By Tom E. CurranFOXBORO - It'smakes perfect sense to wonder what Wes Welker is thinking when he sees a teammate get a massive contract extension. In terms of salary-relative-to-production, Welker's probably been the most underpaid player on the team for three seasons now. He's swallowed hard and dealt respectfully with that reality even as he'sbeen nickel-and-dimed while the Patriots have taken a blowtorch to about 15 million in deals done with Chad Ochocinco, Jonathan Fanene and Shaun Ellis. But classifying the 40 million the Patriots agreed to pay tight end Aaron Hernandez as dipping into "Wes' money" is ignoring the reality of the two players' situations. When Welker was 26, he'd been in the league for three seasons and had amassed 96 catches for 1,121 yards. At that point, he was traded for by the Patriots and given a five-year, 18 million deal that arched eyebrows. At 23 (!), Hernandez has caught 124 passes for 1,473 yards. He's been given a five-year, 40 million extension. Hernandez has shown what he can do at an extremely young age in the Patriots offense and has emerged as one of the best tight ends in the NFL. When Welker was signed in 2007, he was signed on spec and his position and role were very much unestablished. Welker hadn't done enough at that point to warrant the money Hernandez was given on Monday or Rob Gronkowski (six-years, 53 million) was given earlier in the offseason. The Patriots made incredibly sound business decisions with Hernandez and Gronkowski. You have to make those signings if you can, regardless of what the other contract dynamics are. The Patriots aren't looking to tie up the 31-year-old Welker for the next five years. They are trying to milk him for production while minimizing their long-term risk. That's smart too. Not necessarily fair, but smart. The point at which Welker can feel like he's getting jobbed is when he considers contracts like the ones mentioned before - Ellis, Fanene and Ocho - and realizes that that money was peed away completely on players in situations similar to Welker's. (Similar; not identical). The gap between what Welker would have taken and what the Patriots were offering wasn't absurd. Especially when you think of the millions otherwise wasted. Those are the deals people should look at and feel sympathy for Welker. (Though not too much sympathy; he's still making 9.5 million on the franchise tag). The Hernandez and Gronkowski money? That's money well spent.
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