There is little room for sentiment in professional sports. The New England Patriots perhaps exemplify this point more than any other franchise. Just ask Wes Welker. The deadline has now passed for franchise-tagged players to sign contract extensions with their teams. This means that Welker will play the forthcoming season under a one-year franchise tender of $9.5 million, which is fully guaranteed, but he is due to become an unrestricted free agent in 2013.

To many football fans this seems absurd. Welker has been indispensible during his five-year stint with the Patriots. In fact, since 2007, no other receiver in the league has caught more passes. With 554 catches to his name he is ahead of the trio of Brandon Marshall, Reggie Wayne and Roddy White by more than 75 receptions.

At times he has been the only consistent option for Tom Brady. The Patriots continue to operate without even the semblance of a cogent running game, and the two-headed tight end monster of Gronkowski/Hernandez only came into existence two years ago. There have been glimpses of Randy Moss, but Welker has remained the constant.

It is almost impossible to fathom why the Patriots would risk losing a player next year that has been so integral to their success, and who is still widely regarded as one of the top players at his position. Last year he had career highs in receiving yards (1,569) and touchdowns (9). It remains a possibility for the Patriots to franchise Welker again next season, but this would cost them $11.4 million. This makes such a scenario unlikely, as it would mean that the Patriots would be allocating around 25% of their cap space on two players: Brady and Welker. In addition to this, the Patriots have other free agent concerns next offseason such as Patrick Chung and Sebastian Vollmer.

But for the Patriots it is all about the big picture. Welker recently turned 31, and arguably he will have given the best six years of his career to the Patriots by the end of his current contract. So far, he has averaged 111 catches and 1,221 receiving yards per regular season. However, given that so much of his game is predicated on speed and elusiveness, it is not a stretch to predict that his productivity will decrease precipitously from the age of 32 onwards.

Then there is the lingering thought: how much of Welker’s incredible success is down to the Golden Boy that is throwing him the ball? Welker was inconsequential as a Miami Dolphin, catching only 96 balls for 1,121 yards, and one solitary touchdown, in his two full seasons there. His rise from obscurity coincides with his playing alongside Tom Brady. Remember David Patten? You probably do as a Patriot, when he was fairly noteworthy, but not as a Redskin or Saint when he fell off the radar. Remember Deion Branch? He was the Superbowl MVP in 2005 as a Patriot, and then all of a sudden he became distinctly average in Seattle as a Seahawk for four years during his prime.

Welker is an extremely meticulous receiver in the slot and he is a precise route-runner. This is something that the Patriots demand, and in an offense that runs like clockwork it is rewarded with heightened stats. Conversely, indiscipline and an inability to run precise routes in this offense will result in Chad Ochocinco numbers (15 receptions in 15 games, for 276 yards). Who is to say that the Patriots cannot simply find another precise route-runner to fill Welker’s position in the slot? It is not as if he is a genuine number one receiver.

In any event, Brandon Lloyd is an important consideration to take into account as well. Finally, the Patriots have a genuine deep threat again which will help with their spacing on the field. Add to that the Patriots’ continuing evolution of the tight end position and the addition of Joseph Addai to the backfield, and suddenly the loss of Welker is minimised.

Cost-efficiency is the bottom line in New England. Players, like oranges, are duly discarded once all of the juice has been squeezed out of them. A cruel analogy when discussing human beings, but it is this attitude that has allowed the Patriots to remain as relevant and successful as they have been over the past decade, despite having limited talent to accompany their quarterback. This is not to say that Welker will be irrelevant from the age of 32 onwards, however his best days will be behind him.

Furthermore, he will be expecting a great deal more money than he is worth at that specific moment in time. It is the lamentable dichotomy that we tend to see in American sports: players are often grossly underpaid during their prime but then overpaid in their latter years, almost as a form of retrospective valuing and compensation. Derek Jeter’s three-year, $51 million contract last offseason in baseball illustrates the latter.  The crucial distinction, however, is that the Yankees are not operating under a salary cap and can afford to take the hit. Mike Vrabel will be quick to offer Welker some perspective on the matter. It’s just business. Good business.


Oggy’s Quick Slants
After some deliberation and debate, Penn State University has removed the statute of Joe Paterno which stood outside Beaver Stadium. Where the statute has been taken, and what will happen to it, remains a mystery;
– The NCAA are expected to announce sanctions against Penn State today. A multi-year bowl ban, lost scholarships, recruiting limits and a huge fine are all possibilities. Several analysts have predicted a three-year postseason ban to be handed down. If this is the case then current rules dictate that sophmore, junior and senior players will be allowed to transfer from Penn State immediately.