This much we know for sure: Wes Welker will play for the Patriots in 2012.
What happens beyond that is anyone’s guess.
That’s because the NFL-mandated deadline for teams to come to an agreement on a long-term contract with franchise players came and went at 4 p.m. Monday and Welker and the Patriots did not hammer out a new deal.
Without a longer-term deal in place, Welker will play the coming season under the franchise tag, a one-year contract for $9.515 million.
There are now several options for Welker and the Patriots: They can reopen talks after the 2012 season, the team can franchise him again for 2013, or Welker can become an unrestricted free agent for the first time.
Another option is that the Patriots could tag and trade Welker next year, which he likely would be amenable to because it would likely get him a multiyear deal. That could be attractive to New England because it could control where he ends up.
Welker signed his franchise tag May 15, which allowed him to take part in organized team activities and minicamp.
Announcing on Twitter that he had signed the deal, he wrote, “hopefully doing the right thing gets the right results” and called it a leap of faith. That leap of faith was not rewarded.
While a week ago it seemed there was reason for optimism regarding Welker being in New England for a couple more years, in the end the two sides were entrenched in their positions and didn’t come close to a deal.
According to league sources, while the sides continued to talk, they had differing views of how Welker should be paid and how long a deal should be and could not bridge their differences.
After being traded to New England as a restricted free agent in 2007 and signing a five-year, $18.1 million deal, Welker was looking at his one and only big payday in the NFL. He has a strong argument that he outplayed that original deal — he has more catches than any player in the league over the last five years, including an NFL-best 122 last year.
But the Patriots don’t pay on past performance, and weren’t willing to overcommit to a 31-year old receiver. The organization is also working under the belief that there will be limited salary cap growth in the next couple of years.
At the NFL owners’ meetings in May, Robert Kraft was asked about a Welker deal and said he’d like to get one done, but doing so “requires intelligence and putting our team first. We’re always trying to do whatever we can do to put our team in the best position to win; that means balancing a lot of things, understanding what the cap is, what the cap growth is, how things fit in the system and we try to have values for every position and every player.”
As the Globe reported last week, one of the major sticking points between the sides was a third year for Welker. New England was willing to do a two-year contract — and, in fact, had offered Welker a fully guaranteed, two-year, $16 million deal during the 2011 season, which was rejected — but was hesitant to go beyond two years, likely citing Welker’s age and potential durability issues as an undersized receiver who suffered an ACL tear in January 2010.
But Welker came back from that surgery and was on the field for the 2010 regular-season opener, missing just one game that season, the finale against Miami when the Patriots already had sewn up a playoff spot; last year, as he set a career high with 1,569 yards, he did not miss a game.
For his five years with the Patriots, Welker has missed three regular-season games.