BOSTON (CBS) — Let’s start with this before proceeding any further: Any man who gets paid $9 million to do any job is not a man who really deserves sympathy. When that job involves getting bulldozed by 240-pound linebackers — and being the best in the business at it — though, things get a little different.
So the news of Wes Welker officially getting the franchise tag placed on him is not a sad story. He’ll be paid upwards of $9 million for his work from September through January, and he’ll either hit the free-agent market in the following months or he’ll get tagged again and make another $9 million. All things considered, that’s not a bad fate for a 30-year-old.
Still, with Welker, there’s no question that he, more than just about anyone else, deserves a long-term contract that rewards him for being grossly underpaid since 2007. He’s caught 554 passes since then, most in the NFL, for 6,105 yards and 31 touchdowns, setting a franchise record in 2011 with 1,569 yards and becoming just the second player in history with two seasons of 120 or more catches. He worked his tail off following the 2009 season to prove everyone wrong and start in Week 1 after tearing knee ligaments just nine months earlier. And along the way, he’s absorbed countless violent hits, a result of his fearlessness across the middle of the field. If anyone deserves a mega-contract as a reward, it is Wes Welker.
However, the reality of today’s NFL is that it’s a cold, cold world. You can’t just go handing out rewards just because someone deserves one. With salary cap constraints and the ever-present fear that one more hit can end a career, teams can’t hand out big-money, long-term commitments to guys with the kind of mileage that Welker has.
And that’s where the Patriots and Welker are at this moment. Welker’s agent, David Dunn, can easily make the case that his client deserves as much or more than some of the highest-paid receivers in the league, and the Patriots can just as easily play it smart by waiting it out and trying to find common ground on a more reasonable deal.
There’s no doubt that the Patriots — with Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Robert Kraft leading the way — love Welker. He’s been among the most valuable players and reliable contributors the team has had for the past five years, a period in which the Patriots have gone 64-16 in the regular season and made it to two Super Bowls. At the same time, again, the cruel reality is that he takes a beating on the field, and the Patriots have to be concerned that the next time Welker gets knocked to the turf, he might not be able to get up.
There’s also the free-agent crop of receivers, which presents Belichick and the Patriots with different options at the position for the future. Mike Wallace (who at 25 is the same age Welker was when the Patriots traded for him) could be signed away from the Steelers for the cost of a first-round pick, of which the Patriots have two this year. Star wideout Vincent Jackson is available to the highest bidder, as are Brandon Lloyd and Reggie Wayne. Simply put, the Patriots have options, and if Welker’s camp won’t relent with its demands for a long-term deal, the Patriots still hold all the power.
It’s a cruel game both sides must play, but there’s more than enough reason to believe it will end well for both sides. The Patriots were able to make Vince Wilfork happy after tagging him, and more surprisingly, they were able to do the same for Logan Mankins. The team’s not-so-happy franchise history came with players like Asante Samuel, who wanted to be the richest corner in football, and Tebucky Jones, whom the team didn’t need. Would you say Welker is closer to the “Patriot Way” type of player like Wilfork, or a me-first, give-me-the-money guy like Samuel?
The answer is obviously the former, and when you factor in his rapport with Brady and his standing with the head coach and owner, there’s no reason to have any worry that the two sides won’t reach an agreement before training camp opens.
The team sounded awfully positive in that regard with its statement Monday.
“Wes Welker is a remarkable football player for our team and has been a vital component to our offense and special teams since we traded for him in 2007,” the team said in an official statement. “Utilizing the franchise designation allows both sides more time to try to reach an agreement, which is the goal. Wes remains a contractual priority and we are hopeful that he will remain a Patriot for years to come.”
So, too, do most fans, but for now, the team is simply doing what it has to do. It’s not friendly, and it’s not ideal. It’s just the way things have to be in the NFL.