One of Wes Welker's specialties is the option route, in which he releases off the line of scrimmage and, based on the coverage in front of him, decides which direction to go. His synergy with quarterback Tom Brady on those read-and-react plays can be lethal.
On Tuesday, Welker ran a different type of option route -- a contractual one.
Perhaps coming to the realization that he has little leverage in negotiations with the Patriots, especially since he wasn't willing to sit out the 2012 season, Welker altered his route, shifted his strategy and signed his $9.5 million franchise tender. On Twitter, he said he was taking a "#leapoffaith."
For months, Welker had been taking a harder public stance, even saying that he was probably going to stay away from the team's mandatory minicamp June 12-14. So, yes, he's breaking off his route here.
It's really his only choice. Some players have it in their DNA to get nasty in a negotiation and sit out regular-season games. Offensive lineman Logan Mankins, circa 2010, comes to mind.
But that's not Welker, who in announcing on Twitter that he signed his tender, wrote about how much he loves the game and his teammates. Then he added, "Hopefully doing the right thing gets the right results."
That was Welker's way of putting the contractual football back on the Patriots' side of the field. Now it's up to the team to decide if it wants to absorb his $9.5 million cap charge or if it's better to get back to working on a long-term deal that could benefit both sides -- giving Welker even more financial security and the team more salary-cap relief.
The Patriots can play hardball with the best of them, but Welker's conciliatory move -- which is timely because it means he can be in the mix for organized team activities and the mandatory full-team minicamp, and also decisively eliminates a potential distraction -- should provide a spark to get back to the negotiating table. That, of course, assumes the Patriots still view him as the "contractual priority" they said he was a few months ago.
To even the most objective observer, this shouldn't be too hard if both sides are truly committed to a longer-term arrangement. Something a bit richer than what the Patriots did for Randy Moss in 2008 -- a three-year, $27 million deal -- would seemingly be the right compromise, assuming the bonuses and guarantees top $20 million. At the time Moss signed that deal, he was 31. Welker just turned 31.
That type of deal would align Welker's contract with Brady's, which expires at the end of the 2014 season. It would also give Welker well-earned financial security, send positive ripples through the locker room that the right players are being rewarded and give the team more salary-cap space, not to mention preserve its usage of the franchise tag in 2013.
Why hasn't this happened yet? Maybe it's that Welker's expectations were unrealistically heightened by some who were floating Larry Fitzgerald-type financial numbers in his head. Or maybe it's that the team was squeezing every bit of leverage out of Welker and offering deals they knew he wouldn't accept (the Boston Globe reported a two-year, $16 million proposal during the 2011 season).
Regardless, what happened in the past doesn't matter anymore because Welker's decision to sign the franchise tag represents a breakthrough in the process. It's a fresh start. Every negotiation reaches a turning point and this could be it.
Welker, as he often did on the field over the past five seasons, just breathed new life into the negotiation with his option route to sign the franchise tag.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.