Why Patriots WR Wes Welker played the only hand he could in signing his franchise tag

Patriots WR Wes Welker has signed his franchise tag/AP

The Patriots’ offseason always seems to include one soap opera that captures our attention. Before 2009, it was nose tackle Vince Wilfork‘s impending contract extension. Before 2010 (and beyond) it was guard Logan Mankins. Before 2011, it was quarterback Tom Brady.

What is it this year?

Obviously, receiver Wes Welker. The 31-year-old Welker, the NFL’s most productive pass catcher since 2007, when he joined the team, had no contract. He was hit with a franchise tag, which should pay him $9.5 million, but had been cagey about whether to sign it and whether to show up at mandatory minicamp. And the team has indicated it wants a long-term deal.

Well, Welker officially signed the franchise tender earlier today, calling it a “leap of faith.” I’ll call it something else — his best option. Now, he’ll be present for OTAs and minicamp.

Welker actually tipped his hand yesterday, telling WEEI radio that he’d like to show up for minicamp. When asked about the franchise tag, he said he had $9.5 million reasons to sign it. And he did.

Does that mean no long-term contract? That Welker now will likely face the same reality and uncertainty before the 2013 season? Barring something drastic, my guess is yes.

This is the right move for Welker. Let me explain…

Sure, he could have worked out a deal like CB Asante Samuel did, where he would sign the franchise tag once but force a stipulation where he wouldn’t be tagged again. But, I hate to say it, that wouldn’t be in Welker’s best interests. There’s a strong possibility he couldn’t get that money elsewhere if he entered the 2013 offseason as a free agent.

The reality is, given his age, his position, his diminutive stature and how he thrives over the middle among the giants, receiving two straight franchise tags for a total of more than $20 million guaranteed could be his best option. Even a long-term deal would probably be structured around these two tags, though both sides might not like it. The team doesn’t sound like it wants to pay a slot receiver $10 million per year over the course of several years, while Welker would like longer-term security.

It’s tough to figure out how Welker and the Patriots will get past this. Maybe a fully guaranteed, three-year deal worth between $24 million and $27 million would be a compromise … but Welker might feel he’d be leaving money on the table with such a deal, and the Patriots generally don’t fully guarantee contracts through the length of them. Both sides are stuck.

Welker admitted last year what everyone knows — that he’s a better player with Brady. Duh. Who wouldn’t be? But that would a move to leave the Patriots and seek riches elsewhere a risk. Would he really be as good with, say, Mark Sanchez throwing to him? No chance. He’d still have his talent. But he wouldn’t be as productive. That would alter his legacy. That’s one reason to avoid rocking the boat.

So, why can’t Welker just sit out, like Mankins did in 2010, to prove his point and try to force the team’s hand? Because of his age and the fact that there are no guarantees his health will hold up. He plays through a ton of things — like three cracked ribs a few years ago — but how long can that last?

Mankins was in his mid-20s when he sat out, and he knew a big payday would await with the Patriots or whoever else. Mankins gave up about $2 million for a restricted free agent tag, and he’s more than made it up. To gamble like that, Welker would have to be willing to lose. But he can’t give up $9.5 million on faith, because he won’t be able to make it back.

That’s why, as I said, he’s stuck. And Welker knows it. Unless the Patriots wilt — which is doubtful — his options seem to be taking a long-term deal for an average of $8 or $9 million per year, or accepting a franchise tag worth $9.5 million for one year and possibly another tag worth a little more next year. Then he’ll be in for a question-filled offseason in 2014.

Anyway, I’m sure the negotiations will continue. Maybe the sides will get closer. But in my mind, Welker did the right thing by signing his franchise tag.

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