It’s with great hesitancy that we’re proclaiming in late January that Wes Welker will be available for hire on the open market in two months. That’s a lot of days, hours, and minutes for both the player and the Patriots’ front office to contemplate their next move.

But here’s a number which doesn’t bode well for Welker’s future in New England: $11.4 million.

That’s how much it will cost to use a franchise tag on him for the second straight year after he was franchised last spring, and then delayed signing his tender until the middle of the summer. He played this year under a fully guaranteed $9.5 million contract, and now the increased value of the tag is a hefty chunk of cap space to dedicate to a receiver who will blow out 32 candles on a birthday cake with rainbow sprinkles during this offseason. That age is also why New England has shown little desire to commit to Welker long term, despite his consistently stupid numbers.

Welker finished this season with 1,354 receiving yards on 118 receptions with six touchdowns. That comes after a 2011 season when Welker had career highs in yards (1,569), and touchdowns (9). So from where he stands, the fear of a sudden slow down should be minimal, and therefore based on his production he’s rightfully earned his payday. But from where management stands, the fear of an abrupt cliff dive is always very real, with the examples infamous.

Randy Moss has still shown some life this year in San Fran, but his tumble began at the age of 33 when he wouldn’t comply with the Patriot way, and was thus jettisoned from New England. He hasn’t been featured as a primary receiver since, finishing with a combined 827 yards over his last two seasons. Then there’s Chad Ochocinco, who also fell quickly from his perch as a No. 1 receiver in Cincinnati at the age of 30, recording an average of 718 yards per season over the next three years, which included an extremely limited role in New England.

Welker could easily be the exception while pulling a Terrell Owens. Usually that’s the worst insult you can possibly say to a person. But on the field, Owens remained reasonably productive late into his 30′s, posting No. 2 wide receiver-type numbers. During his age 37 season he had 983 yards on 72 catches with nine touchdowns.

So at the very least, there’s an exceedingly strong possibility that Welker leaves the only NFL home he’s ever known, or at least the only one where he’s done something meaningful. In his season-ending press conference Bill Belichick bobbed and weaved when asked about Welker’s status and said very little, which was very Belichick of him. Welker matched Belichick’s mum-ness, saying he’s “not worried about that right now” in response to the contract question.

We’re worried, Wes. From a fantasy perspective, Welker being anywhere but New England while receiving passes from that sweet Tom Brady stroke is scary change we’re just not ready for yet. He likely has two more years of solid WR2 or low-end WR1 production left in him regardless of where he lands. But two teams (Miami and San Diego) couldn’t figure out how to utilize the diminutive slot receiver until Belichick brought him to New England. The uncertainty surrounding whether or not that blueprint can be carried elsewhere will dominate fantasy discussions throughout the spring and summer if he leaves.