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There’s a catch with Welker, Patriots

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / February 28, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS - The future of receiver Wes Welker is just one of the issues the Patriots will have to tackle this offseason, which kicks off next week when tenders go out to free agents, then gets into high gear when the signing period begins March 13.

But the Welker situation is obviously the most important, and has the potential to be the most dramatic.

Hopefully both sides find common ground and Welker is in uniform for training camp. That’s in the best interest of the team, player, and the fans.

But that may not happen.

The Patriots, barring some unusual development, will likely place the franchise tag on Welker, which will pay him about $9.4 million guaranteed next season.

Welker can either sign the tender - which would guarantee his place on the team - or he could wait. Welker would sign it if he thought a legitimate contract extension offer was coming.

Welker would wait to sign it to put a little pressure on the team. It would take him out of all offseason workouts and practices until he signs.

If Welker signs, he gives up the only leverage he has: withholding his services throughout the offseason, training camp and, perhaps, into the regular season.

That’s the route guard Logan Mankins took in 2010. There’s one big difference, however: Mankins had to report to the team by the middle of the season to get credited with another season toward unrestricted free agency. Welker is already there, so the only motivation to show up for the season would be monetary.

That would set the course for a stare-down between Welker, the league’s leading pass catcher last season, and the team.

Welker would essentially be telling the team, “Go ahead and see how Tom Brady likes throwing to the two tight ends and nobody else. Good luck with Chad Ochocinco, an aging Deion Branch, and Julian Edelman. And whoever you bring in the draft or free agency, you and I both know the team does not have a good track record for producing instant chemistry with Brady, who hears the clock ticking. I’ll be waiting for your call.’’

It’s a compelling argument. But the team also has a few.

Welker is going to be 31 May 1. If he wants to bypass $9.4 million in one of the few remaining earning years he has left in that 5-foot-9-inch body, so be it.

The Patriots did fine without Mankins, and they likely would feel comfortable adjusting the offense without Welker. Aaron Hernandez is basically a slot receiver. Edelman is a good football player who deserves more time. Branch can contribute on the cheap - no one else is going to sign him. And then the team can decide to throw more money into signing free agent receivers, and also use the draft to get one or two more.

At that point, the Patriots can use another weapon at their disposal: the threat to remove the franchise tag, which would make Welker an unrestricted free agent after most teams have already spent their money on free agents and moved ahead in the draft.

The market certainly wouldn’t be as rich for Welker at that point, but there are enough teams with oodles of cap space that he would be able to find a home.

Still, Welker would be faced with the choice of playing with the tag and with Brady throwing to him, or more financial security with a lesser quarterback and a lesser chance at winning.

It’s a tough spot for him and the team.

Welker’s agency, Athletes First, has a long and civilized history dealing with the Patriots. Both sides agreed on a contract for Drew Bledsoe that was the richest in league history in 2001. The agency, headed by David Dunn, represents the most Patriots (seven). It doesn’t have a history of holding players out. And Welker is a team-first guy, through and through.

All it takes is one word, one conversation, and a long-term deal would be nailed down and Welker would rightfully be a Patriot for the rest of his career.

It happens every offseason in the NFL. A player feels disrespected for not being immediately rewarded for his sacrifices, and there is a hint the situation could get messy. And then an acceptable contract offer comes - nothing gets done in this league without a looming deadline - and everyone lives happily ever after.

That could certainly happen with Welker. Hopefully it does. But it might not.

After spending last week at the NFL Combine talking to various league, team, and player sources, here’s a snapshot at where things stand on the Patriots’ roster:

Quarterback Brian Hoyer is a restricted free agent. He likely will be back for one season before leaving as an unrestricted free agent, with the Patriots receiving a compensatory draft pick in 2014. The team has three tender options: first-round pick as compensation ($2.7 million projected), second round ($1.9 million), or right of first refusal ($1.26 million). First round seems too expensive for a backup. Someone will sign Hoyer if it’s only right of first refusal. A second-round tender seems about right. But whether the Patriots would be interested in trading him for less, perhaps a third-round pick, is the big question. Hoyer would be perfect for a team that wants competition for its starter, but doesn’t want to break the bank. In a sense, he’d make a lot of sense for the Jets to push Mark Sanchez, but they can’t afford the pick and don’t have much cap room.

Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis likely will be allowed to test unrestricted free agency. The Patriots would be open to Green-Ellis returning because he’s steady, tough, and doesn’t fumble, but only at their price. It’s time for the Class of 2011 - Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen - to take control. The Patriots would need at least one veteran, and that might as well be Green-Ellis if the price is right.

Tight end The contracts of Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski expire after 2013. The Patriots need to stagger those two contracts to retain both of them down the line. Conventional wisdom is Hernandez would be easier to get done early because Gronkowski will require the top contract at the position. But that might not hold. Hernandez’s statistics are pretty compelling. In other words, expensive.

Receiver There won’t be a market for Branch. He knows that, and the team knows that. So expect him back on the cheap, and a possible release depending on how free agency, the draft, and Welker progress. The more people I talk to about Ochocinco, the more convinced I am that it’s never going to work for him in this offense. It just seems like he’ll never get it. But depending on the other moves, he could be back under a restructured contract, then subject to a release. The team and players loved having him around. He was a terrific teammate, just not even close to being effective.

Offensive line Despite talking about retiring, right guard Brian Waters is expected to be back for another season. According to multiple NFL sources, the Patriots are prepared to move on without left tackle Matt Light and center Dan Koppen. The hope is to get Dan Connolly, who is an unrestricted free agent, under contract before free agency. This is a weird year for free agent centers. It looks as if there is going to be musical chairs at the position because 13 starters are free agents, and there’s not a ton of immediate talent in the draft. Connolly would probably prefer to stay put and take the comfortable chair before the music starts because there might not be any pricier ones left when it stops. The Patriots feel very good about Nick McDonald - they think they stole one from the Packers - and Ryan Wendell, plus they’ll likely add one interior lineman in the draft. And Marcus Cannon can play there as well. The Patriots would like him to be the swing tackle behind left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. I’m not quite sure we have seen the last of Light in a Patriots uniform. With an offseason, Solder will definitely be ready to play well on the left side - which is his better position because of his outstanding feet. But I’m not sure how the Patriots can feel confident in Vollmer after the back problems he had in college, which resurfaced last season. That has to give them pause. The best situation for the team is for Light, Solder, and Vollmer all to be back. But will Light come back as a backup at less money, or at least to compete with Solder? That’s the big question.

Defensive line It sounds as if Andre Carter will be back, but a lot of teams like him and might be willing to pay more than the Patriots. I could see Carter rebuffing those offers to stick with the sure thing in New England, even if he’s not paid as much. Mark Anderson is a very interesting situation that no one really has a read on. Doubt the Patriots would overpay for him. Gerard Warren might be back, but not Shaun Ellis.

Linebacker Could see a situation in which Gary Guyton and Tracy White return for the minimum after striking out on the open market, but the Patriots need to get better at backup inside linebacker. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes take a pounding. The Patriots also need at least one bonafide cover inside linebacker. The draft is a possibility. You would like to see the Patriots add a dynamic athlete to the front seven, but Bill Belichick hasn’t seemed inclined to do that outside of Adalius Thomas.

Secondary Besides Welker, Patrick Chung’s the next contract situation. He is up after 2012. That’s not a straight-forward negotiation either, because Chung hasn’t stayed healthy. He looks like he could be a star, but how comfortable are the Patriots committing to a player who has been banged up the past two seasons (eight games played in 2011)? Hopefully something is worked out that is smart for Chung and the team. Would seem like a win-win. The Patriots definitely need to get more safety help in free agency and/or the draft. James Ihedigbo should be back to provide depth, leadership, and special teams play. Cornerback Antwaun Molden could be back with a minimum offer and then the team will wait to see what happens in training camp. Possibly Nate Jones, but I doubt it. The Patriots need more and better.

Shalise Manza Young contributed to this report. Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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