On Pro Football
FOXBORO - He fits with this franchise like few have since Bill Belichick took over better than a decade ago.
So why do we not hear about the stark reality that Wes Welker could walk away after this season, basically at the height of his career?
Welker, the most reliable and proficient receiver in the game the past four seasons, averaging 108 catches a year as a Patriot, heads into the fifth and final year of his $18 million deal, something that rarely happens in this game.
He sat quietly and has watched franchise fixtures like Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins worked out life-changing mega-deals.
Meanwhile, the only noise Welker has ever made in this town was a short soliloquy last year laced with foot puns, directed toward the strange video work of Jets coach Rex Ryan.
And for that, Welker was benched and most likely fined.
So what about a new deal? Welker is 30, with one knee reconstruction on his resume already. Are the Pats prepared to keep him in a New England uniform for years to come?
Or is he playing for his NFL life?
"I'm not worried about that," Welker said. "I'm worried about going out there and playing ball. I love playing on this team. I enjoy every day that I'm out there. And I'm going to let my play take care of everything else."
To Pats fans and opponents, Welker's words had best be believed. Through training camp, he's easily looked like Brady's top target - along with second-year tight end Aaron Hernandez. He's reliable, catches everything in his area code and, yes, the bounce is back in those 30-year-old legs.
"For me I feel like I'm still in my prime. I'm concentrating on the here and now, whatever I can do to help the team win," he said. "It's the best I've felt in my career. My knowledge of the game, being able to be healthy, has really helped me improve.
"I'm feeling better. I've worked hard. As long as you're working hard, getting better every day, there's no telling where the curve goes."
Welker brings plenty of cache to the bargaining table. All the catches, three Pro Bowl trips, the one thing Welker doesn't have is a championship.
He enters the 2011 campaign as the key cog in New England's receiving corps. Deion Branch and newcomer Chad Ochocinco will play complementary roles to Welker, who if healthy, remains a shoo-in for 110 catches or more.
But what is Welker's value to the Patriots down the road?
Something tells me it's a number that will grow if there is no deal between now and the end of the season.
Belichick has tried building a young pass-catching corps through the draft.
Chad Jackson and Bethel Johnson never panned out.
Brandon Tate and Taylor Price have shown little to make you think they will carry this franchise through the end of Brady's tenure here.
You have to figure this franchise values Welker and what he does each and every Sunday.
"Wes, his track record sort of speaks for itself and he's having a really strong camp to this point," said Pats personnel guru Nick Caserio. "Then you have some of the younger players, like the Julian Edelmans, the Taylor Prices, the Brandon Tates, who I'd say (are) different but they're all kind of all (in) a similar stage of development."
Price couldn't get into the 45-man rotation a year ago.
Tate can't get on the field because of injuries, and in the meantime, is watching the NFL eradicate his top strength, kick returns, by moving kickoffs up to the 35.
And Edelman continues to bobble and/or drop nearly everything thrown his way.
Caserio and Belichick - add Brady to that list - need Welker ... badly. Nobody here wants a scenario like 2005 when Branch held out and was dealt away, leaving Brady to throw to the likes of Reche Caldwell, Doug Gabriel, Jabar Gaffney et al.
The Pats have to step up yet again with their check book. And they have to do it now. Sorry folks, but winning is expensive.
And Wes Welker is not the place this team needs to look at and cut corners.
Closing up camp
Pats Training Camp 2011 is coming to a screeching halt.
The public is welcome for today's stadium walkthrough, 1 p.m.-1:45 p.m., before the team heads off to Tampa.
Tomorrow night, the team takes on the Bucs at James Stadium, then will get Friday off.
One other short practice, slated for 1:30-2:30 p.m. on Saturday, will be the final session of camp open to the public.
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