As free agency inches closer, the New England Patriots have eschewed the use of the franchise tag and, by not re-signing any of them, allowed their unrestricted free agents to reach the open market. While the Patriots likely hope that their “Big 3” free agents hit the market and their blemishes lead them back to New England at a reduced price and a team-friendly deal, the same may not apply to wide receiver Wes Welker. Offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer has recurring back issues that has limited his playing time over the past three years and that may reduce his value on the free agent market, as well as a plethora of tackles available at a much lower salary cost through the draft. Cornerback Aqib Talib has plenty of baggage from his time in Tampa and that may bring him back to New England on a short-term team-friendly deal. However, Welker has been remarkably durable and has no off-field issues. In fact, he may find the market for the most productive wide receiver of the past six years as more rewarding than the Patriots are prepared to be to the free agent receiver.
Wes Welker will likely find some potential suitors on the free agent market in the Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts and likely another couple teams who will kick the tires on him. Houston and Miami have the dual purpose of weakening a rival who beat them both twice in 2012 while improving their offense. Both teams would be attractive to Welker personally, as he attended Texas Tech and played in Miami at the beginning of his NFL career. Carolina has young quarterback Cam Newton desperately needing playmakers to join him on offense, and the Panthers have the cap room to overpay for Welker. Ditto that for the Colts and their young quarterback, Andrew Luck. The Cowboys are owned by Jerry Jones, and the unpredictable maverick owner could easily fall in love with the idea of Welker converting all those Tony Romo passes into first downs and overpay for him.
As far as New England replacing Welker if he leaves via free agency, they do have options available to them. Free agent wide receiver Danny Amendola also is an undersized slot receiver from Texas Tech, and could be the Patriots first option at the slot receiver position. Adding Amendola and re-signing inexpensive free agent receiver Julian Edelman gives the Patriots two bodies for the position, as no slot receiver has had the durability of Welker and the position needs depth to cover for injury.
Having Amendola, Edelman, and possibly 2012 7th round pick Jeremy Ebert as insurance means that at least one of them should be healthy at some time during the season. As they would all contribute on special teams, they should be able to justify the roster spot for at least two, if not all three of them.
Of course, the Patriots could turn over the position entirely, and draft and sign some receivers to replace Brandon Lloyd, Welker, and Edelman. The Patriots two tight end offense has the flexibility to add an H-back (Texans free agent James Casey? Soon-to-be free agent and Josh McDaniels’ first round draft pick Tim Tebow?) in the backfield with the versatile trio of young running backs and relegate the wide receiver to a limited role in a passing offense: Two tight ends and two backs leave only a single wide receiver on the field. At maximum, the offense could limit to two wide receivers, two tight ends and a single back and keep the number of wide receivers on the roster to a minimum. A commitment to the running game, healthy tight ends, a couple slot receivers and signing a couple mid-range wide receivers could be the offseason game plan on offense.
Wes Welker is going to go into free agency and make himself available to be signed by any of the 31 other NFL franchises. The cold, hard truth is the New England Patriots, like they did with Super Bowl hero kicker Adam Vinatieri when he signed with Indianapolis, are prepared to let him leave if he gets an offer from another team that is higher than the number the Patriots front office has in mind as to what he is worth to the team. The Patriots are not going to bring Wes Welker back just because Tom Brady wants him in his offense and his friend.
Bill Belichick spends owner Bob Kraft’s money like it comes out of his own pocket, so there are no “He’s my Buddy, so we pay him” deals going on in New England. If he comes back at a team friendly price (see: Branch, Deion) then old friends are always welcome. Remember, this organization has cut safety Lawyer Milloy, let cornerback Ty Law leave in free agency, allowed wide receiver David Givens to leave in free agency and traded receiver Deion Branch in the same off-season, traded defensive tackle Richard Seymour, let cornerback Asante Samuel leave, and played hardball in negotiations with guard Logan Mankins and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork–almost losing both.
Wes Welker may still yet play in New England next season, but if there is any constant in New England, it is that anyone not wearing the hoodie or uniform number 12 is replaceable and is not guaranteed to return next season. Wes Welker should be back, but he will return only if he does not get a better offer and accepts the team-friendly contract the front office has for him.