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Patriots pounced fast to grab Welker

How did it happen?

In the wake of Wes Welker's 11-catch, 124-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Cowboys - and with the undefeated Patriots preparing to face the winless Dolphins Sunday - it's an especially timely question.

How did the Patriots pry Welker, who is tied for sixth in the NFL with 38 catches, away from a division rival?

The story, as most do, has multiple layers.

According to agent Vann McElroy, the Patriots and Vikings were the final teams vying for Welker's services. Both wanted Welker, hence their calls to McElroy as free agency began March 2, but they also knew that simply outbidding the other wasn't going to be enough. Because Welker was a restricted free agent, the Dolphins retained the right to match any offer he received.

On the second day of free agency, McElroy put together a rich contract offer to gauge the true level of interest. He knew he didn't have to sell Welker to Minnesota because the team's vice president of player personnel, Rick Spielman, was the Dolphins' general manager in 2004 when Miami signed Welker.

So there was mild surprise when it was the Patriots who jumped into a lead position, saying they would be willing to meet the asking price unless there was a last-minute change of heart based on an in-person interview. The Patriots knew they liked Welker - he shredded them in a nine-catch performance last year - but wanted to get to know him better and arranged to meet him on the fourth night of free agency.

"Once he got on the plane, we felt like it was going to take place," McElroy recalled. "New England was the team that stepped up and said, 'You know what? Let's not mess around.' On the other side, I think Minnesota was more in the mind-set of negotiating a little bit, seeing if the situation might move to another position."

At the time, the Patriots were in the process of consummating free agent contracts for linebacker Adalius Thomas, running back Sammy Morris, and tight end Kyle Brady, and discussions were underway with receivers Donté Stallworth and Kelley Washington.

The Patriots' free agent strategy was to strike quickly; with more teams having salary cap space, they felt that approach was more important than in past years. While some might have considered it a change in philosophy, the Patriots didn't. They felt they'd jumped out early in other years, such as with receiver Derrick Mason in 2005, only to be outbid by the Ravens.

From McElroy's view, the first domino fell March 1, the day before free agency began. That's when the Dolphins and general manager Randy Mueller had to decide what level to tender Welker as a restricted free agent.

They essentially had three choices: A high tender of $2.35 million would have ensured that the Dolphins received first- and third-round draft choices if another team signed Welker to an offer sheet; for $1.85 million, the Dolphins would receive a single first-round pick; and at $1.35 million, it would be a second-round selection.

In what was considered a weak draft, the Dolphins' decision to offer Welker the $1.35 million can now only be considered perplexing. Instead of forking over an additional $500,000 for a player who was coming off a career-high 67-catch season - which would have required suitors to give up a first-round pick - they essentially gave up their leverage.

"I think the sides had a different view of things," McElroy said, noting that prior attempts to negotiate an extension with the Dolphins had gained little momentum.

From Welker's perspective, the interest from the Patriots was flattering. While some teams' views of him reflected the label with which he entered the league - a rookie free agent - he felt different on his visit to New England.

By that point, the only question was how to finalize the process. The Patriots were prepared to sign Welker to an offer sheet that included a "poison pill" that would make it difficult for the Dolphins to match. Yet in hopes of avoiding the bad blood that sometimes can accompany offer sheets - the Seahawks and Vikings recently engaged in a nasty back and forth with offensive lineman Steve Hutchinson and receiver Nate Burleson exchanging teams via offer sheets - the Patriots instead called the Dolphins and proposed a trade.

The Dolphins were amenable, shipping Welker to the Patriots for second- and seventh-round draft choices. The Dolphins used the second-rounder (60th overall) to select Hawaii center Samson Satele, who has started all six games this season. The seventh-round pick (238th overall) yielded Abraham Wright, a linebacker from Colorado who has been inactive for every game.

In New England, Welker signed a five-year contract that included a $5.5 million signing bonus and $3.5 million option bonus. His presence as a slot receiver, playing alongside Randy Moss and Stallworth, has been a key part of the Patriots' offensive explosion. In Sunday's win over the Cowboys, he was on the field for 37 snaps and had 14 passes thrown his way, an extremely high percentage.

While Welker, 26, might not have fit so nicely in another team's system, to say it's all worked out for the Patriots is an understatement.

"Looking back, the bottom line is that they wanted the guy, and from Wes's perspective, the concern was that with these type of deals, something could always break down," McElroy said. "I think both sides knew that. New England did not want to mess around, and we had reached a point where we felt good about the deal and wanted to move forward. And that's how deals usually work out."

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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