"Wes Welker is a remarkable football player for our team and has been a vital component to our offense and special teams since we traded for him in 2007," the team said in a statement. "Utilizing the franchise designation allows both sides more time to try to reach an agreement, which is the goal. Wes remains a contractual priority and we are hopeful that he will remain a Patriot for years to come."
On Monday night, Welker wrote the following on Twitter: "Glad that I will be a Patriot in 2012. and hopefully '13,'14,'15,'16,'17,'18 ..."
The tag is estimated to be $9.4 million and will restrict Welker from fully experiencing unrestricted free agency. Welker, who turns 31 on May 1, has played out the five-year contract he signed with the Patriots in 2007.
The Patriots used the more common "non-exclusive" tag, which means Welker can negotiate with other teams but the Patriots would have the option of matching any offer. If Welker were to sign elsewhere, the Patriots would receive two first-round draft picks as compensation.
The Boston Globe reported Monday that the Patriots offered a two-year pact during the 2011 season that averaged $8 million per year, which was rejected. Sources said that contract talks with Welker have been on and off since the fall, but were slow prior to the NFL combine late last month.
The sides can still agree to a long-term contract but must do so by July 15, the deadline for designated franchise players to sign multiyear deals.
Welker, 30, led the NFL with 122 receptions in 2011 but he failed to catch a long pass from Tom Brady in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVI that would have put the Patriots in the red zone and might have allowed New England to put away the game, causing him to say he "let the team down."
Welker's 554 receptions since 2007 lead the NFL, 80 more than Brandon Marshall's second-highest total.
He and Cris Carter are the only players with two seasons of more than 120 receptions. Besides his 120-catch 2011 season, he had 123 receptions in 2009.
This marks the eighth time the Patriots have utilized the franchise tag since 2002. In each of the past two seasons, the tag has been used as a vehicle to buy more time in contract talks that ultimately ended with extensions for defensive lineman Vince Wilfork (2010) and offensive lineman Logan Mankins (2011).
Part of what makes Welker's free-agent status unique is that he's not the prototype No. 1 receiver, but is a perfect fit for the Patriots' system, so he arguably has more value to New England than other clubs.
Welker's age is also a consideration in terms of how long the Patriots might be comfortable extending his contract. In past years, the Patriots have preferred shorter-term deals (three years or less) with 30-year-old receivers, with Randy Moss and Chad Ochocinco two of the prime examples.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.