Stoking the pigskin hot stove
Free agency, trade possibilities, the franchise tag and the draft are front and center in this week's mailbag
The next three months on the calendar represent football's version of the baseball hot stove season. We'll have plenty of discussion on free agency, trade possibilities and the draft.
Those are the topics dominating this week's Patriots mailbag.
It's time to start getting familiar with some of these draft prospects. Two players initially catching the eye as possible Patriots targets early in the draft are Alabama safety Rashad Johnson and Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew.
In terms of free agency and trade possibilities, the hot topic among e-mailers remains Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel. Several trade scenarios were presented in this week's mailbag, and it was fun to play the role of arm-chair general manager when assessing them.
What is Cassel worth in a trade? I think that is one of the top questions of this NFL offseason.
There are also a few questions on the Super Bowl this week, specifically focusing on officiating.
Let's get to the questions. ...
Hi Mike, I think it's clear what the Pats need in the draft. If you look at this year's playoff teams, most had strong linebacker and safety play, especially the Steelers, Ravens and Cardinals (you could add Philly with Brian Dawkins, too). Besides the boneheaded play of running over the holder, how great is Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson? Love the way he plays, like a young Rodney Harrison. Anyway, is there anyone in the free agent market that the Pats could add at safety? They really need a presence back there and, as much as I love Rodney, he doesn't have the closing speed any more. Watch Troy Polamalu and Wilson and you see them fly to a hole. Is there anyone out there the Pats could bring in outside of the draft? I'd also love to see the Patriots draft one of the USC LBers. What do you think? I mean, LB and safety are a top priority (CBs they have Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite from last year and I think they should give them time to develop a little).
A: I think you're on to something, Eric. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the Patriots pick a safety in the draft. As for Rodney Harrison, I envision the Patriots taking a similar path as they did last year with Junior Seau. I think their preference will be to turn that position over to a younger player, but they will keep the lines of communication open with Harrison depending how the chips fall (both with their situation and Harrison's rehab). In terms of top safeties in the draft, I'll pass along Mike Mayock's list that includes his opinion of the top five players at every position. At safety, he likes Alabama's Rashad Johnson (a strong Nick Saban connection to consider here), Oregon's Patrick Chung, Western Michigan's Louis Delmas, Clemson's Michael Hamlin, and Missouri's William Moore. I was reading an interview with Johnson and he sounds like a Patriot type player already. In free agency, the ball-hawking Oshiomogho Atogwe of the Rams tops the charts at safety, but I see him more as a coverage-type player than a fill-the-hole with a physical presence type of guy.
Mike, any ideas on how the Pats feel about the two DBs they drafted last year (Wheatley/Wilhite)? If they feel either one is a bust then they are probably going corner early in the draft. If they think those two will develop, then it will probably be linebackers early. (If they draft a tight end in the first round I'm jumping off the roof.) We need youth and speed on defense, right? And a thumper at safety would be nice since Brandan Meriweather looked like Corey Haim in "Lucas" trying to make tackles last year. He plays like he's 180 pounds.
A: John, I think they like both Wheatley and Wilhite, but I don't believe that would stop them from drafting another cornerback high. I also believe you've hit on a great point with Meriweather -- and certainly appreciate the reference to that "Lucas" movie from 1986, when I was buzzing around the playground at recess as a sixth-grader in my quest to be "four-square" champion. If Meriweather wants to take the next step in his career, he needs to get stronger. Often times after initial contact this season, he was knocked back, so I'll be keeping an eye on his commitment to the offseason program this year. As for the possibility of drafting a tight end in the first round, I don't want to see you jumping off any roofs, John. But I wouldn't rule it out. Benjamin Watson and David Thomas both have contracts that expire after the 2009 season, so the Patriots have a longer-term need. And teams seeking a combination tight end -- a top talent who is strong enough to block at the line of scrimmage, but fast enough to get downfield in the passing game -- usually have to grab them in the first two rounds. I admit it; I have a soft spot in my football heart for combination tight ends. Following the Steelers through the playoffs, I have even greater respect for Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller.
All Patriot fans know that Rodney Harrison is a real student of the game as well as a participant who always gives 100 percent effort. Not surprisingly, he also is accorded the utmost respect among his fellow defensive backs. Once he decides to retire, what is the likelihood that we see him join the Patriots staff as a defensive backs coach?
Peter, Hilton Head, SC
A: Peter, after speaking with Rodney Harrison in recent weeks, he indicated that he's planning on either going into officiating or broadcasting once his playing days are over. I don't see coaching in the NFL, and the long hours that accompany it, being in his future.
I asked a question about this guy months ago and want to bring him back up: Nnamdi Asomugha. Although very unlikely, what would be the chances of a scenario that the Patriots franchise Cassel and the Raiders franchise Asomugha. Could the teams then trade the franchised players to one another? Also, if you were to make your own mock draft, who would you think we would take and who would you take if you were in that position?
Brady, Louisville, Ky.
A: Brady, technically this is a possibility. Two teams could both place the franchise tag on players, and assuming both players were on board with the trade, they would then sign their franchise tenders to consummate the trade. The reason that I would call it highly unlikely is that the Raiders already have a significant financial commitment to quarterback JaMarcus Russell and to trade for Cassel it would take a significant long-term financial commitment as well. It wouldn't make sense for the Raiders to have that much money tied up in the position. As for the mock draft, I really don't know the prospects well enough at this point to say, but I'd pick the best defensive player on the board, regardless of position. On an outside shot, I might consider a tight end like Oklahoma State's Brandon Pettigrew if everything checks out. Combination tight ends that are effective in the blocking and pass-catching game are harder and harder to find and he looks like one.
Mike, I was thinking about possible trading partners for Matt Cassel and an interesting scenario came to mind. What do you think the odds would be of Kansas City trading Tony Gonzalez and a third-round pick to us for Matt Cassel? This makes sense to me because Scott Pioli is in KC and would do business with the Pats. Gonzalez has stated that he would like to play for a contender and the Chiefs need a franchise QB to build their team around. I think both teams can look at this as a win-win situation. The combo of Brady, Moss, Welker and Gonzalez would be downright scary to opposing teams. Also, we could then maybe trade Ben Watson for a mid-round pick as well. What are your thoughts?
A: Joe, often times when trades scenarios are presented, I feel that they are lopsided to one team. I don't think this one is. It's an interesting thought. What makes it fun to consider is that Gonzalez is obviously closer to the end of his career than the start, so while the Chiefs would be giving up one of their best assets, it's a shorter-term asset -- and in turn they'd be getting a potential long-term asset. That's why I think they might at least consider pulling the trigger on this type of deal, assuming they could work out a long-term contract for Cassel. Gonzalez is signed through 2011, with salaries of $4 million in 2009, $4.5 million in 2010 and $5.75 million in 2011, so the Patriots, in turn, would have to feel those figures could work on their cap. I would still keep Watson, because I think he's more valuable to the Patriots than what the team would receive in a trade.
Mike, I just checked espn.com and they have a RUMOR that Cassel will be going to the Chiefs. Can you report on this and pass along any info. THIS IS BIG and I am surprised that the Globe did not break this story!
A: Mike, I checked out that item on ESPN.com (from the Insider section) and I thought it was interesting to trace its origins. My friend Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald had an item in Monday's editions in which she spoke with Sirius Radio analyst Jim Miller about possible destinations for Cassel in a trade, and Miller hypothesized that Kansas City was a possible destination because of the presence of former Patriots personnel chief Scott Pioli. I thought the headline of the article -- "Matt Cassel draws interest" -- could have led one to believe that other teams were declaring their interest. After reading the piece, however, it was Miller simply providing his expert opinion as to where Cassel might land in a possible trade. "I'd really look at Pioli down there in Kansas City. Why wouldn't he want him?" Miller said in the piece. "... I think he'd be on their radar." In terms of my opinion on the Cassel-to-Chiefs story, I would agree that if the Chiefs were legitimately interested in Cassel that it would be big news. But based on the background of this situation, I don't think we can definitively say that at this point.
Mike, don't you think that Cassel will command at the minimum a first-round pick and a second- or third-rounder? He has proven to be a legitimate NFL QB over a full season. What other available QBs including those in the upcoming draft can match Cassel's resume?
A: What makes Cassel's situation so fascinating to me, dapats, is that there is no right answer. It only takes one team to take the plunge. At the Super Bowl, I asked a variety of NFL analysts their thoughts on what Cassel might yield in a trade, and there was no consensus. It ranged widely, in fact. My feeling is that any team trading for Cassel will need to factor in that 55 percent of the Patriots' passing offense came after the catch this season, easily the highest figure in the NFL. So I think it helps to have Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk, as well as a well-oiled offensive system. This is to take nothing away from Cassel, who I believe deserves everything coming to him and did a great job this season. His accuracy and decision making were generally solid, contributing to that yards-after-catch total. So overall, if I was an interested team, I'd look long and hard at my own system and I'd have to project if Cassel would be as successful. With this in mind, I'd offer a conditional second-round draft choice that could improve to a first-rounder, because I'd want to protect myself if my very difficult projection was off. I'd also factor in leverage. Do the Patriots really plan to keep two quarterbacks on their roster that take up $29.2 million of their salary cap? Maybe they do. But I'd hold a hard line, figuring that while they might be asking for a first-rounder, they'd be willing to accept less because they will free up valuable space on their cap in doing so.
Have the Pats given any consideration to using the "transition" tag on Cassel? The salary would be $2 million lower than the franchise figure, the Pats would still have the right to match any offer, but would forgo any compensation if someone else signed him. Given they could match any offer, wouldn't that give both teams an incentive to work out a trade if someone signs him to an offer sheet -- the Pats get some compensation via trade the other party could sign Cassel at an amount lower than the franchise figure.
A: I think the reason this is no longer an option, Scott, is that teams can put a simple poison pill in the offer that makes it impossible to match (e.g. If you are on a roster of a team that plays more than two games in New England in 2009, your salary triples and is guaranteed). This is similar to what happened with the Seahawks and Steve Hutchinson a few years back, and is why most teams avoid the transition tag. If the Patriots put the transition tag on Cassel, I believe it's equivalent to making him an unrestricted free agent because of the poison pill.
Hi Mike, Matt Cassel says he's willing to back up Brady. Could this truly be acceptable to Cassel? Is this a ploy by the Pats and Cassel to increase his value to the Pats? Is this a bit of both?
A: Nate, the way I interpreted Cassel's remarks is that he's willing to return as a backup if he's assigned the franchise tag ($14.65 million). I think he's being honest, considering that he made $520,000 last season. If the question were framed this way -- "Would you return as a backup for $520,000?" -- I believe Cassel's answer would be different.
Don't the Patriots have better options with Matt Cassel than just franchising him? Is it an unrealistic option to sign him to a more reasonable market deal ($6 million-$8 million per year) and then trade him for draft picks if Brady's ready for the season opener? If Brady's not ready, they've got a great plan B in Cassel (and can still trade him once Brady fully recovers).
A: In theory, this sounds good, Spaulding. I think one major obstacle is that some of the teams that might be interested in trading for Cassel may have moved on at that point. From a team perspective, the idea of getting Cassel into a new system and giving him the offseason to learn it is extremely valuable. Also, there is the contract issue. Any deal that Cassel signs with the Patriots is going to have to have some significant up-front money in the form of a signing bonus. I don't see the Patriots paying that money, then trading him months later. It doesn't seem like smart business to me.
Mike, I was wondering about a possible scenario for the Pats regarding Cassel's future, regardless of Brady's health. What if the Pats franchised Cassel, and traded him to the highest bidder, and then traded a fourth-round or fifth-round pick for someone like Todd Collins from Washington? He seems like a good backup, and it means they can maximize Cassel's value to the team (turning him into a few younger players), while not forcing O'Connell into action early, of course only if Brady can't go. Or something similar with someone who has experience with the franchise and with the offense? As much as I appreciate what Cassel did for the team this year, and how much I hope he does well in the future, I think right now the team is better served with more youth on defense, especially at LB and in the secondary.
A: I think the big hurdle in this scenario, Andrew, is that the Redskins wouldn't deal Collins unless they received a higher pick than a fourth- or fifth-rounder. They made him the highest-paid backup in the NFL last offseason, and I don't envision them dealing him unless they are blown away. I would endorse the Patriots bringing in a veteran-type quarterback in 2009, possibly as a free agent.
As bad as we need defense, if Percy Harvin is on the board at 23, I believe Bill Belichick will jump on him (mark it down!). Your thoughts?
A: I think the ghost of another Florida receiver -- Chad Jackson -- will be dancing in Belichick's head as he ponders that one. My general feeling is that the Patriots will shy away from a receiver in the first round. Too risky.
Hi Mike, have you heard any talk at all about the current eight-year rotating schedule being renewed for another eight years following the 2009 season?
A: That is an interesting question, GD, as 2009 marks the final year of the rotating schedule formula that the league put in place following its realignment in 2002. I have not heard of the league's plans to renew it. My assumption is that is what will happen.
Why don't the Pats employ an attacking 3-4, and instead opt for that seemingly coverage-based style? I'd love to see them go to a Steeler style, blitzing defense, which seems easier to restock with personnel and appears to be more consistently effective than New England's brand of 3-4.
A: I know what you're saying, CJ, as there is a significant difference when watching the attack-minded approach of the Steelers/Ravens vs. the Patriots. But I don't know if I'd go so far as to call the Patriots' defense a coverage-based style. Just two seasons ago, they were second in the NFL in quarterback sacks. I think the Patriots' system is built on its flexibility and linemen/linebackers anchoring down up front to stop the run. It's a sound system, because teams that can't stop the run usually don't win. I think where the Patriots need a spark is on third down, or in those obvious passing situations when the rushers can pin their ears back. Like a lot of other teams, I think they need to find more explosive pass rushers.
Mike, can you give us a good answer why there wasn't a booth review on the last Warner fumble/incompletion? Granted, I hate the Steelers and that might color my perception, but it sure looked on replay like Warner's arm had just started going forward before Woodley smacked him. Especially since the officials had already botched that call once and had it reversed, why were they in such a hurry to let the Steelers kill the clock rather than use replay for what it's designed to do - make sure the outcome of the game isn't determined by a bad call? I know on the broadcast Al Michaels mumbled something about them having done a review and decided there was nothing there, but that seems absurd given how quickly the officials spotted the ball and let Pittsburgh snap it.
A: Jay, I cannot give a good answer as to why there wasn't a stoppage for a more detailed booth review. I think the NFL should have stopped the game and taken the time to look at the play further. Technically, the play was reviewed, and the NFL is saying that it confirmed the call on the field in doing so. They made that decision quickly. I think the failure to look at the play longer was a bad decision that reflects poorly on the replay official in the booth. I am surprised that the NFL, which is so polished in so many areas, didn't stop the game at that point, if for nothing else than to create the perception that everything was being done to make the correct call. [Update: NFL VP of Officiating Mike Pereira, on his "Official Review" segment on NFL Network, agreed that the play should have been reviewed but that it still would have remained a fumble.]
Mike, I understand that officiating in the NFL represents one aspect of the "human element" of managing the game, and that no officiating crew is perfect. But it seems to me that at least one element of officiating needs to be discussed this offseason, and that is the inconsistency of calls from crew to crew. For example, after what turned out to be the Super Bowl-winning TD, Santonio Holmes pretended to use the ball as a "salt shaker" and then threw it high in the air over his head, backwards. I thought that this constituted "using the ball as a prop," which I understood to be a 15-yard penalty on the ensuing kickoff, but there was no call. I am not saying that this determined the outcome of the game, but it would have pushed the Steelers back 15 yards on the kickoff and who knows what might have happened? I mention this in light of the Ben Watson penalty in the Seattle game where he stuffed the ball under his jersey after a TD in a "shout out" to his pregnant wife. Also, the infamous call against Wes Welker for his "snow angel" against Arizona, which did not even involve "using the ball as a prop." Will there be any discussion regarding consistency of calls in the offseason, or do the owners and NFL administration feel that officiating "is what it is" and involves human error? Thanks.
A: Peter, I think these are good points. I probably fall in the minority when I say that I think the officials generally do an excellent job. This game is so fast, and there are so many rules to keep up with, that I am continually impressed at the work that they do. The human element is important to consider, as we know there will be mistakes and inconsistencies from crew to crew. That being said, I do think that Holmes should have been penalized for using the ball as a prop. My feeling is "Why have the rule if you're not going to call it?" I have heard contrasting views, such as "Officials should use judgment when making that call, especially in a big game." I don't buy that. [Update: NFL Director of Officiating Mike Pereira said the call should have been made, but the officials didn't spot it because it came quite a bit after the catch and the officials were setting up for the extra point.] Overall, I think the owners and NFL administration takes the officiating very seriously. I know how hard they work with the officials and how much attention they pay to every play. I don't think they dismiss it at all, and are always looking for improvements.
Why wasn't the Steelers player who was punching a defenseless Cardinal after a play had ended not thrown out of the game. Just another case of inept poor officiating and/or choking due to the importance of the game?
A: If a player throws a punch during a game, he should be ejected, Barry. I would imagine that the officials -- assuming they saw it -- found themselves in a bit of a conflict. Mainly, they know the magnitude of the game and probably didn't want to insert themselves into the game like that by throwing a player out. I think this is similar to the Santonio Holmes "using the ball as a prop" penalty that should have been called. Do you call the game by the letter of every law, or based on the magnitude of the situation, try to ease back a bit? In that regard, and given the way the Super Bowl unfolded, I thought it was a very difficult spot for Terry McAulay and that crew. [As it turns out with the non-call on Holmes for using the ball as a prop, the officials didn't see it.]
After watching the Super Bowl fourth quarter and the great catch that Holmes made, I couldn't help but think about instant replay. I think they have taken it too far. If you have to look at a play on replay one frame at a time, you are taking it out of the hands of the officials. You call it the way you see it. If they are going to keep instant replay, then maybe it should be replayed at the speed at which it was recorded and happened. What do you think?
A: George, I like the current instant replay system, with a few minor exceptions. For example, I think the Tennessee Titans should have been able to challenge the non delay-of-game call in their AFC divisional loss to the Baltimore Ravens. My feeling is that if instant replay can help correct a major error like that, it should be used to do so.
After Game 1, when Cassel stepped in for Tom Brady, there were media reports of two veteran QBs being flown to Boston (I think Tim Rattay and Chris Simms). Then they were promptly and mysteriously sent home, without workouts. What was the story behind this -- how could the team have changed their minds so quickly? Or was there in-fighting in the ranks? Cassel's rise to the challenge made this forgotten little story irrelevant, but I was wondering if there might have been an interesting story behind this.
A: Here is what I think happened, Magoo. At that time of year, NFL teams usually bring in players at every position so they can keep their emergency lists fresh by updating medical information etc. I believe the Patriots had the workout with Tim Rattay scheduled well before Tom Brady went down with the injury. Once Brady went down, I think they quickly arranged to add Chris Simms to the list. Then, after sleeping on it, I think Bill Belichick decided that it wasn't worth the distraction to add Rattay or Simms -- even if they'd be the No. 3 quarterback -- when he knew that Cassel was the best option and gave the team the best chance to win. So he sent both Rattay and Simms home, saying the team's situation had changed. I bet he also had Cassel's confidence in mind, and making that decision might have boosted it.
Would the Patriots consider bringing back Rosevelt Colvin? He seemed to do well considering he was unemployed when they brought him back. He seems healthy and would add depth to the LB corps.
A: Wayne, I don't see Colvin being part of the Patriots' plans for 2009, unless it's in a similar emergency-type situation. They have Mike Vrabel, Adalius Thomas, Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable, Vince Redd and Darrell Robertson at the position. If they add another player, I think it would be a younger one with the future in mind, not a veteran like Colvin.
Hi Reiss, with all the coaching departures from the Patriots, is there any discussion to bring back Romeo Crennel? I know there are probably more holes to fill on the offensive side, but I think there is always a need for a good defensive guy. I haven't seen this question on your blog but I have missed a couple of the QAs so I hope I'm not being redundant.
Bill, Spring, Texas
A: Romeo Crennel is undergoing hip surgery this month, and then he plans to decide what he'll do. Just a hunch, but I think he'll wind up in Kansas City as defensive coordinator. I don't see him coming back to New England.
Hey Mike, do you believe Tom Brady can defy his injuries and play until he is 40?
James, London, England
A: I wouldn't bet against him, James. I have always been impressed with Brady's work ethic and mental toughness.