The surprising free-agent news of the day is that former Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker has left to join the Denver Broncos on a two-year, $12 million contract. This is AFC news, of course, but there is one specific way I think it touches on the NFC East, and that's the extent to which it pertains to the New York Giants' current situation with restricted free-agent wide receiver Victor Cruz.
Welker's deal is not going to help Cruz get what he wants from the Giants. Sure, you can argue that Cruz is five and a half years younger than Welker and insist that they're not comparable cases. And that might end up mattering when it comes to the length of the deal. But in terms of money, I don't see how Cruz has a case to make more money than Welker, who's the preeminent slot receiver of his generation and someone on whom Cruz has said he models his game. Cruz is much younger, but Welker is much more accomplished, and I think those two arguments kind of cancel each other out.
What the sides are left with, then, is a Welker contract that sets the market for slot receivers. And that hits at the source of the current conflict between Cruz and the Giants. Cruz wants to be paid on production -- as a No. 1 wide receiver who's led the team in catches each of the past two seasons and ranked among the league leaders in receptions and receiving yards during that time. The Giants, who tried to use Cruz outside more last year but ended up moving him back inside in favor of rookie Rueben Randle later in the season, seem to view him as a slot receiver, and to be of the opinion that quarterback Eli Manning can help make a slot receiver a star. (Steve Smith's 107-catch 2009 season in the same role works as evidence in their favor.) So the sides have not been able to reach a deal. And if the Giants insist on painting Cruz as a slot receiver in negotiations, Welker is the comparison to which they will justifiably cling. It's not a helpful one to Cruz's case. If their current offer to Cruz is for more than $6 million per season, they can ask him, "Why should you make more than Welker?" if it's less, they can ask him, "Why should you make as much as Welker?"
Cruz and the Giants have been trying for months to get a long-term contract extension worked out. The Giants would like to have it done so they can move ahead with other plans, including a new deal that will need to be done by this time next year for Hakeem Nicks (whom they do consider a true No. 1 wideout). Cruz would like to have it done because he wants to cash in on two straight excellent years and also stay in New York, where he and Manning have had so much success together.
But it is not done. And while the Giants have tendered Cruz at a first-round level and are unlikely to lose him in free agency, there remains clear frustration from both sides. Giants coach Tom Coughlin and owner John Mara have both voiced frustration within the past couple of weeks over the refusal of Cruz to accept what they feel is a generous offer. Cruz has changed agents, which of course indicates dissatisfaction with the way negotiations were going.
The Welker news will force both sides in this dispute to re-evaluate the landscape. And when they do, whether this is fair or not, I think the Giants will be happier with the extent to which it's helped their case.