This year's theme might as well be #thingsarelookingup.
The Patriots let Monday's franchise-tag deadline pass without using the tag -- on Welker or anyone else -- which marks the first time the club has passed on the opportunity since 2008. The tags were too expensive -- Welker's would have been $11.4 million, cornerback Aqib Talib's $10.8 million and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer's $9.8 million -- obviously not representing what the club felt was good value. They also would have restricted the team from making other free-agent moves.
But forgoing use of the tag shouldn't be viewed as a sign that the Patriots don't want Welker, Talib or Vollmer back in 2013 and beyond. They do. But they need to find the right price, and after a year in which the Patriots and Welker's representatives seemed to have significantly different opinions on what that might be, the sides seem more aligned this time around.
Where at one point it seemed as though Welker might be playing his final season with the Patriots in 2012, now it would be a surprise if he's not back next season, and even a few more after that.
So what changed? Good question, and it would be easier to answer if there were contractual numbers to analyze, but for now, let's lay out why momentum toward a deal has built to this point.
It obviously helps that Welker earned a hefty $9.5 million on the franchise tag last season, which is nearly half of what he brought home the previous five seasons combined. If Welker felt he wasn't being paid according to his production at this time last year -- and he had a strong case -- he's now one year removed from that after cashing in with legitimate No. 1 receiver money for a season.
There is also the overall NFL landscape. With the salary cap barely rising, and nearly half the teams in the league either scrambling to comply or fitting so close to the cap that they won't be big spenders, it's quite possible that there won't be many big-money deals. In that sense, Welker's timing in hitting the market isn't great, and one could envision his representatives coming to the realization that the best deal is the one on the table in New England, where Welker's fit in the system is unique.
Quarterback Tom Brady's three-year, $27 million extension likely plays into Welker's thinking too. The two have an uncanny rapport and they're entering the final chapters of their careers. Why not go out together? Brady covets a fourth Super Bowl ring while Welker's still looking for his first, and the Patriots are an annual contender. It could be much worse than catching passes from a future Hall of Famer.
For the Patriots, there aren't too many times they invest big in a soon-to-be 32-year-old receiver, but it's not as if Welker has shown any signs of decline. Similar to what Patriots owner Robert Kraft said about Brady to Sports Illustrated, Welker takes great care of himself (gluten-free, anyone?) and represents seemingly everything the Patriots want in their players. Brady himself has called Welker the "heart and soul" of the club.
So why not do something similar to what the Patriots did in 2008 with then-31-year-old Randy Moss? A compromise-type three-year deal for Welker, which would take him to his mid-30s, is more than reasonable, and maybe it took another season for the Patriots to gain some comfort with that thought. They have enough of a young core that they can make the investment and not risk becoming too old, too fast.
Also, it sounded good in theory that more of the offense would run through tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and that perhaps Julian Edelman would assume some of Welker's duties. But whenever that was brought up it almost seemed as if Welker's impact -- not to mention his durability and reliability -- was being underestimated. The 2012 season, more than any other, highlighted this.
Perhaps a parallel could be drawn to linebacker Mike Vrabel when he was traded in 2009, a decision that didn't exactly turn out as planned for the Patriots. Yes, Vrabel was declining, but he still had plenty to offer both on the field and in the locker room. The Patriots missed him in both areas, and Welker, who deserves strong consideration to be a captain, falls into a similar category.
Add it all up and it appears that, unlike last year, the Patriots and Welker's camp are more aligned in their goals. That's why on a day that the Patriots passed on the chance to use the franchise tag on Welker, which could normally be viewed as a sign of the sides moving further apart, this was the opposite.
No more leaps of faith, just a feeling of optimism that things indeed are looking up.