Nothing more fun than a game of tag

Questions about what the Patriots might do with the recently tagged Matt Cassel dominate this week's mailbag

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / February 10, 2009
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Since last week's mailbag, the Patriots have assigned the franchise tag to quarterback Matt Cassel, and Cassel has announced his intentions to accept the tag.

What does it all mean?

That's where this week's mailbag starts.

While there are plenty of Cassel-related questions -- it's the topic dominating the team's offseason -- e-mailers have more than just that in mind. Needs in free agency and the draft are also discussed.

Let's get right to the questions . . .

Mike, you're probably sick of these questions, but . . . now that Cassel has accepted the franchise offer, does that mean that any team that wants to trade for him has to give up two first-rounders? If this is true, then I think the chances of Matt being traded are slim and none. At the same time, I can't believe the Pats are going to spend $29 million on two QBs, especially with the free agents they will have after next season. Do you think the possibility of an uncapped year in 2010 may have something to do with it?
Paul, Fairfield, Maine

Paul, I'm not sick of the questions at all. This Cassel story is compelling to me on many levels. Let's rewind on where things stand, as I understand it: The Patriots notified Cassel of their intentions to place the franchise tag on him. In turn, Cassel notified the team, the NFL and the NFL Players Association of his plans to accept the tag. The next step is for the Patriots to formally issue Cassel the one-year tender contract, and Cassel to put his signature on it, thus officially guaranteeing the $14.65 million. As for what this means in a potential trade, the Patriots can accept any compensation -- it does not have to be two first-round draft choices. So I don't think last week's developments change much at all when it comes to potential trades. As for the Patriots spending $29.2 million of their cap on two players at the same position, I agree with you. I'd be surprised if they go through the season like that. It runs counter to everything we've heard from them over the last nine years, about having a strong middle class on the roster, and spreading the wealth to more players. While the uncapped year might be a consideration, I don't think that is the overriding thought in this instance. More than anything, I believe the Patriots feel that they have an asset and they'll see what they can get for it. I see it as a bit of a roll of the dice because if it backfires, it could potentially handcuff other moves. It's part of what makes it so interesting to me.

Mike, the way in which New England and Cassel are moving quite quickly with the franchise tag and then Cassel accepting the tag, do you feel that all signs are pointing toward a sign-and-trade come the start of free agency? Or is there more of a distinct possibility that New England and Co. are moving this quick so that they could possibly sign Cassel to a multi-year deal and lessen the blow on the salary cap for '09, therefore allowing New England to be a little more active in free agency this year than we all expected? What is your perspective of what has happened already?
Brandon, Warwick, RI

I don't see Cassel signing an extension in New England, Brandon. I think he wants to be in a long-term situation where he can start/play, and unless Tom Brady takes a step back in his rehab, it's not going to happen here in a long-term set-up. My perspective of what has happened already is that it's the expected course of action, and little has changed in the big picture. What interests me most is what type of market will generate for Cassel, and it's a bit early to see where that might head.

Let's say the Patriots decide they will trade Cassel. From now until the beginning of the season, when would the market for a QB be best as far as trade value in what the Patriots could get in return?
Liam, Carlisle

Liam, I would think that the best market would be at the start of free agency (Feb. 27) or right after the draft (April 25-26) with teams that wanted a quarterback but couldn't get one.

Mike, this might be more of a Bill Simmons question but I think you'll have more fun with it. You're Cassel's agent. Please give us your take on your client in a potential trade scenario with what we know to be the case today AND give us your take on your client in free agency today had Brady played the entire season (inserting any scenario for how this season would have played out). Thank you.

Good one, Sonny. Here is my pitch, Cliffs-Notes style:

Cassel in a trade: "Matt is really looking forward to the trip. If you haven't had the chance to talk to him before, I think you'll really enjoy it. He's a genuine guy. It wasn't long ago that he was attending Sharon (Mass.) High football games on Friday nights, just because he loves football, whether it was the NFL or the Hockomock League. I think this year proved what we've always believed -- that given the chance, Matt could really shine. He can lead a team."

Cassel as a free agent if Brady wasn't hurt: "This is going to take some imagination, but I think it is a classic case of low-risk, high-reward here. I know the tape didn't look good from the preseason, but Matt has really come a long way in his four years. I think having the chance to work with Tom Brady has helped him considerably. I think if you have a chance to talk to him, you'll appreciate his approach. We're only looking for a one-year type of deal and a place where Matt has an opportunity to compete."

Hey Mike, if Cassel is traded before the draft, it seems most likely that he'll either fetch a first- or second-round pick. Parting with a first-rounder might not be palatable for some teams, but do you think the Patriots will find a second-rounder to be too little compensation for Cassel? Rather than asking a team to give up its first-rounder, would swapping first-round picks plus a second- or third-round pick for Cassel be a feasible trade? If it's a team picking 10-15 (49ers or Redskins seem to need QB upgrades), it could be beneficial for both sides. The Pats can get another high-quality rookie without breaking the bank on him, they no longer have two QBs tying up $29 million in cap space and they have an additional pick to play with. The other team gets a potential franchise QB plus while still getting a mid-level first rounder. Your thoughts?
Farhan, New York City

I appreciate the creativity, Farhan, and believe your scenario is certainly worthy of consideration. We saw this happen when the Falcons traded quarterback Matt Schaub to the Texans two years ago. The Texans shipped two second-round draft choices, and also swapped from the No. 8 pick to No. 10 in the first round to acquire Schaub. In the case of Cassel, my feeling is that it would depend where that second-round pick was located from the interested team. For example, the Chiefs' second-round pick is almost like a first-rounder. If they offered that, I think the Patriots would take it. But if a team like the Buccaneers was the trade partner -- they pick in the middle of the second round -- your scenario fits better. All of this assumes that the interested team is willing to give up these pieces, which we're still not certain is the case.

Reading last week's mailbag, I'm a little shocked you would low-ball the Pats with an offer of only a conditional second-round pick for Cassel. Consider the following: 1) Deion Branch -- traded to Seattle for a first-round pick; 2) Matt Schaub -- traded to Houston for a swap of first-round picks (Atlanta moved up from 10 to 8), two second-round picks and a seventh-round pick; 3) Roy Williams -- traded to Dallas for a first-, third-, sixth- and seventh-round pick. I understand your point about leverage, but I think interest from several teams will largely negate this as a factor working against the Pats. So, I'm personally thinking the Pats will get a minimum of a first- and third-round pick based on his performance this season and recent trade history in the league. Your thoughts?
Rick, Attleboro

I can't argue with anything you presented, Rick, and in the end you may be correct. It only takes one team to take the plunge. Until we see some type of break in the possible market for Cassel, I'm going to stick with my original thought, which was made when factoring in economics (the team acquiring Cassel would have to pay him and give up the draft pick), the uncertain labor forecast in the NFL, other options on the quarterback market (draft, free agency), the actual number of teams interested (we're not even sure it will be as many as some project), the impact of the Patriots' offensive system and that a league-leading 55 percent of the team's passing offense came after the catch, and the Patriots' current salary cap situation ($29.2 million tied up with two quarterbacks). I don't want to take anything away from Cassel, who I believe deserves everything coming to him. I still think a conditional second-round draft choice is a great coup for the Patriots, considering that Cassel was a seventh-round draft pick in 2005. A lot of teams would like to take a seventh-round pick, groom him over four years, have him lead a team to an 11-5 season, and then turn it into a conditional second-round pick.

Mike, I wanted to discuss the Matt Cassel situation and a different approach that not a lot of people are talking about. Since the idea of trading Cassel hinges on Brady's health, why is the draft a deadline to make a decision? By keeping Cassel past the draft, that gives the Patriots a couple more months to make an assessment on Brady and still time to trade him before training camp starts. If they took this route they would have a better idea of Brady's prognosis and still have the ability to trade Cassel. Finally, trading Cassel for 2010 draft picks this summer will no doubt yield better returns than trading in the coming months for the 2009 draft and Belichick always has the long-term in mind. Their 2009 draft is stocked with picks already, why not set yourself up for the 2010 draft and take more time to make, potentially, the most important decision by the franchise for the foreseeable future?

I think the risk in this approach, Rick, is that some interested teams might have moved on to another option by the draft. They could have picked another quarterback in the draft, or signed one in free agency. So by waiting, the Patriots could potentially shrink the market for their asset. If the Patriots could be guaranteed that there would be a market for Cassel, I could see them taking this course of action.

Hi Mike, after the 4 preseason games last season, Matt Cassel was so close to being cut. And let's be honest, his preseason performance was a disaster. Now after 16 games, he is one of the best quarterbacks in the league and is close to signing a multi-million-dollar contract. While what happened in just 5-6 months is amazing, does playing with the first unit make that much of a difference vs. playing the backups? I know you have to give credit to Cassel himself for the improvement, but if teams are trying to make a trade for him, they can easily look at the preseason films and say he isn't as good when he isn't surrounded by good players. That could lower the bargaining power and lower the draft pick the Pats could receive. Your thoughts?
Jeffrey, Hong Kong

Jeffrey, you've captured part of what makes this story so interesting to many -- Cassel's unexpected rise. It wasn't just the preseason. Remember after the fifth game of the regular season -- a 30-10 loss to the Chargers? I went back to the transcript of Bill Belichick's conference call a few days after that game, and here was part of the Q&A:

Q: Are you still confident that Matt Cassel can lead this team going forward?

BB: Yes.

Q: Just to follow up on that, if someone were to say let's give Kevin O'Connell a chance, there is no thought in your mind about it?

BB: Matt is our starting quarterback. He gives our team the best chance to win. We all have to play better and coach better than we did last week. We have to do a better job than we did against San Diego. But he's our quarterback.

As for the point of playing with the backups vs. the starters, I see what you are saying. But more than anything, I think Cassel's progression over the entire season trumps anything from the preseason. Given what unfolded since the preseason, I think most football evaluators will look at the preseason performance and put it into context by saying "the team was still coming together, it was early, and Cassel was getting his feet under himself." I don't see the preseason being a major factor when teams assess Cassel.

Hi Mike, just wondering why the Pats let the Cassel situation get to this point. Sure, prior to last year, no one knew Brady would go down, and Cassel stepped into the spotlight, but why did they not try to re-sign him prior to the final year of his contract? Had Brady been healthy this year, Cassel would have been a backup all year long and the Pats would have let him walk at the end of the year. My question is why? Isn't Matt Cassel with 4 years in the Pats system and 4 years of knowing the playbook still a better option for the Pats than Kevin O'Connell with 1 year of experience? I just hope they learned from this experience and do not make the same mistake with O'Connell when his contract is up.
Nick, Montreal, Quebec

Nick, I think the answer is that the Patriots didn't fully know that Cassel would explode like this. If they did, they would have re-signed him prior to the 2008 season. They probably wouldn't have drafted O'Connell either. It's a reflection of how challenging the personnel evaluation business can be. I can't blame the Patriots, especially when I was one of the pundits questioning whether Cassel would even make the team coming out of training camp.

Since Scott Pioli has the inside info on Matt Cassel, is Kansas City a real option for a trade in the event Brady is ready to start?

Ed, I think the Kansas City situation is an interesting one because of Pioli's presence. The Chiefs had Tyler Thigpen start 11 games last season and he showed some promise, although there remains some question as to whether he can consistently be accurate enough (54.8 completion percentage in 2008). I am not sure what Pioli is thinking regarding Cassel, but if I had to put together a list of possible teams that might be interested based on current need, the Chiefs would be on there.

Was there an attempt at negotiations on a long-term contract with Cassel before the tag? Obviously due a significant raise, I do not see him as one of the top five quarterbacks in football based on one year. Long-term, who knows? If no negotiations took place does this signify that the Pats are only looking to obtain trade value? Nothing wrong with that, just curious what can be read into their actions.

Based on what Cassel said at the Super Bowl, David, there were no negotiations. Cassel had indicated that his representatives had no talks with the team. Does that mean the Patriots are only looking to obtain trade value? I'm not sure we can say that. It is possible they view Cassel as a sound $14.6 million insurance policy on Tom Brady.

Mike, why is everyone talking about trading the now-franchised Cassel for a draft pick? What about trading for a proven veteran, especially someone on defense? One possible example: if the Panthers franchise Julius Peppers, then do a 1-for-1 trade (and each team could re-sign each to a long-term deal); Carolina does/will need a replacement for Delhomme; and we need help on D. Plus, Peppers, I believe, has stated that he prefers playing in a 3-4. This is but one example. There are probably a number of veterans that we could get for Cassel.

That thought has been discussed here in past mailbags, Ajay, with names like Ernie Sims (linebacker, Lions), Chad Greenway (linebacker, Vikings) and Brandon Flowers (cornerback, Chiefs) mentioned. The reason why I'd rate a draft pick as more likely is the economic aspect of it -- those players are under contract longer and generally come cheaper (unless it's a top 10 pick, which I feel is highly unlikely for the Patriots to acquire). A player like Peppers, for example, would require a major financial commitment.

What do you think of a deal with Chicago? Send Cassel and maybe something else for Brian Urlacher?
Chris, Waitsfield, Vt.

Chris, I would make that trade tomorrow if my first name was changed to Floyd and the spelling of my last name was altered to Reese. I just don't think Chicago would make that deal, even though Urlacher is entering his 10th season and is 30 years old.

Hey Mike, after the Patriots blew the 2006 AFC championship due to a depleted and tired defense, they went out and signed Adalius Thomas to a very big contract and the consensus was that the Patriots would spend big if they were truly in need of a player. That being said, other than the economy, why would the Patriots not be interested in Nnamdi Asomugha, Peppers, or another defensive player of that caliber this year? It seems that to win the Super Bowl again that they will need a big-time player to help out their defense during this changing of the guard from the Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel core to Jerod Mayo, Terrence Wheatley, etc. Your thoughts?
Heath, Providence, RI

While I think the Patriots would be interested, Heath, I don't think fitting those players in the salary cap is feasible. The Patriots currently have $29.2 million of their cap tied up in two players who play the same position -- Tom Brady and Matt Cassel. That leaves about 75 percent of the financial pie to spread to everyone else, which isn't the type of situation that I think promotes signing a big-time free-agent. I believe it would leave the rest of the roster vulnerable. My other thought is that before the Patriots go after someone like Asomugha or Peppers, I think they should address nose tackle Vince Wilfork's situation. He's entering the final year of his contract and I think he has outperformed his deal and is worthy of an extension.

What's Logan Mankins's contract status? I view him in the same light as Wilfork, a must to re-sign. Also, any news on Brady's rehab?
Andrew, Florida

Andrew, Mankins's contract expires after the 2009 season. His situation will be interesting to watch unfold, because top guards are paid an average of about $7 million-$8 million per season and I wonder if the Patriots will be willing to go there for that position. On Brady, I haven't heard anything, other than seeing the pictures of him on the golf course in California. It seems to me that if Brady is on the golf course, that's a good sign.

Hey Mike, what do you think the odds are that the Pats make a run at free agent LB Channing Crowder? I like this guy a lot. He is young and productive. Knows how to play the 3-4 and would be a good combo with Mayo. It doesn't look like the Dolphins are going to re-sign him. What do you think?
Mike, Pflugerville, Texas

Mike, I know there are some members of the Patriots' coaching staff who think very highly of Crowder, with one coach giving Crowder his 2008 Pro Bowl vote at the position. I'm not sure that means they'll go after him, though. Cost would be a consideration. Also, when Crowder was coming out of Florida, some teams had concerns with a knee issue. So the question has to be asked: "Has he proven, with four pretty durable NFL years, that the medical concerns are in the past?" Overall, because my hunch is that the Patriots won't be overly aggressive in free agency until the Cassel situation is resolved one way or the other, I'd put the percentage quite low that they would land Crowder.

Hi Mike, I was curious as to who, if anyone, you think the Pats may go after. Me personally, I do not expect a big free-agent splash such as the year they reeled in Adalius Thomas. I would love to see them sign cornerback Dunta Robinson from the Texans but I know that is highly unlikely. There are a lot of quality free agents that could help this team get back to the Super Bowl. I just have that feeling this year will be like 2001, when they brought in cheap veterans. What are your thoughts?

I concur, Matt. I don't see a major free-agent splash and from reading up on some Texans stories, it seems that Robinson is hoping to stay in Houston. In terms of players the Patriots might target in free agency, I think a good place to start is in the division, because the Patriots have a good familiarity with those players from seeing them twice a year, and that often leads to them signing them (e.g. Larry Izzo in 2001, Wes Welker in 2007, Sam Aiken in 2008). With that in mind, and assuming that the market won't be too rich, I'd speculate that players like cornerback Jabari Greer (Bills), defensive lineman C.J. Mosley (Jets) and cornerback Andre Goodman (Dolphins) might catch their eye.

I know we have problems at safety, middle linebacker, and cornerback. But if the team goes with other positions in the draft, what and who could that be? Also, can you give me your mock draft for our first-round pick?

Nikko, I'd put defensive line and tight end as the next positions on the list. My feeling remains that the Patriots will focus mostly on defense, defense, defense in this draft. In terms of my mock draft, I am still kicking myself for having Jerod Mayo going 29th last year. I did have a few hits, but my performance was not good enough. I'm in the mock draft offseason program this year, looking for improvement. I haven't put together a mock draft at this time, and plenty can change between now and the draft, but I'll throw two names out there to play along -- Louisiana State defensive end Tyson Jackson and Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew.

Mike, do you think the Pats should address the CB position with a first-round pick (assuming the Cassel situation doesn't yield another first-rounder)? With Ellis Hobbs relatively entrenched on one side and Wheatley/Jonathan Wilhite potentially on the other, it seems like the Pats have a good starting combo. With the addition of another veteran (not Deltha O'Neal) in the mix via free agency, it seems like the team can field a more competitive group than last year.

If a top cornerback is there and that player represents the best pick at that spot, I'd say they should go for it, Sean. Hobbs enters the final year of his contract in 2009 and while Wheatley and Wilhite show promise, teams basically need three cornerbacks with the way offenses are spreading the field in the NFL. So that third cornerback is almost like a starter anyway, and in this case, it would give the Patriots a building block for the future.

Hi Mike, there must be so many variables with special teams rankings, you would think that special teams coaching is number one. Yet our new special teams coach is ranked second-to-last in Rick Gosselin's annual ratings in the Dallas Morning News. Do you think that Mike Shanahan wouldn't allow some veteran players on the special teams squad, or is there more to it than that? Can you shed some light on why Bill Belichick would want a coach that was ranked last in special teams?

My first thought, Jillian, is that it always comes back to the players. Good players can make most coaches look smart. With that in mind, I do think the importance of coaching -- and putting those players in the position to be successful -- should not be overlooked. So it's a balance. In terms of the Dallas Morning News special teams rankings, I'm a big fan of Rick Gosselin's work. In this case, I do think it's important to keep the rankings in context. For example, it was pointed out to me that seven of the top 10 special teams units didn't make the playoffs. Also, while the Buffalo Bills were ranked No. 1, I saw the Patriots' special teams units outperform them in the season finale. I also saw the Bills' punt unit call an unnecessary, costly timeout at the end of the first half in the first meeting between the teams Nov. 9, which cost the Bills a chance to play situational football and allowed the Patriots to kneel on the ball and run out the clock. I don't believe that was reflected in the rankings. So, in the end, my feeling is let's give Scott O'Brien a chance to prove himself in New England and not label him the 31st best special teams coach.

The Pats have to be looking to improve at punter in 2009, and Pro Bowler Shane Lechler doesn't look to be the one who will be tagged by the Raiders, with Asomugha also facing free agency. Would he be a cost-effective free-agent signing by Bill and Co.?
Pete, London, England

I know that it's a bad analysis to focus on one performance, Pete, but I wasn't impressed with Lechler in the game I saw him against the Patriots in 2008. There were poor conditions and his mis-hit punt in the first quarter ultimately cost the Raiders some points. He's obviously a good punter, but that day makes me wonder how he'd do consistently in adverse conditions like New England. I'd call it a longshot that the Patriots would pursue him.

Hi Mike, I was thinking, if the Patriots weren't stripped of their original first-round draft pick (No. 31) last year, who would they have selected? And do you think they could have helped enough to get them into the playoffs?
Ben, Australia

This is a tough one to answer, Ben, but my opinion is that Miami safety Kenny Phillips, Clemson defensive end Philip Merling and Virginia Tech cornerback Brandon Flowers would be three top names. All three of those players went in that general range and seem to fit the Patriots' style of play. Would those players have helped them qualify for the playoffs? I'd say no, but I don't feel too strongly about that one.

With all the previous Patriots coaches and personnel (Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, Scott Pioli) spreading out around the NFL, is this a disadvantage to the Patriots, since these guys also take with them the knowledge of how the Patriots draft, write up contracts, design plays, etc., and can potentially pose a more competitive challenge due to their ability to counter the Patriots activities on and off the field? Or is it an advantage, because many of the guys, especially the younger ones, cut their teeth and basically learned all they know from Belichick, who knows exactly how these guys think and operate since he hired them into their positions when they were with the Patriots?
Mike, Westborough

I'd say it's a disadvantage for the Patriots, Mike. I'd use a player like Larry Izzo as an example. Now that Brad Seely is coaching special teams in Cleveland, he might place a higher value on someone like Izzo, thus creating a bidding type of situation between the Browns and Patriots. That hurts the Patriots, because they might have to extend themselves more than they desire. Another situation is the draft. The Patriots have a certain type of player they look for, but with more of their personnel spread around the league, they now have more competition for those same type of players.

Mike, I really admire the job that Heath Evans does for the Pats. He is a crushing blocker and on the rare times that he is thrown the ball or asked to run he always seems to produce. The Pats also look for versatility and Evans does a nice job of special teams. I also recall Laurence Maroney referring to Evans as a positive influence in the locker room. I believe he becomes a free agent. Do you think he'll return to the Pats?
Dave, Berlin, NH

I do think Evans will return to the Patriots, Dave, although Evans could fall into the category of player who generates more interest on the open market because of the presence of Patriots coaches/executives moving on to other teams (Josh McDaniels in Denver, Scott Pioli in Denver, Brad Seely in Cleveland). I think winning NFL teams need players like Heath Evans. I felt that he was one of the team's best bargains the last two seasons.

Hi Mike, I was just going through the transactions on It lists some players as "cut" or "re-signed". There was another listing of "Taken off IR [injured reserve]". Tom Brady, Bo Ruud and Kenny Smith had this designation for the Pats. What are the roster implications of this? I have never seen it before.

Dave, the "taken off IR" designation is more procedural than anything. It just moves a player from a reserve list to the active list. From what I understand, it's something the league does, not the individual teams. Monday marked the first day that teams could release players in the 2009 league year, and I think that's why you saw some of the shifting of designations on the transactions wire.

What is the Patriots' policy on retiring numbers? I know the Red Sox only retire a number if the player makes it to Cooperstown -- are the Pats as strict? I don't remember anyone wearing No. 80 last year, which is as it should be. I know that Mr. Brown will never be in Canton, but it doesn't seem right for anyone else in New England to wear that number again. The same goes for No. 54 (once Tedy Bruschi retires) and No. 55 -- I know Messrs. Bruschi and McGinest won't be considered Hall-worthy anywhere outside of New England, but if you lead a team to three Lombardis, your number should be safe. What are your thoughts, and what do you think the Pats will do?
Thomas, Atlanta

Thomas, this is something that Patriots officials have already considered for the future, because there are quite a few numbers from this era that would warrant being retired based on the current standards. The problem is that there are only so many jersey numbers and football requires a lot of players on the roster. What the NFL generally promotes is that players are represented in a Ring of Honor around the stadium, but that the number -- in most cases -- can still be worn by current players. I'd endorse that course of action, except in those rare instances where a number unquestionably deserves to never be worn again.

Mike, I know this is supposed to be a question but can you send a big thank you and we will miss you out to Mike Lynch in the mailbag? I still can't believe he is not going to be the host of "Patriots All Access". I can't think of anyone else that could be as fair and as knowledgeable and as comfortable with Bill Belichick and the guys. I am not sure I am even going to watch it without him to be honest. Any idea why Robert Kraft moved it?
Cynthia, Canton

I know Mike Lynch will appreciate your thoughts, Cynthia. I always admired the job he did on that show, and his approach. I, too, was disappointed to see the show moved. As for the decision, this is my opinion and it's not based on speaking with anyone with the Patriots: It's about partnering with CBS. The Patriots have that CBS Scene restaurant at Patriot Place and CBS is the national rights-holder for the AFC package.

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