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Wes Welker’s price is going up

Big contracts for NFL receivers could drive up cost Patriots must play

Wes Welker is waiting for long-term contract security.

Associated Press

Wes Welker is waiting for long-term contract security.

If there’s been a theme to the first two days of NFL free agency - aside from the usual bad teams overpaying for marginal or unproven talent - it’s that the receiver market has gotten out of control.

What does that mean for Wes Welker’s future in a Patriots uniform?

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You can ignore the megadeal handed out to Calvin Johnson by the Lions. He deserved the eight-year, $132 million contract because he is that talented and he does it the right way. He is the game’s most dangerous weapon.

Even the five-year, $55.6 million deal that the Buccaneers gave Vincent Jackson is understandable given his skill set, and that he is in his prime at 29 (nearly two years younger than Welker).

But then there are the following contracts, with their reported value, that threw everything out of whack.

Robert Meachem, Chargers: four years, $26 million ($14 million guaranteed).

Laurent Robinson, Jaguars: five years, $35 million ($14 million).

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Stevie Johnson, Bills: five years, $36.3 million ($18.1 million).

Pierre Garcon, Redskins: five years, $42.5 million ($20.5 million).

DeSean Jackson, Eagles: five years, $47 million ($15 million).

And Welker is stuck with the franchise tag and holding his hand out for a viable contract extension from the Patriots?

What kind of NFL justice is that?

Those players might be younger than Welker and arguably have a higher ceiling, but none of them is anywhere close to the player Welker has been or will be the next couple of seasons.

A perfect example is Jackson.

While Welker was busy catching eight passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns on the winning side in a November game at Philadelphia, Jackson was dropping and short-arming passes for the losers, and then getting benched.

And that guy’s supposed to be paid more than Welker?

As it stands, that’s the state of affairs.

It wouldn’t be outrageous to think that the Patriots just priced themselves out of retaining Welker beyond the 2012 season, when the franchise tag becomes cost-prohibitive.

The team would have to seriously debate how far they should go financially for a player who will be 31 in May and has taken a lot of hits on his 5-foot-8-inch body.

Even though Welker has been everything that a Patriot should be, sentimentality doesn’t win games in the NFL. A team constantly has to gauge financial value against the risk of what the future will bring.

But instead of the market causing the Patriots to move on from Welker, the greatest security blanket in the league for a quarterback, what if it had the opposite effect?

What if the market made the Patriots realize they have it pretty good with Welker, who they know isn’t going to demand an idiotic deal, and it brought the sides closer to a contract extension that would enable Welker to retire as a Patriot?

That’s where we think this is going.

Call it a moment of crystallization for the Patriots in regards to Welker or whatever you want, but sometimes you need outside factors to make both sides realize what they have is special and they need to find a way to keep it going.

Maybe that’s what the crazy market of 2012 will do for Welker and the Patriots.

All we know right now is that while both sides have been far apart on the shape of deal - the Patriots’ two-year, $16 million guaranteed offer looks foolish now - there’s a growing sense that both sides will figure something out.

That will certainly be the best outcome for the Patriots, Welker, and the fans.

But just like many other deals for the Patriots - Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins, among others - it’s a shame that the road traveled to clarity has to be so bumpy.

When you look at what’s been going on in free agency, you can’t help but go back to Dec. 17.

That was the day the Patriots elected to give linebacker Jerod Mayo a five-year extension instead of making a deal with Welker. They didn’t have the cap room to do both.

There’s no question that Mayo deserved an extension, but the timing was curious. It wasn’t like he was playing under his original deal - it was renegotiated on March 3, 2010 - and Mayo was locked up through 2012.

Despite being the league’s leading receiver from the moment he was acquired from the Dolphins, Welker was still playing under his original contract at the time of the trade - five years, $18.1 million with a $9 million bonus - and his contract was set to expire at the end of the 2011 season.

The Patriots should have just taken their medicine and done Welker’s deal first. They could have gotten Mayo done this offseason. There aren’t any more deals that will shape the market at linebacker. But the team took the safe route with the younger player - certainly understandable - and the least messy negotiation.

After the Patriots executed Mayo’s deal, they now have to deal with the market being set for them.

So it’s going to hit them a little harder in the wallet then it probably should have.

If Welker thinks he’s going to match or exceed what Vincent Jackson got, then he’s dreaming. But he certainly deserves to outpace DeSean Jackson, Garcon, and Stevie Johnson in terms of per-year average and guaranteed money.

Basically, what would be fair for Welker is something in the ballpark of $40 million over four years with $22 million guaranteed.

Is that something the Patriots would be interested in? Considering Welker’s age and wear and tear, should they be? Is Welker really that vital to the Patriots after this season at age 32?

We’ll have to wait to find out what the Patriots decide, because after doing Mayo’s deal and seeing the impact of the first two days of free agency, the decision is now theirs alone.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregABedard.

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