Wes Welker better be careful. If he gets greedy, if he waits too long to find out, once and for all, exactly what his value is on the free-agent market, he could lose the best thing that ever happened to his football career: Tom Brady.
The New England Patriots are the most ruthless organization in the National Football League. They wait for no one. They don't get leveraged or pushed into action. They don't operate on sentiment. As Bill Belichick so often says, the Patriots' philosophy is to do what is in the best interest of the team. Always has been.
Waiting for Welker to test the free-agent market isn't in the best interest of the team. New England has holes to fill. It needs to spend money on a cornerback, at least one other wide receiver (assuming it lets Brandon Lloyd go) and a safety. If the Patriots think they might have to replace Welker, too, that would affect their approach to free agency. Given their philosophy, they will move on very quickly.
That's why Welker must use the new legal tampering window this weekend to see what his market value actually is. Either he will learn that he isn't worth the $9.5 million New England paid him under the franchise tag last season or he will learn that, wow, he is right and he does have monster value. For the first time in his eight-year career, the 31-year-old Welker will find out exactly what he is worth.
Then, if Welker has any interest in staying with the franchise, the system and the quarterback who have made him the most productive wide receiver of the past six years, he must act. Welker must make a decision, and he must let the Patriots know in advance of the Tuesday 4 p.m. ET start of the new league year and free agency. Otherwise, Welker easily could be the odd man out.
It is quite the dilemma.
Welker has waited years for this moment. In 2007, the Patriots discovered Welker and gave him what at the time, given his lackluster production in Miami, seemed like a ridiculously lucrative contract. But Belichick saw something in Welker, who became a precise, fearless route runner with terrific hands and toughness. Welker was the perfect successor to Troy Brown in the Patriots' offense, the perfect fit in the slot, and in the six years since, no receiver has caught more than the 672 passes Welker has. Only once, in 2010, has Welker not topped 100 receptions in a season.
Part of Welker's success, the Patriots would argue, is the system. Part of it is the man throwing Welker the ball. But part of it is Welker's talent, his speed, his intellect, his reliability, his durability and his grasp of the system. Now, for the first time since he became a premier player, Welker will get to see if another team values him more than the one that knows him best.
No one would fault Welker for leaving New England for more money elsewhere. This is likely going to be his last opportunity for a big payday, and if money is important to him -- and rare is the professional athlete who doesn't value money -- and some other team is willing to give him more than the Patriots, then so be it. It was a great six years. Thanks for the memories.
But if the Patriots' offer is relatively close to what another team offers -- say in the range of $6 million to $7 million per year with $17 million to $20 million guaranteed -- then Welker should stay in New England and try to win a Super Bowl. From a competitive standpoint, Welker won't find a better situation. He won't have an opportunity to play with a better quarterback or in a system that fits him so well.
The fact is, the Patriots probably are going to offer Welker more than they normally would because of his value to Brady, who would be livid if they let Welker walk. Welker is a good guy, a loyal teammate and a fan favorite. New England doesn't typically care about public relations, but losing Welker would enrage fans. It would be even more unpopular in the locker room.
Not that that's stopped the Patriots in the past. In 2003, they sent shock waves through the organization when they cut safety Lawyer Milloy five days before the opening game of the season. In September 2009, they traded defensive tackle Richard Seymour, whom they had drafted sixth overall in 2001, to Oakland for a first-round pick in 2011. New England made defensive tackle Vince Wilfork play out his six-year rookie contract, even though he had more than earned an extension, before finally extending him in 2010. And the Patriots took hard-line stances with offensive guard Logan Mankins and cornerback Asante Samuel.
All of those players were as valuable, if not more so, than Welker.
Led by Belichick, the Patriots always do what is in the best interest of the team. Welker can't forget that. He needs to savor this weekend and enjoy the attention he will get. And then Welker needs to decide what he really wants, because if he waits too long, the decision will no longer be his to make.