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Patriots cut to chase, but business not done

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / February 28, 2009
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Teammates sometimes referred to linebacker Mike Vrabel as a Swiss Army Knife because of his versatility.

A little of this, a little of that, and just when you think you've utilized every option, he surprised with something a little different. Vrabel also could be relied upon to be there when it counted.

That Vrabel's out-of-nowhere trade yesterday to the Kansas City Chiefs was the Patriots' most significant move on the first day of free agency was fitting. It was reflective of how the Patriots approached Day 1, like a Swiss Army Knife.

They had a little bit of everything in the first 24 hours of the new league year. Just as one move was being digested, it seemed another was set to emerge.

They officially signed veteran running back Fred Taylor, agreed in principle to a contract with former Jets tight end Chris Baker, hosted free agent cornerback Leigh Bodden on a visit at Gillette Stadium, all while waiting by the phone to hear what the market will bear for some of their players visiting other teams. Long snapper Lonie Paxton and receiver Jabar Gaffney quickly signed multimillion-dollar long-term deals with the Broncos.

Nothing, however, trumped the trading of Vrabel, a team leader, on-field ironman, and member of all three Super Bowl championship teams.

Given the way the day unfolded, it was natural to wonder if the surprising news was part of a bigger deal, perhaps involving quarterback Matt Cassel. Neither team was commenting, only fueling speculation.

Why trade Vrabel?

It's a difficult question to answer without knowing what the Patriots are receiving in return (initial reports said an undisclosed draft choice).

Finances, as they sometimes are with players in the latter stages of their career, could have been a factor.

Vrabel, who turns 34 in August, was entering the final year of his contract. He was due $2.2 million, a $1 million roster bonus, and would count $4.3 million against the team's salary cap.

But that doesn't seem like a huge payout for a player who was a valuable cog in the defense. He suited up for 87 percent of the team's snaps last season, second to rookie Jerod Mayo. His production declined from 2007 (sacks down from 12.5 to 4), but to look solely at statistics is to miss the total return of what Vrabel offers.

It's that total return - the locker room leadership, toughness, intangibles, veteran savvy, versatility, and consistency - that made him an attractive target of Chiefs first-year general manager Scott Pioli, the former Patriots vice president of player personnel.

Furthermore, the Patriots don't have a surefire replacement on their roster. Top candidates include fourth-year player Pierre Woods, a fill-in starter last season, as well as 2008 third-round draft choice Shawn Crable (zero games last season), and recently re-signed Tully Banta-Cain.

So perhaps, like a Swiss Army Knife, there is one more significant blade not visible that remains in play.

The logical assumption is Cassel, whose $14.6 million salary cap charge - coupled with Tom Brady's $14.6 million charge - has created a logjam with the Patriots' salary cap.

Could Cassel be part of a package with Vrabel? And if so, what will the Patriots receive in return?

After a frenetic first 24 hours of free agency in which the Patriots once again struck with the element of surprise, one wonders if the biggest move is yet to come.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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