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In Cassel case, did Patriots get tagged?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  March 2, 2009 10:34 AM

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At this stage, it is helpful to remember that there are nearly eight weeks to go until the NFL Draft. The Patriots now have money to spend. Bill Belichick is a peerless evaluator and the Patriots generally have excelled at managing the salary cap.

Nonetheless, one cannot help but wonder if the Patriots did themselves more harm than good when they used the franchise tag on Matt Cassel.

Ending weeks of speculation that began during the final stages of the 2008 regular season, the Patriots on Saturday traded Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs for a second-round pick (34th overall) in next month's draft. Just like that, Cassel's meteoric rise in New England crashed to a halt. After all that debate and all that posturing, the Patriots seemed to give up more than they received, unloading the same Cassel contract they saddled themselves with in the first place.

Fine. So Cassel is gone, though one way or the other, we knew that probably was going to happen. The ultimate question here is whether the Patriots got the best possible deal, which raises a succession of questions.

The moment the Patriots franchised Cassel last month, they committed to paying him $14.65 million for the 2009 season, a proposition Cassel was all too eager to accept. From that moment forward, the Patriots had a commodity they had to deal because everyone and his long snapper knew they couldn't pay two frontline quarterbacks. No Boston-based organization has painted itself into a corner like that since former Sox general manager Lou Gorman had Lee Smith and Jeff Reardon sharing space in the same bullpen.

So what did the other 31 NFL teams do? They waited. They let the Patriots tie up their money, if only for a relatively short period of time. The Minnesota Vikings elected to give up a fourth-round pick for Sage Rosenfels, whom they then signed to a two-year, $9 million contract that includes only $5 million in guarantees. And then everyone from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Detroit Lions to the Kansas City Chiefs resisted giving up too much for a quarterback who was grossly overpaid and who could just as easily be the next Scott Mitchell as the next Steve Young.

Don't take that as a swipe at Cassel, it isn't. Good for him. The Patriots used a flawed NFL system to declare their backup quarterback as their franchise player -- can we all admit that the franchise tag should be abolished or, at the very least, redefined? -- leading Cassel and agent David Dunn to call the team's bluff. When the market for Cassel wasn't quite what the Patriots envisioned, New England had to add Mike Vrabel to a deal that earned the club the 34th selection in the draft.

Now, had Cassell merely been allowed to walk following the season, the Patriots might very well have ended up with a compensatory pick between the third and fourth rounds, albeit in 2010. That pick likely would have been in the top 100, no better than No. 97. In that scenario, the Patriots might still have retained Vrabel, whose departure creates another hole in a defense that had trouble getting off the field all year long.

Obviously, the inclusion of Vrabel in the package is what throws the whole picture out of whack. On some level, we all agree that Vrabel slipped some last season, his sack total dipping from 12 1/2 (in 2007) to four (in 2008). He just wasn't the same playmaker. At the same time, the Patriots currently appear to have no real replacements in line, unless they plan to use one of their first four selections in the draft -- they now have Nos. 23, 34, 47 and 58 -- to pick a linebacker who would join Jerod Mayo, Adalius Thomas, Tedy Bruschi and the rest.

And if that's the case, we have to ask: What happened to the theory that the New England defensive system is too complex for young linebackers to process? Has that now changed because the Patriots are more desperate? Or is it possible that they foolishly neglected an aging linebacking corps before last spring, when they plucked Mayo in the first round?

One way or another, the Patriots got themselves into this situation, whether the mistake came within the last few days or last few years.

Let's take pause here. If the Patriots turn around and add Julius Peppers or Ray Lewis to their defense in the coming days, we all will feel differently about this. Part of the problem is that we have no idea what Belichick is thinking, which is precisely the way the coach likes it. For the Patriots, moments like this are where their approach to public relations is costly because they provide little information with regard to their thought process.

So, we're all left to guess and assume, and we know what that leads to.

Not long after the Cassel deal was completed, news began emerging from other markets that the Patriots might have had better deals on the table. Tampa Bay reportedly was prepared to deal its first-round pick (No. 19 overall) to Denver for Jay Cutler; the Broncos then would have sent No. 19 to the Patriots for Cassel. Another scenario had the Detroit Lions willing to deal their second-round choice (No. 33 overall) for Cassel, and either keeping him or dealing him to the Bucs as part of a three-team deal.

In either scenario, the Patriots would have received more for Cassel.

And they would have kept Vrabel, whom they could have cut if his salary was an issue (though they would have still taken a bit of a cap hit).

Whatever the case, this much is clear: when the Patriots used the franchise tag on Cassel, they rolled the dice. As it turned out, Cassel became harder to deal than they imagined. Ultimately, in order to move Cassel, the Patriots had to give up Vrabel, too, even if they did end up with a 34th overall selection that should be of benefit to them in the long term more than the short.

By that point, it certainly seems that trading Cassel was less about acquiring assets than it was about mitigating losses.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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