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Patriots move fast on Cassel

QB franchised on opening day

VINCE WILFORKMove may affect extension VINCE WILFORKMove may affect extension
By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / February 6, 2009
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Moving decisively on the first day, the Patriots placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on quarterback Matt Cassel yesterday, a move that could be an expensive insurance policy on Tom Brady or one designed to help the team receive compensation in a trade.

Cassel, who earned a base salary of $520,000 in 2008 and was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, receives a one-year tender offer of $14.65 million. Once Cassel signs, the tender offer is guaranteed.

"Matt has been a pleasure to coach his entire career and last season in particular, when his years of hard work and commitment resulted in a most impressive performance," coach Bill Belichick said in a statement. "We look forward to working with Matt again in 2009."

That will likely be determined by the trade market for Cassel, 26, who led the Patriots to an 11-5 mark in 2008.

If no market generates, the Patriots could have the most expensive backup in the NFL, paying Cassel more than Brady is scheduled to earn in 2009.

Brady, who is rehabilitating from a serious left knee injury that knocked him out of the 2008 season on the 15th offensive play, is due a base salary of $5 million and a bonus of $3 million. Brady's salary cap charge in 2009, due to the acceleration of past bonuses, is $14.6 million.

In the event a trade market does not develop, the Patriots would be tying up $29.2 million of their approximately $123 million salary cap on two players. That runs counter to the philosophy that has helped the Patriots thrive this decade, spreading the wealth to more players, and could handcuff other moves, such as signing nose tackle Vince Wilfork to an extension.

Calls and e-mails to Cassel's representatives were not returned last night.

Cassel's agent, David Dunn, has experience with a similar situation; he represented Atlanta quarterback Matt Schaub, who was a restricted free agent in 2007. Schaub was traded to the Houston Texans and Dunn negotiated a new contract for Schaub while the Texans and Falcons negotiated compensation.

The Patriots chose the less restrictive of the two franchise tags.

The exclusive franchise tag would have prohibited other teams from negotiating with Cassel. A non-exclusive franchise player is free to negotiate with other teams, but if he signs an offer sheet, the original team has a right to match.

If the original team does not match, it receives two first-round draft picks. Because of that steep price, franchise-tagged players are seldom signed to offer sheets.

A more likely scenario is what unfolded last year, when the Kansas City Chiefs placed the franchise tag on top pass-rushing defensive end Jared Allen, then traded him to the Minnesota Vikings for a first-round draft choice and two third-round picks.

The Green Bay Packers tagged defensive end Corey Williams last year and traded him to the Cleveland Browns for a second-round draft choice.

Cassel said last week at Super Bowl XLIII he was open to all scenarios, which included returning to the Patriots as Brady's backup. "If that's the case, I'll do what I've done my entire career, which is continue to work hard, and be ready if another opportunity comes up," he said.

The Patriots have used the franchise tag four other times: on kicker Adam Vinatieri (2002 and 2005), safety Tebucky Jones (2005), and cornerback Asante Samuel (2007).

Christopher L. Gasper contributed to this report; Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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