With reports out of Boston that the New England Patriots will not use the franchise tag on Wes Welker, let’s take a look at the top potential landing spots for the 5-9, 185-pound wide out via 2013 NFL Free Agency.
1. Cincinnati Bengals
A.J. Green has been nothing short of sensational in his first two seasons. The 6-4, 207-pound receiver racked up 65 receptions for 1,057 yards and seven scores in his rookie season and caught 97 passes for 1,350 yards and 11 TDs in 2012.
But the Bengals’ most prolific pass catcher behind Green is Jermaine Gresham, who caught 64 passes for 737 yards and five scores this past season. In three seasons, the 6-5, 260-pound tight end has made 172 catches for 1,804 yards 15 TDs.
The 5-7, 180-pound Andrew Hawkins emerged as the team’s No. 3 weapon in his second season with 51 receptions for 533 yards and four TDs. Mohamed Sanu finished fourth, collecting 16 catches for 154 yards and four scores in nine games (three starts).
The addition of Welker would not only give quarterback Andy Dalton a much-needed legitimate No. 2 option who would take double teams away from Green, but he would also be a deadly weapon on third downs and intermediate throws.
Ending the NFL’s longest playoff victory drought (22 seasons) is this team’s biggest priority and surrounding Dalton with more playmakers is the only way that will happen. It doesn’t hurt to have more available cap space than any other team.
2. Denver Broncos
On one hand, Eric Decker and DeMaryius Thomas each come off breakout seasons in their third year in 2012. Thomas caught 94 passes for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns and Decker registered 85 receptions for 1,064 yards and 13 touchdowns. The Broncos also don’t have an abundance of cap space and still need to get a deal done with Ryan Clady (likely in the form of the franchise tag).
On the other hand, with few needs to address, Denver would be an ideal fit for Wes Welker. He would probably pick up the offense pretty quickly and would make a potent Broncos offense all the more dangerous.
Brandon Stokley had one of his best seasons since entering the league in 1999 as a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana-Lafayette, catching 45 passes (third-most in career) for 544 yards (also third-most) and five TDs (T-second-most).
Still, the days are numbered for Denver’s slot receiver, as Stokley turns 37 in June.
3. Houston Texans
Like Cincinnati, Houston has to address its in-house issues before attacking the open market.
But unlike the Bengals, the Texans don’t have money to blow (around $13 million under the cap).
Safety Glover Quin is the top priority and he will be franchise tagged if he doesn’t receive a long-term deal. Connor Barwin is also a relatively important impending free agent and there are nine other unrestricted free agents just on defense.
However, the Texans’ top need this offseason is on offense—specifically at wide receiver.
There will be other potential options at the tail-end of the first round of the draft in DeAndre Hopkins, Terrence Williams, Tavon Austin and Keenan Allen, but this team needs a No. 2 WR that will have an immediate, instrumental impact.
Welker is a proven, prolific playmaker, and albeit he would perform best with Tom Brady or Peyton Manning running the offense, he would have a huge impact in Houston and wouldn’t have to handle the pressure of being the No. 1 receiver.
His presence would provide Schaub with a drive-extending, game-changing option and would add a new dimension to the Texans offense. Welker could wind up being the final piece that gets the Texans past that second-round postseason hump.
4. Seattle Seahawks
Sidney Rice was the Seahawks’ leading receiver with 50 catches for 748 yards and seven TDs. Golden Tate, who also found the end zone seven times, was a close second with 45 receptions for 688 yards. Tight end Zach Miller was third on the team with 38 receptions for 396 yards and three TDs, followed by Doug Baldwin, who caught 29 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns.
Though the Seahawks offense utilizes traditional play-action often and a heavy dose of the ground game from Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin and Russell Wilson, the addition of Welker would take Seattle’s offense to a whole new level.
He would help continue the rapid development of the young up-and-coming star signal-caller and give the tough defenses in St. Louis and San Francisco fits by extending drives and opening things up for everyone else on offense.
Seattle also has a good deal of cap room and look to be a legit contender for years to come.
5. New England Patriots
We’ve witnessed plenty of players at tight end and wide receiver come and go in the Brady-Belichick era.
But it’s had little if any affect on the Patriots’ perennial dominance. Why would that change without Welker?
Well, he has been phenomenal in his six seasons with the Patriots, leading the league three times in receptions and collecting 672 combined catches for 7,459 yards and 37 touchdowns. The 5-9, 185-pound wide out brought plenty to the table—splitting LB and Cover-2 zones, defeating man-to-man coverage underneath as well as downfield, not to mention yards after catch, his roles on special teams and run-blocking when needed.
Nevertheless, each of the team’s three Super Bowl wins with Brady and Belichick came before Welker, as well as Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. New England is sitting with approximately $15 million under next year’s projected salary cap, which is why Welker won’t be receiving the franchise tag that would cost the club $11.4 million.
Unless Welker—who entered the NFL with the San Diego Chargers in 2004 as an undrafted free agent—gets a new offer and signs a similar deal to the two-year, $16 million contract he shot down two years ago, he’s going to be taking his talents to a new team in 2013 via free agency.
The potential departure of Welker would put the Patriots in a bind at receiver. There will be other options on the open market, but none of them will be cheap. So, if he’s let go, look for the Pats to try to replace him through the draft.
Plenty of possible replacements should be available in the early rounds and someone like Tavon Austin might be able to bring an element to New England that Welker—who turns 32 in May—never offered.
In his nine NFL seasons, Welker has registered 4,138 yards and a score on 183 kickoff returns, but in six seasons with the Pats, he’s had just 280 yards on 13 returns. He’s also totaled 2,417 punt return yards on 241 attempts, though less than half of that production (1,185 yards on 114 returns) has taken place with the Patriots.
However, none of them would likely be able to produce anywhere near the same overall production as Welker in 2013.
And with Donte Stallworth, Deion Branch and Julian Edelman each pending unrestricted free agents and Brandon Lloyd possibly on his way out the door with a $3 million option bonus that New England would owe him if he stays, the Patriots have plenty to do in order to get back to the big stage for Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium.
Honorable Mentions: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Redskins, Carolina Panthers
The Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams, Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars would all also be possible, but unlikely landing spots for Welker heading into his 10th season in the league.
Michael Gartman is a College Football and NFL Senior Writer, the AFC South and NFC West Lead Writer and the Founder, CEO of GridironGrit.com. He’s also about to start reporting on topics across all sides of the political spectrum and analyze important issues in the liberty movement for a political website. Follow him @_MichaelGartman on Twitter.