Tough to win in game of tag
The Patriots decided that they wanted to play blackjack with quarterback Matt Cassel. By placing the franchise tag on him - and thus placing a financial handcuffs on themselves - they gambled that there would be a strong trade market for Cassel.
The hope was that they'd be dealt a "21" in the form of trade compensation.
What they ended up with was a "17" - good but not spectacular.
The worst-case scenario would have been folding their hand, which would have meant having both Cassel and Tom Brady on the roster, a $29.27 million commitment to their salary cap that would have paralyzed them from making needed improvements in other areas.
That was the risk they took in placing the franchise tag on Cassel Feb. 5.
They knew they had an asset that could be desirable to other clubs, and the question was what the market would bear. It turns out the market was not particularly strong for three main reasons: 1. There are only 32 starting quarterback spots and only a small handful of teams had openings; 2. Acquiring Cassel required a major financial commitment; 3. It also required trade compensation with a draft pick.
No doubt, this is going to be a tough sell to Patriots fans.
Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs for a high second-round draft choice (34th overall, No. 2 in the round) looks like a fleece job.
Part of the reason is that the Patriots had little leverage from the start. Interested teams knew that the Patriots weren't dealing from strength, as it doesn't take a salary-cap wizard to realize that no team can survive in today's NFL with two quarterbacks counting $29.27 million against the cap.
The Patriots needed to regain leverage by getting multiple teams into the bidding, and that's where this blackjack hand didn't work out as they hoped.
Outside of the Chiefs, there was little realistic action on the market.
Cassel alone for the 34th overall selection seemed like a fair deal, but Pioli knows all about leverage from his time with the Patriots. Getting Vrabel was shrewd work on his part.
The Patriots can't feel great about losing the 33-year-old Vrabel, a team leader who was entering the final year of his contract. Although his play declined a bit last season (down from 12 1/2 sacks to 4), he still played 87 percent of the team's snaps and the total return of what he brings to a team - versatility, toughness, locker room leadership - is valuable.
Yet, again, that was the risk the Patriots took in placing the franchise tag on Cassel.
The other choice was letting Cassel walk as an unrestricted free agent, while receiving nothing in return except for a compensatory draft choice in 2010 that could have been no higher than the end of the third round.
Or holding out hope for better trade compensation in an unlikely market shift.
From this view, the questions to ask are these: Would the Patriots have been better off not placing the franchise tag on Cassel? Or is a package of Cassel and Vrabel for the 34th overall pick a better option?
Although a first-round draft choice would have been more desirable, a high second-round choice is still one of the best spots in the draft. With good scouting and evaluation, it's where starting-caliber players can be found and signed at some of the NFL's best prices. Think Patriots guard Logan Mankins (32d overall, 2005).
The Patriots now own four picks in the first two rounds - their first-round pick (No. 23); KC's second-rounder (No. 34); San Diego's second-rounder, acquired at last year's draft (No. 47); and their second-rounder (No. 58).
So in the end, this wasn't about Bill Belichick going soft and giving Pioli a going-away gift. It wasn't about ensuring that Cassel and Vrabel ended up in a good situation. This was about the Patriots taking an asset that they cultivated from 2005 seventh-round draft choice - a player who appeared to be in danger of being cut entering the 2008 regular season - and seeing what the market would bear.
It was a gamble that didn't produce a major jackpot. The cards didn't quite fall the way they hoped.
But a "17" isn't always a bad hand.