Pats wouldn't let Welker walk as free agent ... would they?

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Welker had a league-high 122 catches and set a franchise record with 1,569 yards. (US Presswire)  
Welker had a league-high 122 catches and set a franchise record with 1,569 yards. (US Presswire)  

INDIANAPOLIS -- We all know Wes Welker is one of the game's most prolific receivers, and we all know what he means to the New England Patriots.

He holds the team's four highest single-season reception records, set four of its top 10 yardage marks, has more catches and more receiving yards in one game than any Patriot and produced the longest reception in club history.

But it's what we don't know about Wes Welker that intrigues me, and what we don't know is where he'll be next season.

I'm serious. I expect he'll be with the Patriots, so do you and, frankly, so does Wes Welker. But his contract will expire in March, and last time I checked, nobody had talked about an extension.

Not yet anyway. So let's start.

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Most of us figure that no matter what happens in Super Bowl XLVI, Welker gains a new contract with New England or, failing that, is designated the Patriots' franchise player. However, a franchised wide receiver would command $9.4 million for the 2012 season, so I don't see that happening.

What I do see ... or what should happen ... is that the club does whatever it can to keep the guy. I know it's a no-brainer, but, as I said, I haven't seen an extension ... and the clock is ticking.

"I plan on being back," said Welker at a Sunday evening news conference. "I'm not really too worried about that now. I'm fully concentrating on this game, and what we have to do. But I plan on being back.

"This is all stuff we can address at another point, and it can be a story when the season is over. But right now, we're just concentrating on this game, and what we have to do to win this game. You win this game, and the other stuff takes care of itself."

For New England's sake, I hope so. Because the Patriots without Wes Welker is like the Red Sox without Dustin Pedroia. You can't imagine one without the other. The Patriots need Welker as much as Welker needs New England, and let me explain.

Once upon a time he was a competent wide receiver with Miami who caught passes, returned punts, returned kicks and once stepped in for the injured Olindo Mare and kicked an extra point and field goal.

In a nutshell, he did it all. Still, it wasn't enough for Miami to keep him, with the Dolphins peddling Welker -- then a restricted free agent -- to New England in 2007 for second-and seventh-round draft picks after the Patriots considered signing him to an offer sheet.

"We wanted the guy," said Randy Mueller, then Miami's GM, "but in Cam's offense (then-Miami head coach Cam Cameron) there wasn't a specific role for him. We needed picks, so for us, it was a no-brainer.

"The productivity you've seen wasn't happening with our team. So we didn't feel like it was a risk. We were looking at different [draft] picks. It wasn't an indictment of Wes Welker. We needed to get better."

So did New England. And it did.

Welker immediately filled the slot-receiver role once occupied by Troy Brown, and he made an immediate impact. He caught 112 passes in 2007, 111 the following season and a career-best 123 in 2009. This year, he not only led the league with 122 but set a franchise record with 1,569 yards and was named a starter on the AP's All-Pro team.

As Mueller said, Welker never produced like that in Miami. But, then again, he didn't have Tom Brady. All the Patriots knew was that whenever they played the Dolphins, they had trouble covering Welker. Or, as coach Bill Belichick put it, "He was a guy we game-planned for and still couldn't stop."

So New England made the trade, paired Welker with Brady, and the rest you know: Now everyone has trouble covering the guy.

"He and Brady have great chemistry," said former head coach Herm Edwards, now an analyst with ESPN. "He's very quick and elusive off the line, and he's a great option runner -- with the ability to run options off routes.

"For instance, if you're inside, he's going outside. Or if you're going to bracket him, he's going to do something else to get free. They ask him to do certain things, and he does them well.

"He's very smart, he has a quick burst to get open and Brady is very accurate. Plus, he's tough. Guys with his size and stature (he's 5-9, 185 pounds) generally don't want to go across the middle, but he's lived his life playing inside the numbers -- and that says a lot about who he is."

And who he is is the Patriots' most reliable receiver. Heck, since joining New England before the 2007 season, he has registered a league-leading 7.2 catches per game, and tell me where the Patriots would be without that.

I'll tell you where: not here.

"He's smart, reliable and consistent," one AFC head coach said, "which are all the trademarks of that offense. If the defensive back is playing inside leverage, and he's got a read route, he's going to break to the outside. He's going to be where he's supposed to be."

When New England played the Giants in November, Welker had a game-high nine catches for 136 yards. When the Patriots played them in Super Bowl XLII, he had a game-high 11 receptions for 103 yards. You don't have to tell the Giants how difficult Welker is to cover. They haven't done it yet.

"The guy's dangerous, no matter what," Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis told me last week. "No matter if you play 'man' or zone. In zone, he moves away from the defender; in 'man,' he's tough because they run him off bunches and stacks to get him the ball.

"Plus, he's most dangerous in the middle of the field, and Tom does a great job of trying to find him there on 'crosses' or 'speedos' where he can get him the ball while he's running his route, where he can catch and run."

Welker has been named to the league's All-Pro team four times, all with New England, and that should tell you something about his value to the club. He caught over 110 passes in four of his five seasons with the Patriots, and that's an indication of what he means to the team, too.

But if you really want to know how important he is to New England, remove him from the lineup. That happened in 2009, when Welker tore knee ligaments in the season finale. Without him, the Patriots were crushed in the playoffs, and consider that more than merely a coincidence.

I do.

Wes Welker is not going anywhere now, and that's a problem for the New York Giants. But New England better make damned certain he's not going anywhere after this weekend ... because that will be a problem for the Patriots.

"He's a really good player who has a really great quarterback," an AFC general manager said. "It's a really good marriage."

So don't break it up.

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