Let's start here: The New England Patriots do a lot of things right. While they're not the infallible goliath some make them out to be, the Pats certainly are among a handful of clubs that carry the "model franchise" tag.
That's what makes the whole Wes Welker situation such a head-scratcher for others in the league. And a hard one, really, for Welker himself to understand.
To review, the Patriots saw fit to guarantee Welker $9.515 million by placing the franchise tag on the veteran wide receiver in March. Really, the biggest change between the team and player since then regards a contract negotiation that fell short, leading up to the deadline for a long-term deal in July. The sides weren't close then, two months after Welker swallowed his pride (and his leverage) and signed his franchise tender to end a short game of stay-away.
It's September now, and in Sunday's stunning, home-opening loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Julian Edelman was the team's clear-cut second receiver, behind Brandon Lloyd and ahead of Welker. In fact, had Aaron Hernandez not suffered a bad ankle sprain, Welker would have gotten far less than the 63 snaps he drew.
This situation begs one question: Had Welker accepted the Patriots' contract offer in July -- which was OK on the front end, but gave the team too much long-term control for the receiver's liking -- would Edelman have passed him on the depth chart?
Speaking to NFL evaluators this week, the universal response is that it'd be hard to answer that one affirmatively. And if the answer is indeed no, then this is a business decision, not a football one.
"I'm betting they're prepping to move on from Welker," said one AFC team executive, via text. "It's strange. Edelman is not Welker. ... May be a changing of the guard."
A rival AFC pro scout added that, "(Edelman) is not bad, but he's not close (to Welker), especially when you consider how much chemistry Welker and Brady have developed over the years." Asked then if the move to Edelman makes any football sense, the scout responded, "Honestly, no."
Posed the same question, another AFC scout responded via text, half-jokingly, "It's Bill, so yes. ... More about making a point, that one player doesn't make the team. He held out, they show they can move on without him. Hell, remember, Bill asked Wes if he knew who Wally Pipp was! That's Bill."
An effort to reach out to Belichick on this matter through the Patriots was unsuccessful on Wednesday.
Welker's first instinct is, and will always be, to take the high road. It's part of the reason why he signed the tender in May. He's still the guy who hurried back from an ACL reconstruction two years ago, returning to the practice field four months after shredding his knee. So you won't hear him fly off the handle about his situation. But even if he wouldn't say it, this process has been hard on Welker over the last six months, according to those around him, and has gotten progressively more difficult recently.
It now seems the chances that the Patriots will tag him again -- at the $11.418 million it would cost in 2013 -- are near zero. It's also highly unlikely, after what he's been through, that he'd take a discount to stay. A trade is possible, but with Hernandez down and an acquiring club unable to sign Welker long-term by rule until after the season, there are complications there, as well.
And that makes the Welker situation a fascinating one to watch going forward.
Last week, when Hernandez went down and Welker's playing time shot up, the Patriots showed, in their actions, that when they absolutely had to have a play, they were going back to No. 83.
This is one of those have-to-have-it weeks for the Patriots. Someone's coming out of the Sunday-night showdown in Baltimore at 1-2. That team will carry that loss to another prime AFC contender into the playoff race. Hernandez won't be back for a while, and Lloyd and Brady fought communication problems last week. Long story short, Welker's presence should, logically, be important.
All the football reasons in the world say Welker will play a big role in a big spot this week. So at the very least, we'll get an idea of just how deep the Patriots are willing to let the business side interfere with what happens between the lines.
And now, my forecast on what will happen between those lines across the country ...
Albert Breer went 8-7 on his predictions for Week 2, giving him a 17-13 record on the season. How will he fare in Week 3? His picks are below, with home teams listed second:
1) The Steelers, despite their opening-week loss in Denver, still carry plenty of punch and figure to be in it for the long haul.
2) Reggie McKenzie's salary-cap purge has taken its toll on a roster that now needs to be rebuilt.