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Why New England Patriots fear commitment to Wes Welker

Charles Krupa/Associated Press
Wes Welker has piled up 554 catches in five seasons with the Patriots, taking a bunch of hits in the process.

The New England Patriots and receiver Wes Welker appear to be at an impasse. The star slot machine signed his franchise tag earlier this week, ensuring he will earn $9.5 million in 2012.

His hope is for a long-term contract. But as Welker told the Boston Herald on Thursday, negotiations have "gotten worse." And the Pats reportedly aren't too happy with Welker's comments.

What's not clear is how far apart the two sides are. What is clear is that the Patriots are proceeding with caution when it comes to guaranteeing future money for a 31-year-old receiver who has more catches than any other player in the NFL since he arrived in New England in 2007.

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Why the hesitation?

Perhaps a look into coach Bill Belichick's past could provide one reason why the team isn't racing to hand Welker a bag of cash for 2013, 2014 and beyond. Examine the last two dynamic slot receivers Belichick experienced firsthand before Welker: Wayne Chrebet and Troy Brown.

When taking out the magnifying glass and inspecting the careers of the ex-Jets receiver Chrebet and ex-Patriots receiver Brown, one could find a reason to think twice before banking long-term on a player of Welker's age and size who lives among the giants over the middle of the field. While noting that each player's body is different, a player-by-player comparison could indicate why the Patriots have balked at offering a contract that pays Welker into 2015.

Some perspective:

When Belichick was with the Jets as an assistant from 1997 to 1999, Chrebet was an unlikely star. An undrafted player from Hofstra, he milked everything he could out of his 5-foot-10, 188-pound frame. In seven of his first eight seasons, Chrebet played in at least 15 games, catching at least 51 balls each year for more than 690 yards. But it all changed when he turned 30.

Limited by injuries -- most notably concussions -- Chrebet fell off the NFL map. The slide began with a 27-catch injury-plagued season in 2003, and then he managed just 31 for 397 yards in 2004, despite playing all 16 games. By 2005, at age 32, it was nearly over. Chrebet had just 15 catches for 153 yards in eight games before hanging up his cleats. With 580 catches, many over the middle, the hits collected and seemed to wear his diminutive body down.

It was similar for Brown, the 5-foot-10, 196-pound do-everything sparkplug who emerged from the scrapheap to become quarterback Tom Brady's go-to weapon during the Patriots' dynasty years. At his best, from 2000 to 2002, Brown averaged 94 catches for 1,011 yards and four scores. In 2002, he played at 31 years old (Welker's current age).

What happened afterward might be what the Patriots are afraid of. Over the final five years of his career, Brown never eclipsed 45 catches or 475 yards in a season. In 2004, two years after catching 97 passes for 890 yards, Brown hauled in 17 balls for a mere 184 receiving yards, showing just how quickly it can all slow down (though he did spend quite a bit of time on defense that year).

Clearly, neither player is Welker. His production dwarfs them both, with at least 111 catches and 1,165 receiving yards in four of the past five years. The only blemish, if you want to call it that, was in 2010 when he was recovering from ACL surgery and totaled 86 catches for 848 yards and seven scores.

And Welker (5-foot-9, 190 pounds) has shown no signs of slowing down. In fact, 2012 might have been his finest year -- excluding his crucial drop during Super Bowl XLVI -- with career-highs in yards (1,569) and touchdowns (nine).

But the other side of it is, he has caught 650 passes. That's a lot of hits for someone who has never shied away from contact. Welker does have a rehabilitated knee and is a constant on the injury report. He'll often tough it out -- once playing with three cracked ribs -- but the man does get banged up quite a bit. Last year, for instance, he was on the injury report 11 times for neck, rib and knee injuries. He was limited in practice from Week 14 on through the Super Bowl.

Set to earn $9.5 million this year, it's solid value for a receiver who puts up elite numbers. But then what, with several Patriots slot options waiting in the wings? Could Julian Edelman, Anthony Gonzalez or a player not yet on the roster provide a better future for a fraction of the price? If there is no long-term deal, these questions certainly will persist.

Only time will tell if history repeats itself, and Welker follows in the paths of Chrebet and Brown. It's enough to give the Patriots pause about offering big money past 2012.

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet

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