him in St. Louis in 2010. With misplaced confidence in the injury-prone Amendola, the Patriots let Welker walk. Then New England watched the previously injury-prone Edelman stay healthy and produce a career-year in 2013, and now might lose him as well. It's too simple to say Amendola played a role in costing the Patriots both Welker and Edelman, but there may be a grain of truth in that assessment.
There's still time to re-sign Edelman, and perhaps Amendola, if he remains in New England, has a bounce-back season in 2014. But the Patriots were supposed to be adding receiving weapons this offseason after Brady remarkably made due with a lot of youth and experience last year, not subtracting his one go-to guy.
For now, I'm not sure I understand any more how the Patriots determine the value of their productive slot receivers. If it's Brady who makes them what they are, then they should have just elevated Edelman to begin with last year and never given Amendola a sniff. It's Edelman who deserves a big raise in New England, but just like Welker discovered last year at this time, the payday he seeks might very well come elsewhere.