This weeks mailbag is jam-packed, with three hot topics:
- 1. Matt Cassel and the franchise tag.
- 2. Scott Pioli and his role in the Patriots success.
- 3. Areas on the roster that need improvement.
With plenty of ground to cover, well get right to the questions in our first official offseason bag.
Assuming that the reports are correct, and the Patriots are giving indications that they will franchise Matt Cassel, why would they divulge this information now when they have a month before they have to declare anything? This seems to be counter to Bill Belichicks traditional method of giving the minimal information necessary until the last minute. Is there a bargaining angle (or something else) from the Patriots perspective that I'm missing?
Karl, Falls Church, Va.
A: As you point out, Karl, teams cant place the franchise tag on players until Feb. 5, so this weeks reports that the Patriots intend to put the tag on Cassel are early in nature. Assuming the reports are accurate, I dont believe there is a bargaining angle to this, other than perhaps to let interested teams know they should start preparing their trade scenarios. It might help the Patriots better gauge the potential market for Cassel if theyre thinking of trading him.
Hi Mike, no one seems to be willing to take a stab at what the ceiling might be for Cassel in a potential trade. If I'm an NFL owner and am looking at shelling out top 5 money to an unproven, but potentially higher ceiling rookie, or a proven, and relatively young, 26-year-old QB, I'd want the sure thing. Plus, you can trade for Cassel and probably pay him less than what top 3 picks sign for (as crazy as that sounds). If Miami taught us anything it's that teams can turn it around in a hurry. I don't think the Pats would want to shell out money for a top 5 pick (as much as fans might love it), but I wonder just how high they could get if they wanted to grab a top pick. Your thoughts?
A: Ill take a stab at it, Kevin. If the Patriots enter into serious trade discussions for Cassel, my feeling is that theyd be thrilled with a single first-round draft choice plus an additional mid-to-late rounder. Would they get it? Im not 100 percent sold on that, although it only takes one team to take the plunge (e.g. Texans gave up two second-rounders for QB Matt Schaub; Cowboys gave up a first-rounder, third-rounder and more for WR Roy Williams). My general feeling from discussions with people at various levels around the league from GMs, to scouts, to players is that Cassel had a great year and deserves whatever comes his way, but at the same time he also benefited from having some terrific yards-after-catch players in Wes Welker, Kevin Faulk and Randy Moss around him. Approximately 55 percent of the teams passing yards came after the catch, which was a league high. So if a team is going to trade for Cassel, I think it must ask itself some important questions: Do we have a similar system and talent? And is Cassel indeed a proven option without those parts around him (e.g. Tom Brady in 2006)? With this in mind, and also considering that there will be other QB options on the market, I take the conservative approach that second- and third-round draft choices with incentives that could add a pick, or increase a picks value is a reasonable compensation to expect in a trade. A few e-mailers also pointed out that a trade could potentially target a specific player (e.g. linebacker Ernie Sims in Detroit, Larry Johnson/Tony Gonzalez in Kansas City), which I thought was an interesting concept.
Just wondering about this conventional wisdom that says no team would consider giving up two first-round picks for Cassel if he's tagged by the Pats. We see so many first-round busts every year around the league, and teams are now trading down to avoid the big salaries of first-rounders. So why wouldn't a proven commodity like Cassel at the most important position in the game be a better bet than two unproven and expensive rookies for some team?
A: A fair question, Rick, and the first point Id repeat is that it only takes one team to take the plunge. So while Id say its unlikely that a team would give up two first-round picks and pay the big-bucks contract to Cassel its not out of the realm of possibility. But Id relate the scenario to the stock market. The general idea, in good economic times, is to buy low and sell high. In this case, youd be buying at the highest possible point for Cassel not just in terms of what youre paying him, but also in the draft picks youre giving up. Furthermore, its really only the first eight selections in the first round that are such a financial burden. After that, I still think the 10-32 picks can be some of the best values in football (e.g. Jerod Mayo).
Can you review the rules regarding the franchise tag? Also, if Matt Cassel signs the tender offer, how does that impact a potential long-term deal for him?
A: Mark, the short answer to the question is that if Cassel signs the franchise tender, the Patriots would still have until July 15 to negotiate a long-term extension with him. Overall, the franchise tag situation is somewhat complex, but I will attempt to simplify it:
- If the Patriots decide to assign the franchise tag to Cassel, he will be tendered a one-year offer that is worth the average of the top five salary cap figures at his position (approximately $14 million).
- Cassel can sign that tender offer at any time and fully guarantee the salary (which I project as his likely course of action), and it would become an official one-year contract.
- If Cassel does not sign the tender, he is technically not under contract to the team and could skip offseason workouts, mini-camps and training camp (e.g. Asante Samuel) until a resolution is reached a course of action that gives the player some form of leverage in some of these situations.
- Because a player can not be traded unless he is under contract, if the Patriots were seeking to trade Cassel, they would presumably allow his agents to negotiate on a long-term contract with other teams. Cassel would sign the one-year tender with the Patriots as a technicality, that deal would be ripped up when hes traded, and hed join a new team with a long-term extension.
Can the franchise tag be used on only one player if a trade is made between Feb 5th and Feb 19th? I mean, if the Pats tag Cassel on the 5th, but manage to make a trade for him by the 18th, can they then use the tag again on someone else on the 19th? I realize the practical facts of putting together a trade in that condensed a period make it very unlikely, but I am wondering if that's legal and therefore possible?
A: This is an interesting scenario, Mardak, although it can not happen. The trading deadline for the 2008 league year which extends until Feb. 26, 2009 has already passed. So no trade could be consummated until Feb. 27, 2009 at the earliest, which is the official start of the 2009 league year. Discussions on a trade could potentially take place beforehand, accelerating the potential trade process if the Patriots were headed in that direction.
I know that we still have a month or so before we can worry about this but, if New England were to possibly franchise Cassel, I know that $14 million-plus is charged towards the cap unless there is a trade or the tag is removed from that franchised player. If I had to guess I would say that there isn't any way that the organization would tie up almost $30 million on two quarterbacks. But my question is what positions do you see New England possibly targeting during free agency if they were able to move Cassel before the start of free agency? Or do you think that New England will target more of an extension with Wilfork and possibly Seymour?
Brandon, Warwick, R.I.
A: Brandon, initial reports state that the Patriots are indeed intending to use the franchise tag on Cassel, which would tie up approximately $28-29 million of the $123 million salary cap on two quarterbacks. Add in a $10.5 million salary cap charge for Randy Moss and a $9.7 million salary cap charge for Richard Seymour and you have four players totaling almost $50 million. That would leave $73 million for the rest of the roster, which generally runs counter to the teams organizational philosophy of spreading the wealth to more players. Given this situation, and the realization that any trade of Cassel couldnt come until free agency begins Feb. 27, I dont expect the Patriots to do much targeting for big-money players early in free agency. With a significant free-agent class in 2009, I expect the Patriots to focus on that group, starting with Vince Wilfork. One other point to consider: The NFLs uncertain labor situation could lead to a quieter than normal offseason in terms of extensions/signings.
Mike, with regards to salary cap implications/relief, would the Pats get any relief if Tom Brady could not return for 2009 and they placed him on the IR prior to the season? This might ease the cap burden of franchising Cassel.
John, North Attleboro
A: John, players on season-ending injured reserve still get their full salary and count the same amount against the salary cap, unless the NFL grants some type of exemption. Part of the reason this is the case is so teams dont stash players on IR for salary and salary cap reasons.
With the seemingly imminent franchising of Matt Cassel, I'm concerned that some of the other off-season priorities are going to be hamstrung. Do you think the Patriots will still be able to extend Wilfork (I see this as the most important task), Seymour, and/or basically the whole O-line (among the countless others)?
A: From a management perspective, Glenn, I think this is a legitimate concern. I have not heard this from anyone with the team, but my hunch is that the team will take a quiet free-agent approach if they franchise tag Cassel because they wont have as much financial flexibility. Theyll also have the uncertain labor situation in mind. The Patriots could still work behind the scenes on extensions that might take months to complete, but Im not expecting much immediate action in the form of signings or extensions until the Cassel situation takes its course.
What is your opinion on Kevin O'Connell? After another training camp, would he be ready next season to be Brady's backup? Why not look at signing a veteran like Jeff Garcia? We can save a lot of money and use it on the defense and contract extensions?
A: Wayne, I think OConnell has a chance, and thats as far as my opinion can go at this point based on the limited amount weve seen. I think he could be ready to be Bradys backup, but the more important question might be Could he step in as a starter if Brady isnt ready? In terms of signing a veteran, Id endorse going to camp with four quarterbacks Brady, Cassel, OConnell and a veteran/rookie. Im not a big Garcia fan, though.
Hi Mike, I am interested in your thoughts about who the Pats might not keep next year. Lots of talk about Cassel and the franchise tag, but who might the Pats lose in order to free up some cap money. Any thoughts about Richard Seymour? Although he was healthy this season (except the last week), in the past, his injuries have kept him out. I am wondering if he would be willing to restructure, given that he held out during past contract negotiations.
A: Cindie, I have strong thoughts about Richard Seymour, and I think hes a keeper. I think hes a top defensive lineman. A restructure isnt an option, because Seymour enters the last year of his contract in 2009, so if the team was looking to lower his $9.7 million salary cap charge, it would have to be in the form of an extension. While the Patriots have made surprising moves in the past (e.g. releasing Lawyer Milloy), I dont see them going that route with Seymour. Id envision theyll keep him at the current salary and work toward an extension between now and the end of the 2009 season.
Do players around the league see the franchise tag as a lack of respect being shown them by a team? Seems like the list of players the Pats have franchised have all ended rather acrimoniously.
Jason, San Diego, Calif.
A: It all depends on the player, Jason. Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones was previously franchise tagged three times and didnt seem to have much problem with it. I remember talking to 49ers defensive end/linebacker Justin Smith when he was tagged by the Bengals a few years back, and he didnt have a problem with it. Asante Samuel, on the other hand, didnt appreciate it. In the case of Matt Cassel, I think hell fall into the Jones/Smith category if hes tagged. The chance to bank $14 million is significant given that he played for $540,000 this season.
Mike, with the offseason upon us, the Pats are focusing on improving their team via free agency and the draft. One area of focus should be the secondary. I'm trying to be realistic when I mention a name, so what are your thoughts on Lito Sheppard? Former Pro Bowler who was hoping to be released by the Eagles prior to this year. He does not getting the playing time he would like and has voiced his frustration on his current situation in the past. Not being realistic, I would love to see Ed Reed in a Pats uniform.
A: Marc, I think youll see changes in the secondary for sure, at both cornerback and safety. Sheppard is a good name to mention at cornerback, although hes under contract to the Eagles through 2011, so unless the Eagles release him hed have to be acquired via trade (maybe for a mid- to later-round pick?). On Ed Reed, its a join-the-club situation. I think 31 other teams feel the same way you do. Hes a special player, signed with Baltimore through 2012.
I really have my concerns about losing Pioli. Throughout this great run I have always thought there are four people we could not afford to lose: Bellichick, Brady, Seymour and Pioli. Do you think I am overreacting?
Robin, Margate, Fla.
A: I think losing Pioli would be a significant hit, Robin. Along with Robert Kraft, Jonathan Kraft and Bill Belichick, hes been part of the four-person group that has overseen the Patriots remarkable run. So I wouldnt discount what he means to the organization. At the same time, I do think the structure in place is sound, and I dont envision it crumbling if Pioli departs.
Mike, could you clear up a point about Scott Pioli? He's interviewing around the league for a GM position, and seems a hot prospect and unlikely to return to the Patriots. What is his position now and who is the person who he reports to? What is he looking for that he can't get with the Pats? Is there the possibility of a promotion to GM with the Patriots?
Chance, Lincolnville, Maine
A: Chance, Piolis position is now Vice President of Player Personnel. The position is essentially a partnership with Bill Belichick. In terms of who Pioli reports to outside of ownership Id say its Belichick, although thats not totally defined. I think what hed be looking for is the chance to run his own show. In New England, even if he was promoted to general manager, hell always be linked with Belichick. That isnt necessarily a bad thing, but I think the chance to create something on your own has to be enticing.
Mike, it was difficult to watch football this past weekend with the Pats out. Obviously, the major offseason question will be Tom Brady. After Tom, What do you see as the top three or four priorities for this offseason? What might be some names out there? Are they all on the defensive side of the ball?
Jim, Seminole, Fla.
A: Jim, my answer would be: Defense, defense, defense. I think as Bill Belichick, Scott Pioli and Co., go through their postseason evaluation, two statistics will stand out to them: 26th in third-down defense; 31st in the red zone. I think those statistics speak to two areas pass coverage and pass rush. I know how much Belichick respects defensive football and I cant imagine he felt too good at what unfolded at times this season, and I believe hed now acknowledge the team made a mistake with its 2006-based analysis regarding Asante Samuel (they should have locked him up to an extension when the price was more reasonable before he hit the open market in 2007). So I think the offseason priority has to be not just personnel-based, but also scheme-based. How can the Patriots become a better coverage team and a bit more of an attacking unit? Obviously, they have offensive needs (Id put tight end up there, maybe a third receiver), but I think the main focus will be on defense. I dont have any names at this point, as Im still digging out from the 2008 season itself.
With the Cardinals and the Chargers winning, what's the new draft position for the Patriots?
MMT, Chandler, Ariz.
A: The Patriots draft position remains 24th overall. This has been a common question since the regular-season ended. Draft position is determined by overall regular-season record, not playoff seeding, so playoff teams do not pick 21-32 (e.g. the Chargers are currently slotted at No. 16). The only alteration could come in February, as the Super Bowl loser automatically picks 31st and the Super Bowl winner automatically picks 32nd. So that could shake up the draft order slightly if the 8-8 Chargers or 9-7 Cardinals who currently pick before the Patriots at 16th and 21st, respectively are in the Super Bowl.
Hi Mike, I wanted to know what positions you think the Patriots will focus on in the upcoming draft? Could you also list potential players they may look at for those positions?
A: Id say anywhere on defense, starting at cornerback and safety. I think the secondary will be a significant focus. Id also put tight end up there as a top need. In terms of names, I need a little more time on that one as Im still digging out from the 2008 season. Id just be throwing stuff out there for the sake of throwing it out, and I dont want to do that.
Mike, how many picks do the Patriots have in the 2009 draft? Is this year's draft strong in any one area? It seems to me that the Patriots need to address their defense first. A good tight end would be a help, as well. Also, any word on how Lawrence Maroney is progressing with his rehab?
A: Doug, the Patriots have selections in every round (1-7), in addition to the San Diego Chargers second-round draft choice. The Patriots are also likely to receive an additional pick(s) when the league awards compensatory draft picks to clubs, likely in March. Compensatory picks are given to teams who are deemed to have a net loss of compensatory free agents from the prior year (e.g. Asante Samuel, Randall Gay) and are designed to help clubs re-stock from their losses. On the draft, I heard last week from one evaluator that this is a strong linebacker group. In terms of Maroney, I thought his comments in colleague Christopher L. Gaspers Dec. 30 Patriots Notebook in the Boston Globe indicated that his rehab is on course: "This is my year. Mark my words."
Mike, now that Jerod Mayo has (very deservedly) won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, I was wondering if you have any insight into the 2008 draft, when the Patriots moved down to pick No. 10. Because Cincinnati was picking ninth and clearly had a need at linebacker (and ended up selecting LB Keith Rivers from Southern Cal), it seems that either Belichick (a) didn't care whether he got Mayo or Rivers, or (b) preferred Mayo and believed the Bengals would take Rivers. Either way, it's fascinating.
A: Glenn, I dont think the Patriots were deciding between Mayo and Rivers. If Mayo was selected before No. 10, they probably would have gone with a cornerback there.
I loved seeing Russ Hochstein in the backfield during the final couple of games this season. He really did a terrific job punching holes for the running backs to run through. With the success the Patriots had doing this, any thoughts on the team bringing in more of a true fullback rather than Heath Evans as a lead blocker or all the single-back sets? I know Evans adds value as a special teams player, but I think he may be expendable. I'd love to see a Lorenzo Neal type of player running ahead of Laurence Maroney next season. Plus, I think it would help Maroney with his tap dancing indecisiveness since the holes would already be there for him.
A: Hochstein did a commendable job, for sure, but I wouldnt discount Evans contributions either. He made a couple of early catches in that season-finale that I dont think Hochstein would have made, and thats why having more of an all-around fullback gives you some more options. I also think Evans is an effective lead blocker, and Id cite this years game against Denver as an example, which included a lot of two-back sets. Overall, I think Evans is the type of football player that helps you win, and I rate him as one of the Patriots best bargains over the last two seasons (two-year deal, $250,000 signing bonus prior to 2007). I also see him as a top locker room guy.
Mike, you mentioned in your postseason contract review that you thought the Pats needed to address LB least on the defense. I think they need someone to play next to Mayo as Bruschi is getting older and more worn down. Three guys that will be free agents: Terrell Suggs, Bart Scott, and Donnie Edwards. Suggs will likely be looking for a lot of money. I've read Scott could be on the way out in Baltimore since they need to re-sign Suggs and Ray Lewis. Edwards is based on the fact he's a 3-4 vet, which BB seems to like. Any thoughts on the three?
A: Craig, my initial thoughts are that Suggs and Scott project to be out of the Patriots price range. I see Edwards filling the same role as Bruschi, and I dont see an upgrade there. Overall, I think the Patriots would look for a younger option at the spot.
Mike, assuming Josh McDaniels winds up elsewhere, who would you pick as being leading candidates to take his position? I know Coach Belichick likes to keep these things "within the family", so no chance of seeing Mike Martz along the Patriots sidelines, is there?
Rick, Louisville, Ky.
A: Rick, if McDaniels is hired as a head coach elsewhere, my first thought is that Belichick would take a more active role in some of the play-calling until the next option was up to speed. Just guessing here, but receivers coach Bill OBrien seems like a bright coach on the rise who might be a candidate to consider. Id say Mike Martz is a no-go.
Do you know the status of Mike Vrabel's contract? I think he is one of the most important players on the team. Is he nearing retirement age? It might sound like a long shot, but would the Pats consider converting him to a full-time tight end after his years as an effective linebacker are up? We all know he has excellent catching skills. One more question, is there any indication if Rodney Harrison will retire? He was on NFL Network this weekend breaking down the Fins-Ravens game and lauding Ed Reed.
A: Vrabel will be 34 when the 2009 season begins, and his contract expires after that season. Id say hes nearing retirement age, although I am not sure of his intentions as to how many more years hed like to play. In terms of your long-shot scenario, Peter, it forced me to pause and consider it and my thought is that Im not sure Vrabel runs well enough to be a consistent threat down the middle, but I could see him being effective as a No. 2 type option. On Rodney Harrison, hes not thinking retirement. I saw him down in Miami this past weekend and hes training and rehabilitating to give himself a chance to play again.