Since losing Super Bowl XLVI to the Giants, there has been nothing but good news for the Patriots until yesterday.
The team and Wes Welker missed the deadline to sign a long term contract meaning that a player who has caught 554 passes (31 for touchdowns) since coming to the Patriots before the 2007 season is possibly looking at free agency after this season. He will play this year under the $9.5-million franchise tag.
As Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com points out, the team does not have to lose Welker after this season. They could sign a contract with him after the year or use the franchise tag a second time to keep Tom Brady's most trusted receiver in town through at least the 2013 season.
The problem for the Patriots is fitting a new contract for Welker in under the salary cap. The Patriots have one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the NFL but that also means those players have to get paid and there is only so much money to spend. Looking at their depth chart for receivers, they already have Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, and Jabar Gaffney under contract. Losing Welker would hurt the team but it would not cripple the offense and the savings on Welker could be used to add another receiver and also extend the contracts of players like Hernandez and Patrick Chung.
That means this may be the last season in New England for Welker. He has done nothing but produce for the Patriots since the team traded 2nd and 7th round draft picks to the Dolphins to acquire him in March of 2007. The team has posted a record of 64-16 in the regular season and has won two AFC titles in his five years as a Patriot. Welker has been named to the All-Pro team twice, the Pro Bowl four times, and he came back from a complete ACL and MCL tear at the end of the 2009 season to play the full season in 2010. He is probably the mosy popular player of all the Patriots who have played with Brady and not won a Super Bowl.
It would be sad to see him go - I can't believe that Brady is happy this morning knowing he may be losing Welker after this season - but Bill Belichick has made a habit of not paying aging veterans for past performance when he believes that money can be used elsewhere to help the team.
If this is going to be his last season as a Patriot, let's hope Welker catches north of 100 passes, leads the team to another 14-2 or 13-3 season, with the culmination being a victory in Super Bowl XLVII.