Separating fact from fiction on the Cassel deal
Addressing the overwhelming reader response to the Patriots' big trade and looking at what the team might do next
There was overwhelming response in this week's mailbag, most of it regarding the Patriots' headline-grabbing trade involving Matt Cassel and Mike Vrabel.
It's the signature move of the team's offseason -- and not everyone likes it.
Before we get to the questions, I wanted to pass along word that the mailbag will be taking a temporary vacation for the next 2-3 Tuesdays as I have some pre-planned time off.
For those who also check out our Patriots blog here on Boston.com, I'll also be taking a break from that as well (it will be updated from time to time by others).
The plan will be to come back strong leading into the draft, as we have exciting plans for that -- both at the Globe and Boston.com.
Until then, here goes ...
Hi Mike, can you comment on this story on ESPN.com that Bill Belichick turned down a possible pick at No. 12 to take No. 34? Is there some issue between Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick?
A: Kamran, this is what I was able to ascertain when digging for facts on this: That trade was never on the table before the Patriots consummated the deal with the Chiefs, or until the deal with the Chiefs reached a point that there was no turning back. In this case, I think context is everything. It makes it sound like the Patriots turned down a better offer from the Broncos in an apples-to-apples type of situation. I believe that is far from the truth. It sounds to me like the Broncos, who had at least a full week to get something together if they wanted to get in on Cassel, tried to get on the plane while it was taxiing on the runway. Unfortunately for them, the jet-bridge was closed. I don't think there are any issues between Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick.
Mike, I think this is an issue of timing. In your opinion, why did the Patriots make this trade when they did? I agree with your assessment about the Patriots not having as much leverage as some of these pundits are claiming. And I also think it's asinine to do comparative analysis on this trade versus other "similar" trades in years past. There are just too many variables for there to be even a remote benchmark trade. But still, the timing ... I just think if the Patriots wanted more leverage, all they had to do was wait. My guess is the closer we got to draft day, as teams were deep into the vetting and evaluation process, that's when Cassel's stock would rise. If the Patriots don't make a brilliant free-agent acquisition or cement certain current players between now and then, I just see it as the Pats pulling the trigger too early. Sometimes the art of the deal is timing too. Thoughts?
A: I think the timing is a huge part of this, Joseph. When free agency began, the Patriots had less than $2 million of salary cap space. If they don't make the deal, then there's no Fred Taylor, no Chris Baker, no other free-agent activity. I believe they had to strike fast because they had a pair of financial handcuffs on their salary cap from placing the franchise tag on Matt Cassel. If they wait, you're right, they could have gained more leverage. They also could have lost leverage and ended up with no takers, and no room on the cap to improve the team.
Mike, there have been a few reports that the Pats insisted that Mike Vrabel be included in the trade for salary cap purposes (and a report that we turned down the No. 33 overall pick from Detroit for Cassel straight up). If that's the case, couldn't we have simply released Vrabel and gotten the same result? I always thought if a player was traded or released, there was an acceleration of any remaining signing bonus not previously charged. Is that wrong, i.e. is there a different salary cap result for trading a player vs. releasing him?
Bernie, Armonk, NY
A: Bernie, I can not confirm that the Patriots insisted Vrabel be included in the deal for salary-cap purposes. Vrabel's salary cap charge was $4.3 million for 2009 and the team will save about $3.3 million on the cap by trading him. He was also due a $1 million roster bonus this year. In terms of the Detroit trade, I'd put it in the same category as the Broncos -- this is not an apples-to-apples situation. It wasn't like the Patriots were sitting there saying "Should we take the 33 for Cassel, or take the 34 for Cassel/Vrabel." I strongly believe that wasn't the case. The Lions previously expressed no interest in a deal with the Patriots. It wasn't a "we'll get back to you" or "we'll see." They said they were out. Their response was part of the reason the market for Cassel was so light. So like the Broncos, the Lions -- who had at least a full week to get something together -- tried to get on the plane while it was taxiing on the runway. Unfortunately for them, the jet-bridge was closed. If this was fantasy football, maybe the Patriots could have considered the deal. But the process was too far down the road to turn back. Now that I've rambled, to answer the question, the Patriots would have received the same salary cap relief had they released Vrabel.
Mike, after having a few days to digest the Cassel-Vrabel trade and dig for details, a few things come to mind. First, I understand the market for Cassel was not great and I'm not upset about the compensation we got for him, but why Mike Vrabel, too? I hear that it was strictly a salary dump move but I find that hard to believe. He is worth a $4 million cap hit, especially after freeing up Cassel's salary. Vrabel is a linebacker who went through many of the games last season in which he played in virtually almost every defensive snap and also was the player that wore the communication device helmet and adjusted the defense pre-snap. Now I know people say he's starting to slip but Junior Seau was 39 years old last season and still contributed and you're trying to tell me at 33 years old Mike Vrabel would not have been an asset to this team? His leadership alone is worth more than a second-round pick in my opinion. So how does a player go from being a defensive cornerstone to being expendable in one offseason?
A: I have the same question, Joe. I still think Vrabel is valuable and worth the $4.3 million salary cap charge. I can't do the revisionist history thing and say that I thought Vrabel was done. Yes, he's slowed down a bit, but I still think the can contribute. Perhaps the Patriots felt his contributions didn't match his price tag, and it was a case of saying "better one year too early than one year too late." It's also possible that Kansas City insisted he was in the deal, and the Patriots -- realizing they had no leverage and could have been in a tough spot -- agreed to include him. It's possible the Patriots wanted to clear his cap space and move in a new direction -- while also being able to dictate his destination so he didn't end up with a rival ready to compete with New England right now. I don't know the answer. I hope to find it out at some point.
Mike, I have heard from a lot of people that Vrabel was thrown in as a "thank you gift" for Scott Pioli, with whom Bill Belichick has a great relationship. I think we definitely didn't make out well on this deal, but I can't for a minute think that Belichick had anything else on his mind other than building a strong team when he made the deal. Do you think I am right on this, or is it actually possible that the Patriots took the interests of Pioli into consideration when making the Cassel/Vrabel trade? Do you think they pulled the trigger on this deal too soon? It sounds like there was interest from McDaniels and the Broncos as well. It just seems like we didn't negotiate well on this one, was our back really against the wall here?
A: I'm not buying it, Tom. On Vrabel, if you told me they included him in the deal to keep him away from the Browns or Broncos, then I might buy it. But I don't think for a second this was a thank you gift. As for the thoughts of pulling the trigger too soon, I think it's a fair question. Once Cassel signed his tender, the Patriots called around the league to gauge the trade market and realized they only had one suitor -- Kansas City. They called Detroit -- not interested. They called Minnesota -- not interested. They called San Francisco -- not interested. They called Tampa Bay -- not interested. And on and on. As much as I think front-office people in the NFL can be deceptive at times, I don't think the Patriots had any reason to believe there was enough interest in Cassel to warrant waiting. Were those teams lying to them? Why would they? So they moved on. Now, it comes out that the Broncos/Buccaneers wanted to get involved, and Jay Cutler was part of the discussion. Could the Patriots have looked into their crystal ball and seen that coming? I don't know why they would. I put myself in their shoes, strapped to the cap, and believe they took the proper course of action.
Hey Mike, looks like you are catching some heat for your opinion on the Cassel trade. I agree with your analysis -- however, I think the Pats should have received another pick, 3rd or 4th round in 2010. Your thoughts?
A: I did take some heat, Marc, and I respect that. In this case, it comes with the territory, and it's not personal. I firmly stand by my opinion/analysis. I spent more time studying the Cassel market over the last 3-4 weeks -- speaking with various people around the league and factoring in all the layers to the situation -- and felt confident in my projection of a high second-round pick while also understanding that it only took one team to take the plunge and that would change anything. In the end, it fell the way I expected ... with the exception of the inclusion of Vrabel. If the Patriots asked for a third- or fourth-round pick in 2010 to be included in the package, I don't think there would be a deal. They probably could have asked for a sixth- or seventh-rounder this year, so I can understand the thoughts that there should have been another pick around that level in the deal.
Mike, should I go back and look at old mailbags? I seem to remember you being pretty firm that Matt Cassel was going to land us a second-round pick. Did you have some inside information or are you just in tune with BB and Pioli?
A: Adam, no inside information. Just a projection, when factoring in all variables, that worked out.
Mike, apparently I'm one of the few who liked the Cassel/Vrabel trade. It seems to me that every NFL team will covet the 34th pick in the upcoming draft, simply because it represents one of the best "value" slots in a deep draft. My question is: Do you foresee the Pats targeting a player whom they can't get at No. 23, but might be on the board at, say, 17 or 18. They then could swap first-round picks, then trade this new pick at 34, to move up 5 or 6 slots. Is this a reasonable scenario? How valuable is the 34th pick (in terms of first-round positioning), and who might they go after in this scenario?
Mark, Champaign, Ill.
A: Mark, I think it's a plausible scenario. The Falcons did something similar last year with a couple of second-round picks they had, moving back into the first round to select offensive lineman Sam Baker. I'm not saying the Patriots will do that -- they strike me more as a two-players-are-better-than-one type of team -- but I think it's something to consider. In terms of what specific player they might target, it's hard to project because we don't know how the board will fall. For example, in 2004, I don't think the Patriots ever expected to see Vince Wilfork at No. 21.
OK Mike, we knew the Pats' hands were tied until they got rid of Cassel. Now that he has been traded, what is priority No. 1 for the Pats? Is it trying to re-sign the likes of Wilfork, Seymour, and Mankins? Is it trying to sign other free agents, or is it the draft with the high number of picks in the first day of the draft? And speaking of the draft, with the departure of Vrabel would it shock you if the Pats don't use the 23rd pick overall on an OLB to replace Vrabel?
Nick, Montreal, Quebec
A: Nick, I'd say priority No. 1 is to address the cornerback spot. I still think the team is trying to recover from losing Asante Samuel, which is a decision I think they'd like to have back. I do think re-signing Wilfork and Mankins should be a high priority. I wouldn't be surprised if the Patriots select an outside linebacker in the first round.
Hi Mike, the rumor mill is frantic with the notion that the Pats might be in the process of making a trade for Julius Peppers. Can you substantiate any of this talk or do you think the Pats might make such a play?
A: I cannot confirm those rumors, Rob. I know that as of the weekend, the Patriots had not inquired about Peppers -- since he is not under contract, they'd have to call his agent and visit with him as a franchise player. My feeling is that the Patriots will not make a play for Peppers. There are several reasons. For starters, it will take a first-round draft choice and then some to acquire him, and the Patriots would have to sign him to a major deal as well. I don't see them doing it.
Mike: The big trade is done. To me, the most important thing now is what will the Pats do with the picks? I'm tired of hearing that they have 5 (or 6) picks in the first three rounds and how we are going to stockpile a bunch of youth. Based on the facts and the history of BB in the draft, the Patriots will pick at 23, 58 and whatever comp spot they get in the third round for Asante Samuel. Everything else in Rounds 2 and 3 will be traded to future drafts, probably for numerous picks in Rounds 4-7. How many times have you been watching the draft, only to hear once again that the Pats have traded down for more picks? I also doubt BB will package multiple picks to move up significantly -- he hasn't done that, with a couple of notable exceptions (Matt Light, Wilfork). Finally, we don't have the roster spots to take 10 players from this draft. I bet the Pats take their normal 6-8 players total this year, using one pick in each of the first rounds. Am I wrong?
A: If there is one thing I've learned in my time covering the Patriots, BamaPat, it's that you can never pin down and label Bill Belichick one way or the other. I remember things like this: The Patriots will never draft a guard in the first round (Logan Mankins) ... He doesn't like to draft young linebackers early because the defense is too complex (Jerod Mayo) ... The Patriots aren't big players early in free agency (Adalius Thomas) ... Belichick values second-round picks and doesn't like to trade them for veterans (Corey Dillon). I could go on and on. With that in mind, I wouldn't jump to any conclusions. I think that's the way Belichick likes it, too.
Mike, is it true that most teams regard second-round picks more valuable than first-rounders in the sense that you get very similar talent at a lower cost, and thus it is a higher value pick than a first rounder. Seems to me this was part of their thinking for why the trade with the Chiefs was a good one, even though many think we could have received more. What do you think?
A: I don't want to go overboard here, Chris, but I can tell you that the Patriots wanted no part of the No. 3 overall pick that the Chiefs owned. The top 8-9 picks in the draft are probably the worst value in pro football because of the economic risk that teams incur for unproven talent. They are very hard to trade, too. Overall, the quality of player you can potentially get at 3 is greater than 34, but the risk is that much greater. So it's a risk-reward scenario. This system will change when owners and players hash out a new collective bargaining agreement, because the teams picking at the top of the draft are supposed to be helped, not hurt. Right now, they're being hurt.
Hey Mike, with the Pats having a hole at the No. 3 receiver spot, any idea why they didn't make a run at Laveranues Coles? When he's played against the Pats, he has displayed great hands (normally a must for a No. 3 wideout) and obviously knows the division. Was the cost simply too high?
A: Not sure on this one, Jeff. It might be that they want to get a bit younger at the position.
Does Logan Mankins have the background to play tackle? Recently there has been talk that the Patriots are unwilling to break the bank when Mankins' contract runs out next year since he's an interior lineman. With Matt Light aging and continuing to frustrate at the left tackle spot, is it out of the question to shift Mankins to tackle and sign/draft a replacement at guard? This would also make sense since traditionally left tackles get paid more than interior lineman and would make renewing Mankins contract a little easier to swallow. Plus, you'd have Brady's blindside safely covered for the future. What do you think, Mike?
A: He does, Bart, but that goes back five years to his college career at Fresno State. I also vividly remember the playoff game in Denver in the 2005 season -- Mankins' rookie year -- when he took pregame warmups at left tackle because the Patriots were already thin depth-wise and Tom Ashworth was in the locker room throwing up with a virus. But Mankins ended up playing guard that game. It's an interesting thought to ponder, but I still think Light is an effective left tackle in the NFL. I don't see a change there.
Hi Mike, my question is regarding "anonymous" sources being the backbone of articles -- specifically in the backdrop of the Cassel/Vrabel trade. First, why are they anonymous? Are these undercover FBI agents who identity cannot be disclosed? Is national security at stake? I'm specifically talking about Chris Mortensen's report claiming Belichick turned down the No. 12 overall pick for Cassel straight up. What?!? My 2 cents: They asked Vrabel to take a pay cut and he refused. Coupled with Cassel's cap number they found themselves strapped. Pioli knows this, so he offered the No. 34 pick and offered to take Vrabel, which ended up being the best option. If (I reiterate IF) there were any other offers, they must have had contingencies - such as the team and Cassel need to agree to a contract, which could have dragged this out and made the Pats bystanders in free agency. â¦ What's your take?
A: Paul, I appreciate the different layers to the question, starting with the sourcing. This is a huge journalistic issue, in my opinion. I'll start by saying that I don't know Chris Mortensen personally and I don't want to attack his report. So I'll answer from a general perspective -- many times the sources are anonymous because they fear the consequences from going on the record. One example is an agent who reveals terms of a contract. That agent might be concerned that if his name is attached to the information, it might sacrifice his ability to do work with the team in the future. At the same time, the agent wants the information out there, because it helps in recruiting and fostering good relations with the media. Another factor to keep in mind is that people are anonymous to protect their own agendas. As reporters, it's our job to sift through all that stuff and determine if we're getting the straight truth. That's often a challenge. You try hard to get people to put their name on things, but in today's Internet world, sources who want to remain anonymous have different ways to get their message out without having their name attached to it. It's a wild Internet world. I guess I'd sum it up this way: Every reporter is going to make mistakes (I've made plenty), and sometimes a source will provide the wrong information, or simply wasn't close enough to the truth to be giving accurate information. It is real tricky at times. And there is great pressure to get information, and get it quickly, and that can lead to more mistakes. I could go on and on, as you've hit on something I'm particularly passionate about. Sorry to ramble on. In terms of one other point in your e-mail, I think the part about Cassel and a contract extension was a great piece of analysis. I hadn't put much thought into that, but it makes sense.
Mike, I think like a lot of others I was surprised the Patriots only get a 2nd round pick for Cassel and Vrabel, and now with ESPN's Chris Mortensen reporting they could of had the 12th overall pick it is even more mind-boggling. But one thing that hasn't been mentioned, KC took Cassel and his $14.6m cap hit without renegotiating his contract. How do we know that Denver or any other team who asked about Cassel would have been able to take on such a cap hit without renegotiating that $14.6 million number down? Denver may have said they will do the 3-way trade but want 48 hours to hammer out a new deal for Cassel first because they can't take on a cap hit that high and Belichick could have been put in a position of telling KC "no deal" on Saturday then have Denver and Cassel not be able to come to terms after 48 hours. If that happens, he is stuck with two QBs accounting for $30 million of cap space in the end. Bottom line is this deal -- it was clean, they got Cassel and Vrabel off the books straight up and now have $18 million to spend.
A: Well said, Patrick. You should work go work for ESPN. The Chiefs incur some risk here, acquiring Cassel without a contract extension finalized. Furthermore, it's not as if the Patriots had the Chiefs' offer on one side of the page, and the Broncos offer on the other, and they were making a decision. If Bill Belichick decided on the 34th pick/Vrabel over the 12th overall pick, it wouldn't make sense. I think this situation is all about context and timing. Unfortunately, I don't think reports of a Broncos offer had much context to them, and in turn, I feel that misrepresented the situation and thus misled the public. Bottom line, as I see it, there was a limited market for Cassel in the allotted time the Patriots felt they had to make a deal. And because of how tight the Patriots were to the cap, timing was everything. The Broncos' offer came in too late, and thus it wasn't a consideration.
Hi Mike, ESPN is insinuating that the Pats disclosed to the Globe that the Broncos were interested in dealing Cutler so that BB could stick it to McDaniels. I was flipping between numerous websites when news of the trade broke and I recall that while other sites were indicating there was a "mystery" team and that the KC/Pats deal was not complete, you were reporting that the paperwork had indeed been filed. I don't recall the Globe mentioning the Broncos until the live chat Saturday night. Prior to the chat, Adam Schefter had broken the Broncos story and several other sites were discussing it. I realize that you cannot disclose who told you what, but I think it would be good if you could discuss when you actually reported about the Broncos being interested. This seems pretty irresponsible for a news organization (ESPN) to insinuate that the Pats leaked a story to attempt to harm a former assistant when it does not appear that the facts support the insinuation.
A: I checked on this Adam, because I was pretty surprised to see that ESPN was speculating that the Patriots leaked the Broncos' supposed interest to the Boston Globe. That information printed by ESPN is not correct. Not even close. No one from ESPN contacted me before printing that, and I don't believe they contacted my colleague Christopher L. Gasper either. Christopher reported the information about the Broncos' interest on Sunday. In the Saturday night chat, I was simply referencing what had been out there Saturday -- I believe from Adam Schefter of NFL Network. In terms of what ESPN was "reporting", I spoke/e-mailed with the people involved with printing/posting of the insinuation that the Patriots leaked the information to the Globe -- which couldn't have been further from the truth. I think there was a consensus that the guess about a leak was in poor taste. I'm not sure what good that does two days after the fact, but that was the story.
Mike, I'm still trying to wrap my head around the Vrabel and Cassel trade. If they had traded Vrabel straight up, what would they have gotten? My guess is a fifth-round pick. ... Who takes Vrabel's spot at LB?
A: Arliss, I asked the same question to some people around the league and the feeling was a late-round draft choice. It's a fair question to ask why that pick wasn't included in the deal -- why didn't Cassel/Vrabel yield both a second-rounder and seventh-rounder? As for who takes Vrabel's spot, it's still early. I don't think there is any clear-cut answer at this point. Pierre Woods, Tully Banta-Cain and Shawn Crable are a few candidates on the current roster.
I know Fred Taylor is a great running back and has a lot left in the tank especially the way the Patriots will use him. How is his blocking ability? We saw how important it is last year. Also how is Chris Baker's overall game? Is he more of a blocker?
A: Wayne, I checked with a reporter in Jacksonville whose knowledge of the game I respect. He says that Taylor is not a great blocker, but he's willing and is good in that area. In terms of Baker, I see him as a strong in-line blocker who isn't a threat up the seam but could do some solid work underneath.
Hi Mike, I saw that Jason Taylor was cut by the Redskins. I know Belichick has always liked him. My question is do you think he has anything left, and if so might he fit into the Patriots plans to play that hybrid DE/OLB position? Seems like he might be a pretty low risk signing, and I would love to see him in a Patriots uniform. Also, do you have any updates on the Leigh Bodden/Shawn Springs situation?
Jeremy, Boston A: I think this is a no-brainer, Jeremy. I do think Taylor has something left, and I believe he'd be a great signing. I'm not thinking as a full-time starter, but for a Patriots team looking to improve its third-down defense (ranked 26th out of 32 teams last season) and pass rush, he could really help. Like other players, finances must be considered. In terms of Bodden/Springs, I have not heard anything. Springs is scheduled to visit at some point this week. I don't believe the visit happened yet.
I'm starting to get concerned at the lack of info on the possible signings of Leigh Bodden or Shawn Springs. Do you see either getting a contract in New England?
Matt, New Hampshire
A: Matt, this looks to me to be a situation where the market will dictate that answer. My read on the situation is that Bodden was thinking there might be a better financial offer elsewhere, so he's going to check it out. If he doesn't get it, then I think it could work out in New England. To my knowledge, Springs hasn't been in yet, so it's a bit early on that one.
Am I the only one who thinks the Pats' greatest need is at wide receiver? After Welker and Moss, there is no one, so if anything happens to one of them, we would be done. Your thoughts?
Jim, Weatherly, Pa.
A: Jim, I think we'll see an addition or two at wide receiver between now and the start of training camp. One thing that I always like to remind myself is that the picture is not yet complete. There are three parts to the team-building season -- draft, free agency, trades. We've just started in one of those areas.
Opinion Mike, three questions not concerning Matt Cassel: 1) If the Patriots could sign just one, who would they prefer, Springs or Bodden?; 2) Will the Patriots go after a veteran wide receiver to be No. 3 on the depth chart?; 3)Is Bill Belichick pleased with Wilhite and Wheatley or are they considered a disappointment?
Paul, Kenosha, Wisc.
A: Paul, these would be my answers: 1) Bodden; 2) I wouldn't rule it out, but I think their preference would be to have a youthful presence at the No. 3 receiver spot; 3) I think Belichick is pleased with Wilhite and Wheatley, although I still expect more players to be brought in at cornerback.
Mike, as an aspiring coach, I feel that the greatest loss this offseason is definitely that of long snapper Lonie Paxton. One of the best in the business. I have watched every Pats game over the past 3-plus seasons and never seen him have a bad snap. How are we going to fill that void?
Edvin, Willimantic, Conn.
A: Right now, it's wide open. We'll keep an eye on Mike Leach, the Broncos' long snapper. He worked with new Patriots special teams coach Scott O'Brien in Denver, so he could be a possibility. Or it could be a rookie.
(Editor's note: This is likely Mike's last mailbag for a few weeks, as he has a pre-planned vacation that will extend through a good stretch of March. The plan will be to update this space when plans are solidified for the printing of the next mailbag.)