, Gloucester, MA

February 4, 2012

Record-breaking Welker could be headed to free agency

On Pro Football
Hector Longo

INDIANAPOLIS — To hear Chad O'Shea speak this week, it sounds like the New England Patriots are preparing for a showdown with Wes Welker.

"(Welker) does things a lot of guys in this league just physically can't do," said O'Shea, the Pats' wide receivers coach. "But he plays within our system. The receiver's job is to get open, he gets open. But he's also playing within our system."

Imagine the Pats trying to sell Welker and his people that the four-time All-Pro (twice first team) is a product of the "system."

Super Bowl XLVI could be his final game as a Patriot.

The two sides don't seem that far apart, but stranger things have happened with this team when contracts near expiration ... See Asante Samuel and Richard Seymour.

To Welker's credit, he's downplaying things.

"I plan on being back. I am not too worried about that right now," said Welker this week. "I am fully concentrated on this game and what we have to do, but I plan on being back.

"This is all stuff that we can address at another point. It can be a story after the season is over, but right now, we are just concentrating on this game. If you win this game, all the other stuff takes care of itself."

Notice the subtle message there.

A victory gives him a ring. With his first Super Bowl ring, Welker would be less likely to settle for a hometown discount.

He arrived here from Miami as a relatively unheralded player, but that's no longer the case. Four of his five seasons have been 100-plus catch seasons.

Only a crushing Week 15 injury in 2009 prevented him from a perfect 5 for 5. When that knee exploded on the turf in Houston, he stunned the football world with a recovery that had Welker back on the field in 2010. He played in 15 games that year and caught 86 balls for 848 yards.

"(Rehabbing so quickly) was a long, hard process, and on the days that you are sore, and don't feel like pushing it, you have to," said Welker. "(I worried) about being the same player, being able to come back from it. Being able to cut and do all of those different things. It was definitely a fear. You know, what's going to happen to my career?"

That toughness earned him hero status in New England, at least with the fans.

But the team? We shall see. Remember here, business is business.

The Patriots do have the luxury of the franchise tag on their side. They could bring him back next year, for one year at about $9.4 million.

The team will point to Welker's size (just 5-9, 185) his surgically repaired knee, his age (he will turn 31 on May 1) and his rather ordinary 31 touchdowns in five seasons.

But Welker, like Logan Mankins, Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork before him, is looking for long-term stability.

A four-or-five year deal in the Santonio Holmes neighborhood ($11-$12 million per) would be more to his liking.

If Mr. Brady has a say in the matter, it would happen.

"We haven't talked about (losing Wes). I would never want to think about that," said Brady. "Wes is one of my great friends. I hope he's back. He certainly deserves it. He's done a great job since he's gotten here. He led the league this year in catches and in yards. Really as an underdog he has continued to show his character. Every year he seems to get better and have an understanding of our offense and what he does. He's a great player on this team."

Enjoy Welker tomorrow night, as you have since 2007. You never know if tomorrow's game might be his last in New England.

Fab Five

It's been a record-breaking five-year run for Wes Welker in New England.