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What’s next for Wes Welker and the Patriots?

07.16.12 at 6:40 pm ET

The Monday deadline for a long-term deal for Wes Welker has come and gone. So what does this mean for his future with the franchise?

Under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, players like Welker who were hit with the franchise tag had until 4 p.m. on Monday to reach a new deal or play the entire 2012 season under the franchise tender — in Welker’€™s case, roughly $9.5 million. The failure to reach a new deal means that the sides face the latter scenario, which sets up three potential outcomes:

1) Welker and the Patriots reach an accord on a ‘€œlong’€ term deal following the season. (In quotes because any deal at that point probably wouldn’€™t be longer than three years, tops.)

2) Welker becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2013, and New England hits him with the franchise tag once again (expected to be roughly $11 million). If he does stay healthy for the duration of 2012 and 2013, that would give Welker two years at just over $20 million. Not a bad deal, but considering Welker’€™s production, that would make him one of the most underpaid players in the league.

3) The Patriots believe the escalating 2013 franchise tag number makes another game of tag with Welker too cost-prohibitive — particularly with a flat cap expected in 2013 — and they simply decide to let him walk after the upcoming season. Remember, this is a franchise that has a well-earned reputation for cutting ties with veterans a year too early as opposed to a year too late. Welker would then become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.

The 31-year-old receiver and the Patriots have faced a unique set of issues throughout the entire negotiation process. In truth, there are no other comparable situations to what the two sides have faced since they started discussing a long-term deal for the receiver: Setting aside their skill sets, Welker’€™s pure numbers’€™ suggest he should be in line for a similar sort of deal that wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald signed last year — after all, his numbers compare very favorably to the Arizona receiver. (Over the last five years, Welker tops Fitzgerald in total receptions, 554 catches to 463. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald holds an edge in touchdown catches, 49 to 31, and total receiving yards, 6,480 to 6,105.) Fitzgerald signed an eight-year, $128.5 million contract last August with $50 million guaranteed.

However, Welker’€™s age, injury history and position (slot receiver as opposed to working on the outside) suggest that his real value is likely less than that. Last October, ESPN business analyst Andrew Brandt surmised in an interview with that both sides will have to give a little, and said that the deal that was struck between the Jets and Santonio Holmes (a five-year, $45.25 million deal with $24 million guaranteed) was a good framework — while Welker has had better production and doesn’€™t have the same sort of character issues swirling around him that Holmes has, he’€™s also 31 years old and two-plus years removed from a devastating knee injury.

Even with the uniqueness of the situation, it was still a bit of a shocker to see that the two sides haven’€™t been able to reach an agreement. Welker’€™s representation, Athletes First, has had an excellent working relationship with the Patriots for many years. They repped Drew Bledsoe, and currently work for nine players on the roster, including Nate Solder, Zoltan Mesko and Aaron Hernandez, with the tight end being one of the next major contract situations for the franchise to consider.

Ultimately, the franchise tag will not have any sort of impact on Welker’€™s approach to the 2012 season. When it comes to preparation, approach and mentality, the receiver is without peer. But with a flat cap looming in 2013, combined with an increase in the franchise tag number for wide receivers and two other young foundation players who might also be franchise tag targets in Sebastian Vollmer and Pat Chung, the 2012 season could be the start of the long goodbye in New England for Welker.

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