Constructing the 2009 Patriots
Free agents, the draft and the Matt Cassel situation are top topics among readers
This week's mailbag has a little bit of everything that encompasses the team-building season in the NFL.
- Some trade scenarios with Matt Cassel
- Some draft possibilities
- Potential free-agent targets
In some ways, this part of the football season is as fun as the games themselves.
After last week's mailbag in which I expressed doubt that Tully Banta-Cain would be back with the Patriots (he signed last week), and that the team would not have interest in running back Fred Taylor (he's scheduled to visit this week), I've picked myself up off the turf and am looking for a little redemption.
Let's get right to the questions. ...
Hey Mike, I know you think Matt Cassel is worth a high second-round draft pick. You know I disagree. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Detroit picks either B.J. Raji or an OT at No. 1 in the draft and trades No. 20 to Pats for Cassel. What's your best scenario at this point?
A: I'm sticking with my original thought at this point -- Cassel to Kansas City for the 34th overall selection in the draft. Depending on where the leverage is at that time in the market, maybe the Patriots can get Kansas City to swap places with them in the fourth or fifth round to sweeten the deal. The reason that I don't see Detroit as a likely suitor is cash flow. They will be paying big bucks for the No. 1 overall pick, and the 20th pick is a great value spot. I just don't see them giving that away for Cassel, and paying him the dough. That's where I think economics is a big factor in assessing the market for Cassel. Kansas City, while still paying big dough at No. 3, seems to me to be more likely to open the vault. One thing that continues to interest me is how the quarterback market continues to shift -- Minnesota's reported acquisition of Sage Rosenfels would seemingly take them out as a potential suitor for Cassel.
Mike, now that the Patriots have Cassel locked into the franchise tag, is there any chance they rework the numbers on the deal to make him less of a cap hit and allow the team to pursue top to midlevel free agents? For instance, giving him a two-year deal worth about $3 million to $5 million per year (or less) to keep him happy, and it will give him a fair salary if Tom Brady was unable to perform. How about it?
Chris, Castleton, NY
A: I'd think this is a long-shot, Chris. The reason I feel that way is this: If you are Matt Cassel, why go that route? He's making $14.65 million on a one-year deal. To take $3 million-$5 million on a two-year deal pays him less than he'd make in one year, and also keeps him off the market for an additional year. The only way I can see this happening is if the Patriots sign Cassel to a 3-4 year type extension, with a $14.6 million singing bonus, and then get creative with the rest of the package so it pays Cassel as a starter if he plays, but a backup if he doesn't. Even then, I'm not sure Cassel would go for that. In the end, I think he'd want to be in a spot where he's the unquestioned starter.
I was wondering about Matt Cassel. Has he signed the franchise tag yet? I was reading that he may not have.
A: Cassel has signed the tender, Michael. I think the confusion came from the fact the paperwork had yet to be filed with the NFL.
Hi Mike, is it just me or does it seem like the media is trying to drive the price down for Cassel? It seems like they want to put him down as much as possible in order to push teams to not give the Patriots a hoard of picks and good picks at that. It's almost like they do not want the Patriots to be rewarded for grooming a very good QB. Also, think if Marvin Harrison is released the Patriots try to sign him to stick it to Bill Polian and the Colts?
Jamie, Trumbull, Conn.
A: I don't personally sense that media members are trying to drive the price down on Cassel, Jamie. I don't think media members have that type of influence either. More than anything, my feeling is that those writing on Cassel are trying to assess the potential market for him, and that includes a few different layers: 1) Analyzing the player and what contributed to his success; 2) Analyzing the possible suitors; 3) Factoring in economic conditions. I've spent a lot of time on this myself and find it one of the most compelling stories surrounding the team in recent memory. As for Marvin Harrison, my initial hunch is that it would be a non-starter for the Patriots. But based on some of my opinions from last week that turned out to be off the mark -- namely Tully Banta-Cain and Fred Taylor -- I should probably back off a bit on some of those projections.
Mike, after your time at the combine this past weekend, which player(s) caught your eye and who you feel will be of interest to the Patriots, particularly on the defensive side of the ball around the spots in the draft New England will be selecting? Also, in regards to free agency and the Cassel situation: Do you feel or did you hear any rumblings about Cassel possibly being moved early in free agency if the Patriots receive an enticing offer for his services and to also have more cap space to sign free agents and/or re-sign key future free agents?
Brandon, Warwick, RI
A: Brandon, I actually didn't attend the combine this year because I was taking care of some personal obligations at home. My colleague, Christopher L. Gasper, was there representing the Boston Globe. While I wasn't at the combine, I have been attempting to learn more about the prospects in different ways. Here is a name that I have filed away: Oregon cornerback Jairus Byrd. Last week, I made the point that Bill Belichick prefers bigger, sturdy cornerbacks, and a few e-mailers pointed out to me that the profile of cornerbacks on the roster (Ellis Hobbs, Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite) is anything but. That is true. What I should have said is that those bigger, sturdier cornerbacks with fluid movements are harder to find, but if Belichick had his druthers, that's what he likes. Byrd looks like he has a little bit of both -- sturdy and fluid -- so I'm keeping an eye on him. On Cassel, I haven't heard anything in terms of the Patriots' approach. My feeling is that they'd prefer to trade him sooner rather than later.
Living here in the South, I have watched Knowshon Moreno from Georgia play his tail off. I see him as the next Kevin Faulk and would love him in our system. Any fit?
A: Ned, as you know, Moreno was used in the slot at times at Georgia, so he's had exposure to pass-catching in the Bulldogs' offense. That would seemingly be something the Patriots like. But overall, it looks to me like if a team wants to draft Moreno, they'll have to get him early. So from a general perspective, my hunch is that the Patriots will end up going with a defender with their first few picks over a running back.
Mike, I was thinking that the Pats would be getting a linebacker in this upcoming draft, like Clay Matthews Jr. from USC, but the more I hear about Sean Smith of Utah, the more I think the Pats will draft him. He seems to have a build similar to Adrian Wilson of Arizona (6-fot-3 215 pounds), bigger than Rashad Johnson of Alabama and DJ Moore of Vanderbilt. Plus, he has the versatility to play all the defensive back positions. I think he'll be their first pick and then look toward drafting Matthews (if he falls), Sintim or another LB that may fall into round 2. Your thoughts?
A: I was pretty high on Smith last week, Eric, but I've cooled after doing some more research on him. I was swayed by his physical measureables, and I didn't look closely enough at if those physical qualities translated into physical play. I'm not convinced they do. I probably was swayed by his strong Bowl performance as well. In the end, the Patriots could still go in Smith's direction if they feel he's coachable and fits what they're looking for both on and off the field, but I'm not as hot on it as I was last week.
Mike, seeing how Bill Belichick places such high value on versatile players, could you see him taking a shot with West Virginia's Pat White if he was available in Round 3? Aside from adding a nice variation to the Pats offense with the Wildcat look at QB (and perhaps adding QB depth to free up a Cassel trade), White could also fill roles at WR, PR-KR, and perhaps at times, RB. Not to mention he's a terrific, coachable kid, and most importantly a winner. It seems he'd provide a lot of value while taking up only one roster spot. Your thoughts?
Rick, Virginia Beach, Va.
A: Rick, from following some different reports from the combine -- such as this one from SI.com's Don Banks -- it seems as if White really helped himself. Based on those reports, and keeping in mind that the combine is just one part of an overall process, I'm wondering if he'll be off the board by the third round. But if he was there, yes, I could envision a scenario. Part of my thinking is that the Patriots will probably have an extra third-round pick (they'll find out when compensatory picks are awarded, likely next month), and that would open them up to being a bit more flexible.
Hi Mike. I am a huge Patriots fan living here in Cleveland so I am relying on you for local talk. Any possibility of the Patriots being interested in the Ravens' Bart Scott, or Ray Lewis, or the Redskins' Marcus Washington? I am also wondering about Channing Crowder. I almost would rather see the Patriots go defensive back in the draft and address linebacker through free agency. Do you think this is a possibility with Belichick liking veteran linebackers as much as Jon Gruden likes veteran quarterbacks?
Riaz, Berea, Ohio
A: Riaz, I'd put Bart Scott and Ray Lewis in the long-shot category. I'd be surprised if the Patriots pay the money to Scott or Lewis. Given their salary cap situation and other items on the agenda I don't think it would be part of their plan. My feeling is that before you can go out and pay big bucks for players on other teams, it's a good idea to ensure your own house is in order, and I see contract extensions for players like Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins as more important priorities. I don't know enough about Washington, but from a general sense, I think the Patriots would prefer to go younger than add a vet there. Crowder has come up in past mailbags, and I know some members of the Patriots' coaching staff think very highly of him. Crowder had a knee issue coming out of Florida, so if the Patriots do make a play for him, they'd need to feel comfortable with those. Money would seemingly be an issue too.
I think the Pats have been slipping in free agency the past couple of years -- not picking up some valuable players in the secondary (Ty Law, Asante Samuel, DeAngelo Hall). Do you think they are going to pick up a moderately big addition in the secondary? Also, why did they release Kelley Washington? I think that they didn't put him in the offense enough, so he really couldn't do anything. Also, what are your thoughts on Matthew Slater?
Deven, Yatesville, Ga.
A: I see significant additions in the secondary, Deven, but I don't know if it will necessarily be a high-priced signing. When I look back on 2008, the Patriots were 26th out of 32 teams on third down, which I think highlights some pass-rush deficiencies and some coverage problems in the secondary. I think the team will be better in 2009, and the Patriots will alter some personnel to make those improvements. My feeling is that the team released Kelley Washington as a salary cap move. In terms of Matthew Slater, I like his speed, although it was clear at times that he was quite raw as a player. I also give him a lot of credit for stepping up and answering questions after his botched, costly kickoff return against the Steelers; that's the type of stand-up guy I could feel good about having on my team. I'm not sure how many rookies around the NFL would have done that.
Any chance the Patriots pursue Gibril Wilson and DeAngelo Hall? I know Hall might want some coin but after one year in New England, along with good play, his stock would be high. And Gibril Wilson could pull a Randy Moss and come play for winner. I mean he is a better tackler than James Sanders is, and he was playing in Oakland. So maybe playing for a winner will revive his career. What do you think Reiss?
A: Lamar, I know the Patriots were interested in Hall when he was released from the Raiders last season. I think that there was some real disappointment inside the Gillette Stadium offices when Hall decided to sign with the Redskins, so I wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots revisit the possibility. Wilson, I'm not as certain about. He played for the Giants in 2007, winning a Super Bowl ring, so I don't know if I'd put him in the pre-New England Moss category.
Saw that TE Chris Baker was released by the Jets this week due to salary cap considerations ($9 million guaranteed over next three years). Is he a lock to return to the Jets on a restructured deal, or, if not, would the Pats take a hard look at adding him?
A: Chris, I'd think that Baker would be on the Patriots' radar, and they do have a need at tight end. I think Baker, who is not a lock to return to the Jets, could help the Patriots. Like other options, cost will be a big consideration.
Hey Mike, what are your thoughts on the Pats signing pending free agent Yeremiah Bell from Miami?
A: I think he's a solid player, Marc, but it will come down to cost. I'm sure the Patriots have an idea of what James Sanders is looking for, and that's probably factoring into their decision-making at safety. My feeling is that Bell, if he doesn't sign with Miami beforehand, will be out of their price range.
Mike -- two quick questions for you. First, when an NFL player is fined what happens to the money -- what does the league do with the funds? Second, anything happening on the Wilfork front? In my mind Wilfork is the key to what Belichick wants to do on defense -- it starts with nose tackle and flows from there. Not sure the Pats can replace Wilfork easily. Any idea on where the contract numbers might start for him? (OK, that was three questions).
A: Carl, I'm not 100 percent sure where the fine money goes, but if I recall correctly, I think it goes to NFL charities. With Wilfork, he had expressed some disappointment earlier in February that he hadn't heard from the Patriots regarding an extension for about a year. The sides have since opened a dialogue, but my hunch is that they are not at the point where they are exchanging financial offers. I am guessing that the Patriots let Wilfork know he is important to them, and they have plans to sit down at the negotiating table with him. In terms of where it starts for Wilfork, I think Shaun Rogers' deal in Cleveland last year is a good spot to look. Rogers signed for a reported six years, $42 million. Obviously, the market has grown from that point, but that would be the comparable contract that immediately comes to my mind.
Mike, with all the pressure put on Cassel last year and Brady coming back, I don't know why there has not been more talk of upgrading and improving our OL in this draft, especially up the middle. It seems the two most important needs on all teams are to protect and attack the passer. I hope the Pats address this before anything else. Your comments appreciated.
Mike, Jenners, Pa.
A: Mike, I think the Patriots have a solid line returning for 2009. My thoughts on the line are focused more on 2010 because right tackle Nick Kaczur, right guard Stephen Neal and left guard Logan Mankins all have contracts that are scheduled to expire after the 2009 season (assuming the present collective bargaining agreement is extended). Overall, I think pressure on a quarterback is a result of multiple factors -- sometimes it's line play, sometimes it's the quarterback holding on to the ball too long, sometimes it's the receivers failing to separate down the field. When I look at the Patriots' line play, I think it graded out solid for 2009.
Mike, I was wondering about the status of Pierre Woods. I know it was assumed that he would be tendered at the second-round level ($1.45 million). Do think that the signing of Tully Banta-Cain changed his status? Maybe they will tender him a lower tender.
A: Eric, I don't have any information on the tender offer to Woods. The deadline for teams to tender restricted free agents is Thursday, Feb. 26. My assumption is that the addition of Banta-Cain won't impact the tender level on Woods. If the Patriots give Woods the low tender ($1.01 million), they put themselves at greater risk of losing him. The reason is that if a player with a low tender signs an offer sheet with another team, the compensation that goes back to the original team is equivalent to the round in which the player entered the NFL. In Woods' case, he entered the NFL as a rookie free agent, so the Patriots would get no compensation. So, in the end, the Patriots would be gambling $450,000 on Woods not signing with another team. Pinching "pennies" like that is how the Dolphins ended up losing Wes Welker in 2007 (they tendered him at the second-round level, not the first-round level), and I'd be surprised if the Patriots head in that direction.
Hey Mike, I'm confused. I have a quick question about Larry Izzo. Is he being accused of getting steroids from Greg Anderson or is he just attending the Barry Bonds trial?
A: Joe, here is the direct verbiage from the prosecution's court filings, which are passed along from an article written by Boston Globe colleague Bob Hohler. "Mr. Izzo will testify that he was a professional football player and that he first contacted Greg Anderson by phone in approximately January 2003. Mr. Izzo will also testify that he first met Anderson in person in approximately May 2003 at BALCO and submitted a urine sample at BALCO at Anderson'e request. Mr. Izzo will also testify that [he] submitted additional urine samples to Anderson at later times as well. Mr Izzo will also testify about receiving performance-enhancing substances from Anderson, about instructions from Anderson about how to administer the substances, about the schedule Anderson gave to him for administering the substances, and about what Mr. Anderson told him about the efficacy of those substances."
Hi Mike, why is the bench press used as the test of strength at the NFL Combine? The 225-pound bench press tests upper-body strength and endurance, but I would think squatting or dead-lifting at a predetermined weight would give teams more significantly more insight into players' total-body, football-relevant strength. If the concern is that these lifts would impair performance on the running and jumping drills, this could simply be the last scheduled workout and put everyone on equal footing. Your thoughts?
A: Andy, I don't have an answer for you on this one, but I thought this piece by Gil Brandt on NFL.com might be of interest to you. Brandt breaks down the different combine drills and what teams are looking for in them.
I keep hearing that the Pats may be interested in an OLB with their first-round pick. Frankly, I don't see it. Adalius Thomas and Mike Vrabel are locks to start. From what I read, the Pats are high on Woods (yes, I know he still needs to sign a contract), plus they have last year's third-round pick, Shawn Crable, whom the Pats like, a recently signed Banta-Cain, plus Vince Redd, who filled in adequately last year for a practice squad guy. That's six players at a position where they usually only carry 4. My guess is that Redd will be gone, and that Woods, Banta-Cain, and Crable are competing for two spots. A first-round OLB pick wouldn't even start, and would simply mean the Pats have to cut another player they like. I think the Pats have more immediate needs at ILB, safety, CB, and possibly even DL (due to pending contracts ending). In other words, it seems to me that OLB is actually the defensive position with the least need right now. Don't you agree?
A: This is a well detailed point, Walter. The one thing that I would caution is locking players into a specific position. Vrabel and Thomas, for example, could potentially play inside linebacker. Also, it's important to consider the future as well (e.g. Vrabel's contract expires after 2009). So if the Patriots are sitting there at 23, and their board tells them the clear-cut choice is a pass-rusher at outside linebacker who would project to play on all three downs and boost their pass rush, I still think they would make that pick. I thought the pass rush was a bit of a weakness last season. So when factoring that, plus the versatility of other players on the roster, I could envision them going outside linebacker if their board leads them in that direction.
Hi Mike, the Patriots have always said they'd do whatever they feel is in the best interest of the organization. With a high need for 3-4 players by teams with high draft picks, is there any chance the Patriots decide to shift their primary defensive alignment to fit the players they can acquire in the draft. Since they're almost always drafting bottom up, it's likely they'll find players there that will not be coveted/targeted by the myriad of 3-4 teams drafting top to bottom that can fit well in other schemes.
A: This is an interesting thought, Jose. I think the Patriots will continue to work out of a 3-4 defense, but they are a multiple package that includes some 4-3 alignments. So with this in mind, it does open the possibility that they could target a player who maybe projects more to a 4-3. Nothing would surprise me in that regard, as we've seen the Patriots try some innovative things in recent years, such as using safety Tank Williams as a linebacker out of the 3-4 alignment in training camp.
Mike, there's a lot of talk that the Falcons, Broncos, Browns, and Chiefs are looking for "Patriot type" players because of their New England connections. Coach Belichick seems to have great personal relationships with a number of college coaches throughout the nation. I'd like to think that some of his best picks were assisted by talking with coaches that either worked with these players or had to play against them. Do you think these relationships give him an advantage over these other guys in finding extraordinary talent in the draft?
Todd, Glens Falls, NY
A: I don't see a major advantage here, Todd. I do think those relationships help, because when Bill Belichick is talking to someone like Nick Saban, he knows they're talking the same language. Ditto for Pat Hill, Charlie Weis etc. But I think executives like Thomas Dimitroff (Falcons) and Scott Pioli (Chiefs) have similar-type relationships, and it helps that they've been out on the road more in the scouting process, cultivating those relationships. When I think of a missed evaluation like Chad Jackson -- and the often spoken of connection between Belichick and Florida coach Urban Meyer -- it makes me think that any advantage in this regard is minimal in the big picture.
Mike, I'm just wondering whether the salary cap number for the NFL will go down over the next couple of seasons due to the economy. I am just a bit puzzled by the recent deals for Nnamdi Asomugha and others, especially given that MLB and NBA teams seem to be affected by the slowing economy (see deals for Jason Varitek, Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu in baseball, as well as David Stern's comment that NBA cap numbers will go down).
Paolo, Jakarta, Indonesia
A: This situation is totally in flux, Paolo, because right now there is no scheduled salary cap for 2010. Until the sides reach an extension on the collective bargaining agreement, the situation will remain fluid. So it's quite possible that the NFL operates without a cap, and that will change a lot of things. I share your puzzlement with some of the contracts we've seen signed in recent weeks.
We haven't seen comments about how quarterback Kevin O'Connell progressed last season. This certainly affects the Cassel situation. Do you think that the Patriots are comfortable with him as a No. 2 now?
A: I do, George, but that's only based on a hunch. I think the Patriots feel he progressed nicely and that they like his smarts and arm strength. I know O'Connell felt that he learned a lot from being in the quarterback room with coordinator Josh McDaniels, "coach" Tom Brady and Cassel. While there will always be questions with a No. 2 quarterback until he gets his chance -- Cassel is probably the greatest example of all -- my feeling is that the arrow is up on O'Connell.
Hi Mike, in the lead-up to the draft and free agency, we know about a few of the Pats' needs, most notably the secondary, as well as some youth at OLB. But what about ILB? Mayo is obviously an excellent player, but Gary Guyton at the other spot is a relative unknown. How do you rate his play? Is he a viable long-term solution as an every-down player?
Craig, Silver Spring, Md.
A: Craig, I think Guyton exceeded expectations in 2008. The big challenge for him now is showing he can consistently produce with an expanded role, and that remains an unknown. As a rookie, he played in about 30 percent of the team's snaps, which is pretty solid considering he was a free agent.