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BOSTON (CBS) – When the opening of free agency Tuesday afternoon turned NFL general managers into a bunch of sugar-fueled 12-year-olds with blank checks at Toys R Us, it didn’t take long for everyone to realize that the Patriots’ task of signing Wes Welker to an agreeable long-term extension instantly became about 10 times more difficult.
Vincent Jackson got five years and more than $55 million, with $26 million guaranteed. Pierre Garcon got more than $20 million guaranteed and $42.5 million over five years. Marques Colston got $40 million over five years, $19 million of it guaranteed. Robert Meachem signed on the dotted line for $25.9 million over four years with $14 million in guaranteed.
And Wes Welker may be better than all of them. At the very least, he’s as valuable as any wide receiver in the league, and if he and his agent want to, they have every right to hold the Patriots’ feet to the flames by holding out for a big-money deal.
But then, after some of the wideout hysteria had calmed down a bit, there was perhaps the most shocking signing of the day: Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis. Three years, $17.5 million, $7.5 million guaranteed.
READ: Will Welker Cash In?
Granted, it was while working alongside Peyton Manning, and granted, Wayne is a few years older than the wideouts who signed big deals Tuesday, but Wayne has become one of the game’s best receivers over the past eight seasons. He has three times as many receptions as Jackson and about twice as many touchdowns. He hasn’t missed a game since 2001. He has three 100-catch seasons, while the rest of that free-agent crop combined has zero. Working together in the same offense for the past three seasons, Wayne outproduced Garcon by 102 catches, 1,083 yards and four touchdowns. Yet, it is Garcon (because he’s younger) raking in the millions and Wayne accepting the more modest salary to keep the horseshoe on his helmet.
Wayne would not have been able to haul in a four-year, $40 million deal, but he no doubt passed up at least $8 million in guaranteed money that he could have made somewhere else.
With Wayne’s re-up in Indy, it became clear that Tuesday was not at all about the Patriots. It was instead all about Wes Welker. It’s up to him which path he wants to choose – chase the money he’s earned with the risk of moving to an unknown team, or find comfort and security with what he knows already works.
Most people would choose the latter, but as we’ve all learned watching him closely for the past five years, Welker is quite clearly not most people.
“I still think Welker is so much of a team guy,” NESN.com Patriots beat reporter Jeff Howe told Toucher & Rich on Wednesday morning. “Just from digging through his past, he’s an extremely loyal person. He wants to stay in New England. I don’t think – I know he’s not the type of person who’s going to say, ‘Well, look at how the last 24 hours went. Now I want an extra $20 million.’
“I think he’s still a guy who has a voice of reason and can really get past that stuff and work toward getting a deal done.”
Welker, who’s led the league in receptions since 2007 while averaging 1,221 yards per year and scoring 31 touchdowns. He’s been steady in the postseason as well, averaging 7.5 catches and 62.5 yards in his seven playoff games with the Patriots. In fact, his “worst” playoff game, statistically, came this year against Baltimore, when he still caught six passes for 53 yards.
We know he works exceptionally well with Tom Brady, and he said he wants to return to the Patriots. We also know the Patriots are unlikely to break the bank on an over-30 player, no matter who that player is. Logan Mankins was 29 when he signed his six-year deal last year, and Vince Wilfork was 28 when he signed his five-year deal. And while both Mankins and Wilfork absorb their fair share of bumps and bruises in the trenches, nobody gets beat up as much as Welker. The Patriots are just using business smarts to limit their long-term commitment to a player like Welker.
Basically, if Welker wants to make Garcon money, he’s going to have to do it elsewhere. The alternative is to follow the lead of Wayne, who proved loyalty is not dead.
Of course, the situations of Wayne and Welker aren’t 100 percent similar. Welker is two years younger and is a slot receiver, while Wayne is at his best running his routes along the sideline. Welker’s more of a possession receiver, as he’s never reached double digits in touchdowns, while Wayne has done so on three separate occasions. But the parallel is clear: Wayne said he wanted to return to Indy, and he did. Welker can too.
With the flood of money dumped on wideouts Tuesday, it’s safe to assume Wayne could have made $10 million more dollars. Instead, and despite an almost unfathomable roster turnover, he stuck with the only NFL city he’s ever known.
There were two small groups formed on Tuesday. There were the handful of receivers who cashed in their mega millions tickets, and then there was Wayne, stood out by proving he was a man of his word.
Now it’s up to Welker to decide which of those he’d like to join.