Will Wes Welker finally cash in?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Now that the New England Patriots and offensive lineman Logan Mankins have taken care of financial business, the question is who's next in line for a contract extension.

One could make a strong case that it should be receiver Wes Welker.

The NFL's leading pass-catcher since 2007 is in the final year of his contract and is scheduled to earn a base salary of $2.15 million to go along with a $250,000 roster bonus. This qualifies him as one of the league's top bargains.

That Welker is in such a category is a credit to him, as he's an exceptional talent who is often unfairly characterized as solely a slot receiver. He's as tough as they come and much more than a pass-catcher who lines up inside in three-receiver sets.

Welker-as-a-bargain is also a credit to the Patriots' talent evaluation. It's easy to forget, but many in the NFL thought the team overpaid badly (both in giving up a second-round draft pick and signing him to a five-year, $18 million contract) in 2007 when it traded for Welker.

So it's a partnership that has benefited both sides in a big way. Welker has given the Patriots everything he has while putting the team first, which was highlighted by his gutsy return from a torn ACL last season just six months after he had surgery. In turn, the Patriots have brought out the best in Welker, their system a perfect fit for his skill set. Put Welker in Oakland, for example, and the results probably aren't the same.

It makes sense to think Welker and the Patriots would want to continue the relationship, although there are no indications anything is imminent. Welker said Monday that he's putting the possibility on the back burner.

"I'm just concentrating on the here and now, and whatever I can do to help the team win this year," he said when asked about his future with the Patriots. "I'm not really worried about that at all. I'm just worried about going out there and playing ball. I love playing on this team and I enjoy every day I'm out here. I'm going to let my play take care of everything else."

Such an approach will only further endear Welker to a fan base that already thinks the world of him. Welker has become the new Troy Brown, another undersized underdog who delivers big.

At 30 years old, Welker has reached the point where players often are making the turn toward the back nine of their playing days, but don't tell him that. He feels as if he's in the best shape of his career.

"As long as you're working hard and getting better on a daily basis, there is no telling where the curve is as far as the backside of your career," he said. "For me, I feel like I'm still in my prime."

The big thing for Welker is that he's now 19 months removed from tearing his ACL. Combine his clean bill of health with his expanded knowledge of the game, and he sees himself at the top of his game.

Welker's exemplary work was praised Monday by Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio, who noted that he's had a "real strong camp" and that when it comes to quickness, "he's regained some of that relative to where it was."

Shortly after Caserio's praise, Welker once again caught the eye during Monday's practice. When the Patriots were working on their two-minute offense, he couldn't be covered, with quarterback Tom Brady finding him multiple times as he shook free of cornerback Devin McCourty.

Other times, when the team has worked on tackling in camp, Welker has seldom been brought down by defenders; he's too slippery quick, his ability to plant and change direction leaving many a defender in his wake.

As for a possible extension, Welker would probably admit the timing isn't as good as he'd like. His 86 catches last season snapped a string of three straight 100-grab campaigns, and he also led the NFL in drops. But when considering what he was coming back from, and how quickly he did it, those numbers look a lot better based on the high standard he's set.

From a Patriots perspective, there is probably a question of how much they want to invest in a 30-year-old receiver who, at 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, has taken a lot of big hits, getting up each time in Rocky Balboa-like fashion. The club also has to consider some other players who are nearing the end of their deals, such as fourth-year linebacker Jerod Mayo (expires after 2012 season), as owner Robert Kraft said last week that a team simply can't pay everyone. Tough decisions often have to be made.

It's hard to get a read on Welker's mindset on an extension. In May, he spoke about having already made more money than he ever would have imagined in the NFL.

"Everything from here is just icing on the cake," he said at the time.

Still, Welker is one of the game's top competitors, and one could understand if he was seeking to be paid more in line with some of his peers whose production doesn't match his own.

Consider these words from Bill Belichick from last week.

"He's one of our best players, one of our most consistent players. He's been durable, has a great work ethic, he's really smart. He plays hard. He plays tough. There are almost no negatives.

"He's an outstanding person. He's an outstanding player. He does things the way that we would like our team to do them, so he's a great example for all of us to look at, because he plays hard, he's unselfish, he's tough, he puts the team first. He's a winner. I'm glad we have him on our team."

Belichick was speaking about Logan Mankins and why it was a good thing he'd signed a six-year contract with the team.

He just as easily could have been talking about Welker. Few could argue his credentials when it comes to deserving his own contract extension.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.