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Welker could be headed for receiving end

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  August 17, 2011 03:56 PM

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Wes Welker could see the number of balls his way dwindle this year. (Michael Dwyer / AP photo)

Wes Welker has been on the receiving end of a lot of Patriots passes since being imported to New England in 2007 – 432 to be exact, more that anyone else in the NFL. But this season could mark his receiving end in Foxborough.

Welker is in the final year of the five-year, $18.1 million deal he signed after the Patriots snagged him from the division rival Miami Dolphins and will carry a $2.15 million base salary.

After backing up the Brinks truck for Vince Wilfork, Tom Brady and most recently Logan Mankins, Welker is within his rights to ask when he gets his Patriot payday. Perhaps, something in the neighborhood of the six-year, $54.1 million deal Miles Austin got last September from the Dallas Cowboys.

According to a source close to Welker, there have not been any recent discussions with the Patriots about an extension.

Welker fits the mold of veteran players the Patriots have dipped deep into the Kraft family coffers for recently. He walks the straight and narrow of the Patriot Way, and is arguably the best at his position in the league.

Welker is a nearly invaluable asset for Brady, but the Patriots have to assign a value to him. And it’s going to be one of the most challenging contract quandaries of the Bill Belichick era.

My guess is Belichick and Co., won’t value Welker’s work quite the same way Welker and his representation will. That’s why Welker is more likely to be running an out route than a comeback route after this season, unless the Patriots drop the dreaded franchise tag on him. But considering this year’s tag for wideouts was $11.3 million, even that could be too rich for the Patriots' taste.

Historically, the Patriots have not paid a premium for pass catchers. All Welker has to do is the ask the last guy who served as the security blanket for Brady, Deion Branch.

Branch, who is also in the last year of his contract and will make $2.2 million, had to be shipped to Seattle in 2006 to get his financial windfall. Chad Ochocinco and his Twitter account are locked up through 2013 with base salaries of $3 million in each of the next two seasons after this one.

Yes, Randy Moss (remember him?) got $9 million per year from the Patriots over three years. But he was A) coming off arguably the greatest season any receiver had ever had in 2007 and B) took less straight cash, homie, than he was offered in Philadelphia to return to Fort Foxborough.

How you value Welker depends on how you view him.

Do you see him as one of the NFL’s most reliable and productive pass catchers over the last four years, a guy who could get open if he was double-covered in a coat closet, is willing to be a crash-test dummy to carve out first downs, and even on one good leg led the team in receptions with 86?

Only Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison have more 100-catch, 1,000-yard receiving seasons than Welker (three). And one of those seasons, 2008, came when he was catching passes from Matt Cassel, not Mr. Brady.

Or do you see him as a worn down, 30-year-old wide receiver who benefited from Moss blowing the top off the defense, is playing in a system that fits his abilities like a bespoke suit, and lost his ability to cut sharper than a Ginsu after he tore up his left knee on the Reliant Stadium turf in January of 2010?

Welker only averaged 9.9 yards per reception on his 86 grabs last year, and had just one 100-yard receiving game. He ranked 18th in the league in yards after catch and averaged five yards after his grabs. In 2009, he was second in the league and averaged six yards after catch.

Both descriptions have merit, which is why Welker’s contract saga promises to be fascinating and generate a lot of debate.

Some feel Welker is irreplaceable, and in a town that loves the little guy his diminutive stature has only raised his stature. He is in that category of Napoleonic athletes we adore along with Dustin Pedroia and Brad Marchand.

Other fans like Welker, but place system over player. They point to slot receivers like Davone Bess in Miami and Danny Amendola in St. Louis and contend they could be similarly productive here. There are those who think Julian Edelman is a Welker-in-waiting, which is sort of like saying brass could be gold with enough polish.

Welker knows what is at stake this season. This could be his last, best chance to cash in on his abilities.

Self-promotion is not Welker's game. His ability to beat defenders is matched by his inability to beat his own chest.

So, it was notable that he started tacitly building a case for a new deal when he said on Monday, “this is the best I’ve felt in my career.”

"I feel great. I feel like I've gained a step from two years ago,” said Welker. “This is the best I've felt in a long time, and I just want to continue to play well and continue to get better and do the things that help the team win."

Bold words considering two years ago he caught 123 passes, the second-most in a single-season in NFL history.

If Welker’s yacking is honest then his YAC will tell the tale.

Generating yards after catch is a crucial part of Welker’s game. Since joining the Patriots, the average length in the air of the passes Welker has caught has been 4.6 yards, according to STATS, LLC. But his yards gained after reception is 5.9. He leads the NFL in yards after catch since '07 with 2,564. Next closest is 1,753 by Brandon Marshall.

If Welker plays the way he says he feels, someone will pay him. He just might have a receiving address other than Patriot Place.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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