With free agency and the draft process revving up, there are plenty of questions for every NFL team. But for most, there's one issue that trumps the rest. This is the latest in a team-by-team look at the offseason tasks that just can't get botched.
The AFC Championship Game featured a pair of offenses that for most of the season could not have been more different. As was brought up countless times during the playoffs, Joe Flacco was the best deep-ball thrower in football in 2012, but the Ravens struggled in their intermediate passing game and in manufacturing first downs. For the Pats, manufacturing first downs is all they do. They had 444 in all, 62 more than any other team.
Much of this middle-of-the-field dominance was — and has been — a product of Wes Welker. The 31-year-old receiver has caught 627 passes in his six seasons as a Patriot, and as every other piece of New England’s backfield and receiving corps has turned over, Welker has remained a constant for Tom Brady. Welker had another typically outstanding season in 2012, catching 118 passes for 1,354 yards while Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski missed significant time with injuries, and Brandon Lloyd, well ... didn’t do anything.
This steady production is what’s made Welker’s treatment by the Patriots and Bill Belichick a bit puzzling. Before the 2011 season, Welker, coming off his worst year as a Patriot, was offered a two-year, $16 million contract. He turned down that deal before getting the franchise tag that spring. Last offseason, coming off his best season as a Patriot, Welker was given a lesser offer, which he again turned down before getting the franchise tag. In total, Welker brought home more than he would’ve by signing the original sheet, but what had become clear was that to the Pats, Welker’s value had been defined. In New England, that usually means a line in the sand. When it came time this week for the Pats to decide whether to again use the franchise tag on Welker, they declined, meaning that Welker will likely become a free agent when the league year begins.