New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady spent time with teammate Wes Welker last weekend at the Kentucky Derby. Between the schmoozing and excitement of horse racing, Brady should have given his top receiver a subtle message and said, "Buddy, it's time to get back to work."
There is one thing for certain about the Patriots: You do not fight the machine.
Welker is facing an uphill battle he cannot win. Many have tried before him and failed. Welker is not the exception.
Welker has yet to sign his franchise tender and hasn't decided how long he's going to protest New England's one-year, $9.5 million offer. The potential distraction has been held to a minimum thus far, but it would only grow stronger if Welker continued to skip New England's offseason program.
The Patriots' mandatory minicamp is scheduled for June 12. The best advice is for Welker to have his mind made up by that time. Missing New England's current voluntary program is not a big thing. But if Welker also chooses to skip the Patriots' three-day veteran minicamp, that is when he's hurting the team in the eyes of the coaching staff.
At that point the gloves may come off -- and Welker doesn't want that.
New England is emotionless and shrewd in negotiations. Just ask three-time Super Bowl winner Willie McGinest, who apparently still carries some level of bitterness about how he was handled by the Patriots at the end of his career. McGinest recently got into a Twitter spat with Welker about his contract situation and delivered this stern message.
"We're all expendable at Patriot Place," McGinest tweeted to Welker.
McGinest is right. NFL players in general are expendable, but even more so in New England.
Welker needs to be more mindful of how the Patriots often treat players like replaceable and interchangeable parts. It happened to McGinest, who spent the final three years of his career with the struggling Cleveland Browns. It happened to Richard Seymour, who was great for eight seasons with the Patriots and suddenly shipped to the Oakland Raiders for a first-round draft pick. The Patriots also traded future Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss to the Minnesota Vikings when Moss grew unhappy about his contract.
Welker should know better. No one player is above the team in New England. That is the Patriot Way.
This is not to say Welker hasn't worked hard and doesn't have a point about long-term security. This is more about wisely navigating the cruel business side of the NFL. It's all about leverage. Welker has little. New England has plenty. Sometimes it's best to accept your fate and move forward.
Welker remains steadfast in shedding the franchise tag for a long-term contract.
"Through my body of work, through the past five years, I think what I've done I've earned a long-term deal,” Welker recently told ESPN Boston Radio. "It's what I am looking for and what I want. Hopefully that's the case and hopefully we come to something where we can make that happen."
Do not think for one second that New England is not prepared for the worst. All the Patriots have done this offseason is sign wide receivers.
New England signed receivers Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney, Anthony Gonzalez and Donte’ Stallworth in free agency. All are productive veterans who have a chance to add something to the offense. The Patriots also re-signed veteran Deion Branch, backup Matthew Slater, and drafted rookie receiver Jeremy Ebert. Chad Ochocinco and Julian Edelman also remain on the roster.
New England will have an elite passing game next season with or without Welker.
If Welker decides to stage a lengthy holdout, Lloyd and Gaffney would be the starters, while Branch, Gonzalez, Stallworth and Ochocinco compete in training camp for backup roles. New England also runs a lot of two tight-end sets with Pro Bowler Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. This is still a very deep and talented group of targets for Brady, who also has a knack for making everyone around him a couple of notches better.
Despite 122 receptions and 1,569 yards last year, the Patriots have found a way to make Welker replaceable. But that's only if Welker chooses to be and doesn't sign his franchise tender.
The next move should be the best move by Welker. He should sign the franchise tag, take the $9.5 million and see if anything changes over the next several months at Patriot Place.
Because there's always a chance the Patriots could have a change of heart between now and August. New England has the salary-cap room to extend the 31-year-old Welker and give him the long-term security he's seeking. But it's going to be on the Patriots' terms, not Welker's.