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Patriots playing a mysterious game with Wes Welker

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  May 18, 2012 10:28 AM

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Long before Robert Meacham and Pierre Garcon moved far closer to eight digits than to seven, the Patriots made some attempt to sign Wes Welker to a multi-year contract. By many accounts, the Patriots offered Welker two years for a fully guaranteed $16 million, an average of $8 million per season that Welker declined.

So why are the Patriots now offering Welker less?

Are they trying to keep Welker or drive him away?

But that is precisely where we stand, Patriots followers, at least according to what Welker told Boston Herald reporter Karen Guregian on Thursday with regard to "discussions" between him and the team on a longer-term contract. Asked to characterize talks between him and the club, Welker said that things have gotten "worse," indicating that now the team seems even less inclined than before to accommodate him.

Tell you what: let's go over the particulars here (at least as we know them) to make sure we're all seeing this the same way. Last year was Welker's final season on a five-year, $18.1-million deal that ultimately paid him an average of $3.6 million per season. Welker turned 31 earlier this month. The Patriots clearly have reservations about investing in a slot receiver now in his 30s, so they have offered him nothing longer than a two-year deal.

Following the season, the Patriots used the franchise tag on Welker, setting his 2012 salary at a guaranteed $9.52 million. Recently, Welker signed the tender and effectively dismissed any remaining thought that he might hold out, issuing a tweet that all but begged the Patriots to meet him in the middle.

"I signed my tender today. I love the game and I love my teammates!" Welker typed. "Hopefully doing the right thing gets the right results. #leapoffaith"

Since that time, Welker has informed us that the Patriots are now offering even less than the annual average of $8 million they did in the fall, a particularly curious piece of information given the money that was thrown at inferior players like Garcon (in excess of $8 million per with Washington) and Meacham (nearly $7 million per with San Diego). And before anyone suggests that Garcon and Meacham are outside receivers and Welker plays in the slot, it is worth noting that the collective bargaining agreement between players and owners does not distinguish those differences with regard to things like the franchise tender.

In the NFL structure, a receiver is a receiver is a receiver.

You should also know this: if the Patriots want to franchise Welker again after next season, they have the right to do so. (This would allow the Patriots to protect themselves against injury and pay Welker on a year-to-year basis, at least through 2013) If that happens, Welker's salary in 2013 will be roughly $11.4 million, placing his two-year earnings (for 2012-2013) just a shade under $21 million, fully guaranteed.

Got all that? In the fall, Welker was offered $16 million guaranteed over two years. Since then, the price for receivers has gone up and Welker now is in position, so long as he stays healthy, so earn $21 million guaranteed over the next two seasons. So why would the Patriots offer even less than the original $16 million?

To bust Welker's chops? To let him know who's boss? To remind him that NFL players have few or no rights at all when it comes to leverage?

Let's make this clear. No one is suggesting that Welker deserves Larry Fitzgerald money or Calvin Johnson money. He doesn't. And if the Patriots don't want to give Welker a long-term deal, that is certainly within their power. (Again, NFL players have no rights) But if that is the Patriots' ultimate end game, then why not just sit down with Welker and tell him, in the simplest terms.

Wes, we value you tremendously, but we're not comfortable giving you a multiyear deal. We don't expect you to like it. We hope you understand. If all goes well, you might very well be franchised again and you'll end up making $21 million over two years.

Instead, the Patriots offered a two-year deal worth less than they offered at the end of last year, as if they're trying to kick Welker while he's down.

And take that.

Of course, there is the very distinct possibility that the Patriots have no intention of using the franchise tag again on Welker next year because they don't want to pay a slot receiver $11.4 million. During this offseason, the Patriots have signed, re-signed or renegotiated with just about any relatively low-cost receiver that wasn't nailed down. (Isn't it interesting how when a guy like Chad Ochocinco underperforms the Patriots want money back?) Add in Daniel Fells and the Patriots have a list of potential pass-catchers that includes Brandon Lloyd, Ochocinco, Deion Branch, Jabar Gaffney, Donte Stallworth, Anthony Gonzalez, Julian Edelman and others, not to mention tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Fells and Aaron Hernandez, the last of whom looks like a slot receiver-in-waiting.

Maybe Welker watched all of this and decided to sign his tender before the Patriots rescinded it. Maybe the Patriots leveraged him into it. Regardless, Welker is now learning that football is football and business is business, and in Foxborough, especially, an adage holds true.

Even if they're good players, nice guys often finish last.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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