Wes Welker has been called a lot of things: slot receiver without peer, standup comic, adult-diaper pitchman. But the undersized pass-catcher could also be a pioneer for younger slot receivers everywhere this offseason.
The franchise tag period begins Monday, and the 31-year-old receiver is at another contractual crossroads. He just finished up his first season under the tag, and could be hit again for a second consecutive season. He could reach an agreement with the Patriots on a new deal, or he could become a free agent. If that happens -- even if he ends up staying in New England -- his deal could allow him to set the market for a younger generation of slot guys who have come of age over the last few seasons.
Fundamentally, there’s no template for what’s going on between Welker and the Patriots. As is the case with most negotiations, it would be a lot easier if both sides could point to a situation that came before and use that as a blueprint: “This slot receiver caught 100 passes in five of the last six seasons and has been an integral part of the offense -- we want to set something up like that.” But Welker is completely unique in that no slot receiver in the history of the game has had the sort of effect that Welker has had on the New England offense.
Starting in 2007, Welker -- with lots of help from Tom Brady -- showed the rest of the league just how important an excellent slot receiver could be. He helped people re-think their preconceived notions about the position, working as one of a handful of pass catchers who helped move it from a secondary role in the offense to one of the most impactful in the passing game. His unprecedented production helped people realize that the slot can be the No. 1 receiver in an offense by setting several marks over the last six seasons, including becoming the first receiver in NFL history with at least five seasons of 100 or more receptions. And against the Jaguars on Dec. 23, Welker passed Jerry Rice with his 18th career game with 10 or more catches. For the season, he ended up with 118 receptions for 1,354 yards and six touchdowns -- his 118 receptions marked the third-highest total of his career. (He caught 123 balls in 2009 and 122 in 2011.)
But Welker isn’t the only slot receiver to see a spike in his stats over the last five years. With the proliferation of spread offenses and wide-open passing attacks, more teams are utilizing a slot receiver as an important part of their offense. And as a result, many of them have moved from being ancillary parts of an offense into starring roles. Now, it appears we’re in a golden age of slot guys --- while Welker is still the best, there are several young slot receivers who have made their mark over the last few seasons.
While there are several variations across the league -- including bigger, more physical types like Anquan Boldin and more traditional deep threats like Marques Colston, for our purposes, the guys in the following group are all smart, undersized receivers who have terrific agility and are willing to go over the middle and take the physical pounding that their outside counterparts won’t always face.
•Victor Cruz: Working primarily out of the slot the last two years, the 26-year-old UMass product had 86 catches for 1,092 catches and 10 touchdowns in 16 games with the Giants in 2012. It marked the second straight year the 6-foot, 204-pounder topped 80 catches and 1,000 yards.
•Percy Harvin: The Vikings’ all-purpose threat has managed 280 catches in his first four years in the league while working mostly in the slot. He also has a tremendous impact on the ground (he has 107 carries for 683 yards in four years), as well as on special teams. About to enter the final year of a five-year deal he signed as a rookie, this 24-year-old has already made noise about a new contract.
•Randall Cobb: The 5-foot-10, 192-pounder had an uneven start in 2011 (when he finished with 25 catches), but the 22-year-old out of Kentucky had 80 catches and 954 yards this past season in the slot with the Packers.
•Danny Amendola: Not a top-shelf slot guy in the mold of Welker, Cruz or Harvin, but the 5-foot-11, 188-pounder out of Texas Tech still averaged just over 50 catches a season the last three years for a team that has won a total of 16 games in that span. He turned 27 this past season.
•Davone Bess: Operating mostly out of the slot, the 27-year-old Bess has had at least 50 catches a season in his first five years in the league, including a career-high 79 in 2010. The 5-foot-10, 193-pounder signed one of the biggest deals of any slot receiver in recent history (other than the five-year, $18 million deal Welker signed prior to starting his Patriots career) when he inked a four-year, $9.35 million contract in October 2010.
•Andrew Hawkins: Like Cobb, the 26-year-old lagged a bit as a rookie with 23 catches in 2011, but the 5-foot-7, 180-pounder out of Toledo stepped up this past season and came away with 51 receptions, 533 yards and four touchdowns for the Bengals.
Because of the statistical increase going on with the slot guys, teams are being forced to re-evaluate their financial model when it comes to rewarding them. Traditionally, the third or fourth receiver wasn’t considered much of a salary cap priority -- instead, it was the guys on the outside who made the big money, with Larry Fitzgerald’s contract being the best example. (In August 2011, Fitzgerald signed an eight-year, $128.5 million contract, which included $50 million guaranteed, as well as a $10 million signing bonus and first-year roster bonus of $8 million. In an ironic twist, Fitzgerald spent some time in the slot last season.)
But with several premiere slot receivers either nearing free agency or being talked about as possible trade bait, the league is looking to the Welker situation as the one that could establish the market for the rest of the league. No one is expecting Welker (or any of the other slot receivers) to land a Fitzgerald-like deal, but if Welker does cash in this offseason, it will raise the financial bar for the next generation of slot receivers. With the understanding that Welker’s age could alter the landscape a bit when compared to some of his colleagues, there’s already talk of a two-year, $16 million deal. (For the record, he reportedly turned a similar deal down in 2011.) Former league executive Andrew Brandt suggested that a deal that would net Welker $9 million annually -- with a $24 million signing bonus -- would be a good deal for both the receiver and the team. Either total would represent a seismic step forward financially for slot receivers.
(For what it’s worth, it’s interesting that Cruz, Harvin, Welker and Amendola all have uncertain contract situations this offseason. Cruz and Harvin have already made noise about a new contract, while Amendola, like Welker, is also potentially headed to free agency this offseason. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find some -- or all four teams -- waiting for someone to make a contract move to try and establish a market for elite-level slot receivers.)
In 2007, Welker helped shape the market, as his five-year, $18.5 million deal was considered a landmark for slot receivers everywhere. This time around, Welker could be again at the forefront, helping set a new financial standard for a generation of slot receivers who are set to get their financial due. And so while Patriots fans will sit and wait and watch as the contractual drama swirls around the slot receiver over the course of the offseason, there will also be plenty of several interested parties around the league eyeing the proceedings as well, seeing if Welker can once again destroy another set of myths when it comes to the impact of a slot receiver.