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Wes Welker may test the free-agent market ... and why shouldn't he?

Will Tom Brady have  his go-to target, Wes Welker, in tow when the 2013 season rolls around? (Stephan Savoia/AP) Will Tom Brady have his go-to target, Wes Welker, in tow when the 2013 season rolls around? (Stephan Savoia/AP)

The buzz about Wes Welker's approaching free agency seems to change by the hour, but the latest update from multiple outlets is this: Welker is prepared to talk with other franchises.

The Boston Herald's Jeff Howe tweeted late Tuesday that there is "nothing imminent" between Welker and the Patriots, then ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Wednesday morning that Welker "has no plans to re-sign with the team before first testing the free-agent market."

And, quite frankly, Welker should go dip his toe in the water. Why wouldn't he at this point? The Patriots have been playing contract chicken with their six-time leading receiver for more than a year now, with Welker consistently hinting that he'd like a long-term deal.

The Patriots, thus far, have balked at those requests, convinced that Welker's set his price tag above market value.

They may be correct there -- Welker has turned himself into a star in New England, but would he be able to replicate his success elsewhere, without the benefit of the Patriots' offensive scheme and Tom Brady throwing him passes? If Welker can find one team convinced that he can, the Patriots might wind up regretting their hardline stance.

At the very least, if New England refuses to cave to Welker's demands, the diminutive slot receiver deserves to see what's out there. No player in the NFL has more catches than Welker since 2007 (672), and that total is greater than any receiver has ever put up over a six-year span.

Again, Brady and the Patriots deserve a lot of the credit there. But not so much that Welker should feel obligated to stay.

Welker played last season on the franchise tag, and it looked for awhile -- as Welker somehow opened the regular season playing behind Julian Edelman -- that New England was making plans to move on without him in 2013. Welker broke up those plans with four consecutive 100-yard receiving games, starting in Week 3, as he again fell into his role as Brady's old reliable.

"Everybody knows how I feel about Wes, our whole team feels that way about Wes," Brady told the "Dennis and Callahan" radio show in January. "He's just one of the best players I've played with and played against. He's just a phenomenal player, and he's been the heart and soul of what our team is all about. He's been so selfless, and the way that he carries himself and commits himself to help our team win, it's second-to-none.

"But like I said, those aren't my decisions."

Brady did his part, restructuring his deal to clear about $15 million off the Patriots' salary cap for the next two seasons. That move left New England with an estimated $25 million to spend under the cap for next season -- leaving plenty of room to give Welker a comfortable deal and still upgrade elsewhere.

So, what exactly is Welker's value?

Dwayne Bowe just re-upped in Kansas City for a little more than $11 million per year, about in line with what Vincent Jackson received in free agency last season.

But those players are prototypical No. 1 receivers, capable of producing just about anywhere. Welker, on the other hand, is a slot guy, who needs a perfect offensive fit. Something like $8 million per year, then, makes more sense (Welker made $9.515 million last season on the franchise tag).

Would Welker accept a multi-year deal with an $8 million yearly average? More importantly, is that even too far north for New England?

Either way, there's no reason just yet for Welker to settle and re-sign for less than what he wants. He may not find a Bowe-like deal in free agency, but, if nothing else, Welker has earned the right to take a look around.

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