has 100 catches in five of his last six seasons. (Elsa/Getty Images)
Hey, remember when the Patriots started Julian Edelman over Wes Welker way back in Week 2?
It was a head-scratcher of a moment -- Welker, the Patriots' franchise-tagged star, standing on the sidelines while Edelman, with less than 50 career catches before 2012, worked with the first team. Perhaps Bill Belichick was trying to plan for a Welker-less future or attempting to push his team more toward a Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez-centeric, run-heavy offense.
Whatever the original plan may have been, the situation has changed.
Hernandez, Gronkowski and Edelman all dipped in and out of the lineup because of injuries this season. Welker, meanwhile, turned in another consistently stellar season: 1,300-plus yards on a team-leading 118 catches.
And so, with Welker set to be an unrestricted free agent again, the question once again has arisen: How could the Patriots possibly let this guy go?
The answer: They probably can't.
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At least, it is hard to imagine the Patriots entering 2013 with a reliable backup plan in place. Edelman will be an unrestricted free agent himself, and that Gronkowski-Hernandez duo has seen only minimal action together all year.
Welker reasserted himself as Tom Brady's go-to guy on Sunday, in a 41-28 playoff win over the Texans. After Gronkowski left the game in the first quarter with another forearm injury, Welker saw 13 targets and caught eight, for 131 yards. Repeatedly, in big spots, Brady turned Welker's direction, even on the rare occasions that the Texans had defenders in place.
Finding a dependable slot receiver to replace Welker looks, for now, like an impossible task for the Patriots -- even if they re-sign Edelman and/or push further toward a run-based attack.
That said, the Patriots have ignored Welker's desire for a long-term deal (this feels like a good spot to remind you that Welker tore his ACL and MCL at the tail end of the 2009 season). All signs, then, are pointing toward Welker seeing the franchise tag again this offseason, if the Patriots opt to keep him.
Because he is playing this season under that tag, his salary would escalate from the $9.515 million he earned in 2012 to an estimated $11.4 million for 2013.
That's a hefty fee, especially with Brady's cap hit for 2013 falling at about $22 million -- he restructured his deal last March to help the Patriots' 2012 situation. The prospect of spending $33 million of a $121 million cap on just two players is far from ideal, and it speaks to why the Patriots might have considered a Welker-less future.
New England likely could ease those financial concerns by inking Welker to a multi-year deal. The two sides reportedly could not agree on such a contract last offseason, with the Patriots unwilling to break the bank for Welker.
However, with that franchise tag number climbing and Welker's value within the Patriots' offense still very clear, the New England front office may reconsider.
Either way, all that speculation about the Patriots moving forward without Welker in 2013 seems to be a thing of the past. The Patriots need their irreplaceable slot receiver, no matter the cost.