The move means Welker would be paid about $9.5 million for next season unless the sides work out a long-term deal. Another team could still try to sign Welker, but the Patriots would have the right to match the offer or receive two first-round draft picks as compensation if they don't.
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"Wes Welker is a remarkable football player for our team and has been a vital component to our offense and special teams since we traded for him in 2007," the Patriots said in a statement. "Utilizing the franchise designation allows both sides more time to try to reach an agreement, which is the goal. Wes remains a contractual priority and we are hopeful that he will remain a Patriot for years to come."
Welker's exact salary would not be set until the league determines the salary cap for next season.
Welker has been selected to the Pro Bowl for four consecutive seasons. Last year, he led the NFL with 122 receptions and was second in the league with 1,569 yards receiving.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press