has 110-plus receptions in five of his six seasons in New England. (Matt Slocum/AP)
A little more than a month ago, I wrote on here that the New England Patriots seemed to be coming to their senses and appeared ready to lock down receiver Wes Welker with a new contract.
The situation has done a 180 since then, with a report out of Boston Monday that the Patriots will not use the franchise tag on Welker for a second straight season. So, unless Welker is re-offered and signs a deal similar to the two-year, $16 million deal he shot down in 2011, the talented slot receiver appears headed for free agency ... and the Patriots will have to reconsider their approach on offense.
Welker has 672 catches over his six-season New England career -- three times leading the league in receptions. He would come with a franchise tag hit of $11.4 million, though, if the Patriots chose that route, well above where the team apparently has tabbed his value.
New England has not even budged in the face of a potential total makeover at wide receiver. In addition to Welker's status, Julian Edelman (essentially Welker's backup in the slot in 2012), Deion Branch and Donte Stallworth all are pending unrestricted free agents. Brandon Lloyd also may wind up searching for work due to a $3 million option bonus the Patriots would owe him if he sticks.
That's a total of 230 receptions from this past season set to walk out the door. The Patriots showed an unexpected commitment to the run in 2012, and of course return the incomparable tight end pair of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but a cut-and-run strategy at WR would leave them with work to do.
New England currently sits approximately $15 million under next year's projected cap, too, making the decision to play it cheap at that position an even more interesting one.
Perhaps part of the thinking here comes from Welker's own background -- New England picked him up from Miami on the cheap, then he immediately hauled in 112 passes during his first season in Foxborough. The Patriots must feel that they can pull off that trick again, be it via free agency, another trade or in the draft.
Brady's presence behind a stable offensive line (Sebastian Vollmer is set to be a free agent but, unlike Welker, the Patriots likely will make every effort to re-sign him), plus the Gronkowski-Hernandez duo leaves the Patriots with an extremely solid offensive base. Given those luxuries, any receiver dropped into the slot in New England's offense would have a chance to excel.
But is there another Welker out there? The Patriots are gambling that the answer is yes, even if the easier course of action is to just pay up and keep Welker.