FOXBOROUGH - As the Patriots transition from the regular season to the team-building season (a.k.a. the offseason), their most pressing decision is what to do with quarterback Matt Cassel.
Back on Sept. 7, when Cassel stepped in for the injured Tom Brady on the 16th offensive play of the season, few could have predicted it would come to this.
But Cassel, having played a significant role in directing the Patriots to an 11-5 record, is now in an enviable position. Scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, he's going to cash in this offseason, whether it's in New England or not.
How the Patriots approach Cassel's situation will be an intriguing story line, because, among other things, the decision likely will be linked to their internal reports on Brady's recovery from knee surgery.
They could approach Cassel about signing a contract extension before free agency begins Feb. 27, although players are usually reluctant to do that before testing the market.
They could let Cassel walk, a decision that would be dictated by the salary cap, which makes it difficult to pay two top-tier quarterbacks and fill out the rest of the roster with quality players.
Or they could buy themselves time and assign Cassel the franchise tag. A player assigned the franchise tag is tendered a one-year contract for the average of the top five salaries at his position, and in Cassel's case, that would be approximately $14 million. Other teams still could sign Cassel, but they'd have to surrender two first-round draft choices, which is why franchise-tagged players seldom change teams. But franchise-tagged players are sometimes traded for reduced compensation.
How does Cassel see it unfolding?
As he packed up his belongings at his Gillette Stadium locker yesterday, he shrugged his shoulders.
"I don't even know how that whole thing works - I don't know anything about the franchise tag," he said. "If I'm a Patriot, I'm a Patriot. I don't know where the future goes from here."
Asked how he'd balance the thought of receiving the approximate $14 million franchise tag with denying himself the chance to become a clear-cut No. 1 quarterback elsewhere, Cassel said, "I guess I'd think about it when it comes about and go from there."
How his situation unfolds figures to be the first domino in the Patriots' offseason plans - plans that also could be affected by the NFL's uncertain labor situation.
With all this in mind, here is a breakdown of the team's personnel at each position (with the season the player's contract expires):
Had the Patriots known Cassel would perform at such a high level, they probably would have approached him prior to the season about a contract extension. From Cassel's perspective, he couldn't ask for much more; he is in a position most players covet: in his prime years, with a winning resume, and ready to hit the open market. If Cassel isn't back, O'Connell (a third-round draft choice from 2008) would be the leading candidate to become Brady's top backup.
The hard-charging Jordan, who came on strong at the end of the season, is set to become a free agent, and he said yesterday he'd be open to returning. Jordan felt his one-year experience in New England helped get his career back on track after three seasons in Oakland, and aside from financial considerations, he said he'll now target a team that is committed to winning, and has great players and a top-end coaching staff. Evans has been an unsung performer as a lead-blocking fullback and special teams player, and the Patriots figure to be interested in retaining him. Otherwise, the big question is with Maroney, who will enter his fourth season and has yet to live up to the expectations that come with being a first-round draft choice. He's likely to be with the team in training camp, but he'll need to show the Patriots they can count on him.
The Patriots' base offense is a three-receiver attack, and the third chip mostly has been Gaffney over the last two seasons. Gaffney totaled 38 receptions this season - he had 36 in 2007 - and he hits unrestricted free agency for the second season in a row. He adds value in that he can line up at all receiver spots, but the Patriots could look to upgrade, perhaps thinking of Gaffney's costly drop against the Colts Nov. 2.
It was a light year in the receiving department for Patriots tight ends, as the top tandem of Watson (22) and Thomas (9) combined for just 31 receptions. Watson had 36 by himself in 2007. This projects as an area the team will look to bolster, especially given that Watson and Thomas are entering their final years. DeVree, an undrafted rookie, was promoted to the roster late in the season and could be part of the team's future.
The Patriots have two key spots solidified for multiple seasons with Light at left tackle and Koppen at center, but three starting linemen (Kaczur, Mankins, and Neal) are set to enter their final year. That could spark talks on extensions, which could factor into the Patriots' overall free agent approach; they might prefer to focus on locking up some of their '09 class rather than spending on players from other teams. Hochstein is an unrestricted free agent and the consummate team player as a versatile backup (seen him at fullback lately?), so while he's scheduled for unrestricted free agency, he could return.
Similar to the offensive line, the defensive front has one top reserve scheduled for unrestricted free agency (Wright), while three front-line players are set to enter their final years (Green, Seymour, Wilfork). Part of the Patriots' free agent strategy figures to center around that '09 group. Seymour's salary-cap charge is scheduled to rise to $9.7 million, a significant figure that could lead the sides back to the negotiating table first. Wilfork, who enters his sixth NFL season, is still playing under his rookie deal, which he has outperformed. He's primed to cash in.
The top three players on the depth chart for most of this season - Bruschi, Mayo, and Guyton - all remain under contract. With Bruschi nearing the end of his career, the Patriots could add a younger prospect at the position, thinking more for the long term. Mayo, the team's 2008 first-round draft choice, immediately became a pillar on which to build a defense around; he's one of the favorites to win Rookie Defensive Player of the Year honors. Seau is unlikely to return, while Williams, who suffered a season-ending injury while playing linebacker in training camp, could be re-signed upon his return to health.
Thomas said yesterday he expects his broken forearm to be healed in time for the 2009 season. He's a starter opposite Vrabel, so the Patriots have their top two players under contract. The top backup, Woods, is a restricted free agent and the Patriots figure to tender him at the second-round level to retain him. Colvin is unlikely to return, while Redd and Crable are prospects for the future.
The Patriots have reason to second-guess their decision not to lock up Asante Samuel when they had the chance, as early as a year before he hit the open market in March of this year. They never filled his void. On the bright side, Wheatley and Wilhite show some promise, while it could be argued that no Patriot plays harder on a consistent basis than Hobbs. O'Neal doesn't figure to return after his late-season demotion. This looks to be an area that is heavily addressed, whether it's in free agency or the draft.
Harrison, who is rehabbing from his season-ending torn quadriceps, will be an unrestricted free agent. The Patriots could bring him back, assuming he isn't considering retirement. Fourth-year veteran James Sanders, who started 14 games and handled a good deal of the communication on the field, is also a free agent, so there is potential for some significant turnover here. Meriweather, the team's 2007 first-round draft choice, appeared to be rising at the end of the season and should return as a full-time starter.
Hanson picked the right time to deliver the best punt of his two-year Patriots career, as his 46-yarder into the wind in the season finale was lauded by coach Bill Belichick as one of the finest punts he's ever seen. Hanson is a free agent. So, too, is Paxton, the long snapper who flies under the radar because he seldom makes a mistake. The Patriots figure to be interested in retaining both Hanson and Paxton, while Gostkowski enters the final year of his contract.
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com.