Friday, January 09, 2009

Patriots' Bind Makes Cassel Appealing Target for Vikings

Since the Minnesota Vikings lost at home in the first round of the playoffs to the Philadelphia Eagles, much speculation has centered on the Vikings' plans for starting quarterback next season. That necessary evil, the consequence of an abysmal performance by Tarvaris Jackson when it most mattered, appears to have put the Vikings on the trail of New England Patriots' starter Matt Cassel.

In their closing statements on the 2008 season, Vikings' head coach, Brad Childress, and Player Personnel Chief, Rick Spielman, echoed each other's sentiments on the Vikings' quarterback outlook for 2009, with both stating that the team would "leave no consideration unturned." That comment followed, for each, the statement that the Vikings would be looking at free agency and the draft to see what is available and how what is available will fit with what they have.

The implication was that the Vikings would consider the only other option not mentioned for addressing their quarterback needs--a trade. There is no question but that the Vikings remain interested in trading for Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb, who played for Childress while Childress managed the offense in Philly.

McNabb likely is going nowhere, however, absent an overwhelming/absurd trade offer. That leaves two other starting quarterbacks who have drawn the Vikings' interest. One is Derek Anderson of the Cleveland Browns, the other is Matt Cassel of the New England Patriots; Cassel's inclusion in trade discussions is explained below.

Anderson showed some promise in his Cinderella season in 2007. In 2008, he came back to Earth, showing why poor reads and a weak arm are the demise of NFL quarterbacks. Cleveland has announced that it is "willing to trade" Anderson. The hunch here is that they will be equally "willing to cut" Anderson when nobody bites on trade requests.

New England is playing a similar game with Cassel, though arguably with far more chips with which to play. Playing in New England's favor is the fact that Cassel had a great season despite having no running game and no experience playing at either the collegiate or NFL level. On the season, Cassel threw 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, but the statistics looked even better as the season progressed.

Operating against New England is reality. Cassel's numbers look good on one level, more pedestrian on another, and awful on a third. The touchdown numbers are good, the interception numbers are average, and the sack numbers, 47, are horrible. Having no running game logically means taking more sacks, but 47 is still high.

Then there is the fact that New England has no choice but to move Cassel now or lose him for nothing. And the whole issue is going to be one gigantic gamble for the Patriots.

The Patriots began their ploy to maximize their return on Cassel late in the season when the team let slip (read: planted in the media for consumption) that Tom Brady might not be ready to return in 2009. That revelation was a complete 180 both on what the team had stated earlier and what those near Brady have said publicly for months.

Adding to the team's attempted subterfuge regarding Brady's readiness for 2009 was the Patriot's contention last week that they plan to franchise Cassel.

Franchising Cassel would require the Patriots to commit over $14 million to their cap in 2009--in addition to the nearly $15 million that Brady will cost the team next year. That's more than 20% of the team's salary cap and clearly absurd, unless the Patriots then plan to trade Cassel.

The real question for the Patriots, however, is why they would risk franchising Cassel and being stuck with his franchise salary in 2009 should the Patriots be unable to move him? The better option would be to slap the transition tag on Cassel, thereby accruing a lower salary-cap burden. And, of course, the best option would be to sign and trade Cassel, though that seems an unlikely option given Cassel's probable high assessment of his own value.

Clearly, the Patriots either must trade Cassel or let him go through free agency. That means he has limited trade value compared to what he would have were the Patriots in a seller's market. And that makes Cassel an affordable trade target, particularly if the Patriots slap the franchise tag on him.

Which brings the issue back to the Vikings. Knowing that the Patriots are in a bind, and knowing that Cassel's trade value is far lower than was, for example, the trade value for Jared Allen in 2008, the Vikings have the luxury of sitting back and waiting for the free-agency period to play out enough to suggest what other offers the Patriots receive for Cassel. Much, of course, will be determined by whether the Patriots apply the franchise tag to Cassel. If they do not, Cassel will be an unrestricted free agent and a much clearer target for the Vikings.

Up Next: The NFL's Court Battle Versus the Williams'. Plus, Other Free Agent Targets.

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