The New England Patriots locked up the second-half of their star tight end duo for the long haul on Monday when they reached an agreement with Aaron Hernandez on a five-year extension worth a reported maximum of $40 million.
Earlier this summer the team extended Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski through 2019 with a deal worth a maximum of $55 million.
Combined, the two deals signal a massive investment in the two young tight ends while only further complicating the status of Wes Welker.
Welker, who led the NFL in receptions (122) and the Patriots in receiving yards (1,569) by a large margin last season, contemplated holding out in the spring before he signed his one-year, $9.5 million tender as the team’s franchise player in May.
Asked about his reaction to the Hernandez deal, Welker remained upbeat.
“Good for him. I’m definitely happy for him,” Welker told the Boston Herald. “He’s a great player and done a lot of great things for us and it’s good to have him here.”
Hernandez has certainly pulled his weight for one of the league’s most high-octane passing offenses. In 14 games last season he caught 79 passes for 910 yards and seven touchdowns. Gronkowski set a tight end record with 17 touchdowns and hauled in 90 passes for 1,327 yards. Tom Brady targeted his two biggest receivers a combined 237 in all.
But Welker was still his preferred target. The 31-year-old was targeted a league-high 172 times — a 50-target increase from 2010 when the two tight ends were a far less significant part of the offense. Welker has led the Patriots in targets, receptions and yards in each of the last four seasons.
The numbers speak for themselves, and if Brady has as much pull in with management as many believe he does, you have to figure he’ll strongly encourage the team to re-up Welker when his contract runs out at the end of the season. And while Welker’s prospects for a long-term extension of his own just took a hit, he’s hoping everything will work itself out after the season.
“I’m under contract. I played out my last deal,” Welker said. “I’ll play out this one and see where we’re at.”
If the Patriots do not give Welker an extension before next summer, they could franchise him again for $11.4 million, but the receiver might not be as willing to sign his tender the second time around.