What is going on with the New England Patriots and Wes Welker? Well…

Patriots WR Wes Welker is running (Associated Press)

Wes Welker has been part of a main storyline for the Patriots since the Super Bowl. The Patriots receiver was deemed their franchise player, then there were questions about whether he would sit out or make a stand. Well, he sat out some, talked about not feeling great about the way he was treated, then returned for mandatory mini-camp and signed his tag.

The questions haven’t gone away. As you’ve probably read — the Boston Globe and Boston Herald have it well covered — Welker’s playing time is down while the snaps for Julian Edelman are up. Edelman even started on Sunday. Our own Albert Breer has a really good look at this situation, too, to lead off his picks column. With the All-Pro’s contract status tenuous, given the fact that he’s getting up in age, rumors are swirling (like this one).

But what does it all mean? How to explain what the deal is?

I hate to say, but I don’t have inside information. I wish I did, though real, hard-news inside info on how the Patriots handle their personnel is tough to come by. What I do have is three years of experience covering Bill Belichick and the Patriots. And I think that gives me some perspective.

First, let’s discuss what this is not.

– I don’t think the Patriots are punishing Welker for anything. Sure, he made a comment about his contract, but so have a lot of people. Shoot, guard Logan Mankins sounded off on what he thought were lies and asked for a trade. When he showed up in 2010, he was inserted into the lineup. Plus, Welker showed up for minicamp and signed his tender. If there is punishment due, I don’t see where. If the Patriots were taking some anger out on him, think of the people who would have to be complicit. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would have to agree to not use one of his best receivers for some petty reason. Nope.

– I don’t think they are phasing Welker out. Again, why would they? This franchise is about winning. Winning now, keep winning in the future, it’s all that’s important. If there was a symbolic point to be made, it would only be one aimed at changing behavior. What behavior would they want changed? Welker showed up even though he wasn’t thrilled, he has worked, and hasn’t caused a problem as far as I know. Nothing wrong with that.

– I don’t think the Patriots have Welker on the trade block… any more than anyone else. As was explained in this interview to Yahoo! Sports, Belichick believes everyone has a price. Obviously. There is no block. It’s just, is there a price that fits the player? If someone offered two first-rounders for Welker right now, think they’d hold onto him? Probably not. Everyone is available for a price. If a team wanted Welker, they could have him. You just gotta pay for it. And few would be tricked into any maneuvers to raise or lower his price. They know what he is.

So… what is it? My best guess…

– I believe the Patriots are planning for the future. That may include Welker. It may not. If Welker accepted a team-friendly deal (maybe two years, $16 million), I bet the future would include him. If he wants market value, I bet it would not. But the Patriots need to see their options. They need to see what Julian Edelman can do. When I wrote in the offseason that the Patriots were not a lock to even give Welker the franchise tag, my view was, internally, there was a thought that Edelman could almost do what Welker could do. And it would come at a fraction of the price.

In the end, the Patriots decided not to roll the dice and see. They ended up giving Welker the franchise tag, and we are where we are. But Welker is 31 at a position that necessitates a player taking a beating. He has had concussions and major injuries. If he wants big money, it may not make sense to give it to him.

That brings me to Edelman. As a rookie, it was easy to figure Edelman would be the next Welker for obvious similarities in their play. And when Welker was injured, and Edelman filled in with eight catches for 98 yards against the Jets in 2009, it was promising. After Welker tore his ACL, Edelman filled in again with 16 catches for 147 yards and two scores in two games at the end of that season.

Yet since then, nothing. Sure, Edelman has played defense and been a great team guy. But nothing on offense — just 11 catches for 120 yards and no scores between 2010 and 2011. In essence, the Patriots have no idea what kind of player he is. How can they plan for life after Welker if they don’t know whether the player to take over for him is on their roster? Welker can do it all, but he’s mostly in the slot. What can Edelman do? We don’t know.

Make no mistake, they’ve been doing this all offseason. Signing former Colts WR Anthony Gonzalez was one attempt, trading for WR Greg Salas was another. They need the next Welker. Now, they are playing Edelman, and he’s responded with six catches for 57 yards in two games. Sure, the fact that TE Aaron Hernandez was injured means things will change. But considering they just signed Deion Branch, room will still be tight at receiver.

The Patriots, because they are good, have the luxury of experimenting. They can tinker. Last year, my view on the ever-changing secondary — bringing guys in off the street, using receivers — was that it was all about finding the right mix for the players. They needed to know if Devin McCourty could play safety, for instance, and whether Sterling Moore could really play (he could). The Patriots could do all of that, knowing their offense would provide a cushion and they could still win. That’s exactly what happened.

That’s how I see the Patriots doing things right now. Trying to find out if really, once and for all, Edelman can be Welker. Because they know what they have in Welker. And if they don’t see what they are looking for in Edelman, it’s easy to slide Welker back in there. But it’s Year 4 and they have no idea if Edelman can take the mantle. It’s time to find out.

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