Is your head spinning from the conflicting reports about Wes Welker’s future with the Patriots?
He is close to a new contract (CSNNE.com’s Mike Giardi).
He will become a free agent (ESPN’s Adam Schefter).
One or two teams could steal Welker if he hits the market (ProFootballTalk.com’s Mike Florio).
He has mild disdain for the Patriots (Yahoo!’s Jason Cole).
Got all that?
You haven’t seen anything yet.
Starting at midnight on early Saturday and going until the start of free agency at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, the NFL will hold its inaugural free agent negotiating period. The agents of all players set to become unrestricted free agents can negotiate (but not execute a contract) with teams.
A few of the guidelines:
There can be no direct contact between teams and players. That means no visits or medical evaluations. And free agent visits can’t be scheduled.
Players without agents, such as Ravens safety Ed Reed, can’t be contacted by teams.
Of course, rules are broken all the time in the NFL, especially when it comes to contract and free agent negotiations, so who knows what ultimately will happen.
This is for certain: prepare to be bombarded by different reports about negotiations for the top players. It will make the Welker stuff look tame.
Agents with top-of-the-market players about to cash in — Mike Wallace, Greg Jennings, Jake Long, Cliff Avril, Dashon Goldson, Michael Bennett, Brent Grimes, etc. — are under a lot of pressure, not only to boost their own commission, but to deliver that huge contract they’ve been promising their client. There is a desperation involved, especially if the market isn’t hot to start. So if an agent thinks that lying to a media member will boost his client’s contract, you better believe he’s going to do that.
So prepare yourself for breathless reports about how such and such team is in the lead but three other teams are expected to get into the bidding. And it will go on all the way until Tuesday.
And it’s exactly what the NFL wants — not the teams, the league office. This negotiation period is purely artificial, to boost the spotlight on the league during a slow period in the sports calendar. The NFL thinks this will cause more media to write or talk about the league and it desires that attention. And you better believe those outlets that measure success purely by clicks will be beating the drums right along with the league.
So if you’ve had fun with the Welker experience, strap yourself in.
Of course, most teams hate this. They feel it will inflate player contracts against a flat cap. And it hurts a team such as the Patriots because they do their best free agent work when they can get a player in the building, sit him down with Bill Belichick, flash some Super Bowl rings, and convince them signing for less with the Patriots is in their best interest.
As for No. 83, here’s where things stand.
Yes, what happened early last season, specifically the game plan for Arizona in Week 2, really irked Welker no matter how many targets and catches he ended up having in that game and the rest of the season. If Aaron Hernandez didn’t get injured and if the Patriots won impressively with Julian Edelman ahead of Welker, he very well could have been traded last season.
But that’s very much in the past, although Welker will not forget it. The relationship between Welker and the team evolved over the season and they ended in a good place. The team realized Welker’s true value is in his dependability because even after losing Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski for an entire season combined, the offense still reached great heights. Why? Because Welker was always there, not to mention that he returned punts as well.
And even though he wasn’t thrilled privately, Welker never let on. Not even to his closest friends and teammates. He is the consummate professional.
Is there some concern in the Welker camp that the team could go back to undervaluing the receiver? Sure, which is understandable. How much can one half of a season really change the thinking, especially if Josh McDaniels is calling the shots on that side of the ball? And Belichick isn’t exactly an open book when it comes to the team’s plans for a player. If you sign with the Patriots, you are expected to do what you’re told for the good of the team. If you have a problem with that, don’t sign here.
But the overwhelming sentiment, from sources on both sides of the Welker situation, is he will be back with the Patriots. It’s not a matter of if, but when. What you are seeing now is part of the process.
Is it possible the sides don’t get there? Sure. You never know what will happen when a player hits the market. Maybe someone makes an offer Welker can’t refuse in a bid to put them over the top (49ers, Texans, Broncos, Seahawks, Dolphins).
But in a survey of a half-dozen personnel executives at the Scouting Combine, almost all of them thought Welker’s market would be limited — much more than if the Patriots didn’t tag him last year — because of the lack of cap space across the league. Welker certainly would find a job — those who believe the Patriots’ system has made Welker couldn’t be more wrong — but it wouldn’t be at the top of the market.
So if the money is close, why wouldn’t Welker stay with his buddy, Tom Brady?
Another potential sticking point is if the Patriots expect some sort of discount because Welker’s one year older and they paid him $9.5 million this past season. If the team retreats on the amount of guaranteed money it was willing to do last year, that’s not going to help things.
I’m on the record saying the Patriots should move on from Welker for the good of the offense. While no one has more respect for or values Welker more than I do, I think to become the toughest team to defend for a defense, the Patriots need to get more dynamic on the outside, let the tight ends handle the middle of the field, and take Welker away from Brady.
Get a viable downfield threat — Wallace and Jennings aren’t coming here, but the draft is full of them, the Patriots could make a trade, and more receivers could join the low-price market of Jerome Simpson, Mohamed Massaquoi, Brandon Gibson, and David Nelson — and get constant and athletic yards-after-catch from the other side in a combination of Edelman and Danny Amendola, Josh Cribbs, or a draft pick, and the Patriots would be tougher to defend in all parts of the field in the postseason, which has been a problem for them.
That’s what I would do. But I doubt that’s what the Patriots will do. They learned the value of Welker last season and think that if they can find that outside threat to pair with Welker, they’ll be just as dangerous.
Things can change, but the odds are strong that Welker will be back — despite the noise, which will only grow this weekend. Have fun.