Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cassel More of a Reach Than a Solution for Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings enter the 2008-2009 off-season with the team's most pressing issue from one year ago still unresolved. After another season of mediocre to poor play out of the quarterback position, the Vikings find themselves yet again in the market for a starting quarterback.

The Vikings face two primary questions regarding their quarterback situation for 2009. The first is whether they will attempt to add an experienced, quality quarterback in free agency. The second is what to do with the quarterbacks currently on the team's roster. The answer to the first question is almost certainly in the affirmative. The answer to the latter remains unclear.

Who will start for the Vikings at the outset of the 2009 season thus appears destined to be determined by how the Vikings approach free agency. With numerous quarterbacks available in some fashion and ample cap space, the Vikings would seem to be in good position to land a capable starter this off-season. But most of the "available" quarterbacks either come with far too many strings attached or at too great of a price to make them reasonable considerations, even for a team arguably only a quarterback away from contending for a championship.

Among the quarterbacks that the Vikings would have an interest in are Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals, the as-yet-not-retired Brett Favre, who remains the property of the salary cap-addled New York Jets, and New England Patriots' backup Matt Cassel.

Despite protestations to the contrary, Warner probably would be happy to leave the warm climes of Arizona for a year or two in the frigid North, for the right price. After a near-MVP season, however, that right price could be prohibitive even for the cash flush Vikings. With nearly twice the cap space and an as-yet unproven backup quarterback, the Cardinals likely would prefer to keep Warner in the fold for at least one more season and probably will pay whatever it takes to do so.

If Warner is being honest about his desire to remain in Arizona, he might settle for less than the market otherwise would bear--and he might still command a signing bonus near $15 million, plus $8 million per season. Even that discounted level, a price likely south of what Warner would ask from Minnesota, would be too rich for a Minnesota team that needs to add a receiver, offensive lineman, and cornerback this off-season, in addition to re-signing Jim Kleinsasser and Matt Birk, and Heath Farwell.

From a cost perspective, Favre likely is thus a more appealing free-agent target for the Vikings, with two resounding caveats. The first is that Favre is not a free agent. The second is that he still would command significant money to play in Minnesota. Both issues are obstacles, but not insurmountable.

Favre currently resides on the Jets' retired list, but has yet to file for retirement with the league. That's a game that the former Packer's quarterback parlayed into a trade to the Jets last off-season and one that he might again use to leverage a trade to Minnesota this off-season.

With the Jets somehow facing serious cap issues, they can ill-afford a decision by Favre to return to the field to fulfill his two-year agreement with the green and white. Were Favre to opt to return, the Jets would be compelled to trade him and to trade him on the cheap just to remain below the league salary cap. The likely asking price would be a fifth- or sixth-round draft pick.

Getting Favre would be less costly to the Vikings than agreeing to terms. Realizing his significance to the Vikings, Favre would be in position to drive up his contract terms. Despite what is likely a strong desire to be the final piece to a career finishing championship run, Favre presumably still would request near or full market value for his services. That's likely to be $10 million in signing bonus and $6 million per season.

Even if Favre decides to return to the NFL for another season, and the Jets opt to deal their quarterback, there is a question about Favre's health. As his primary reason for "retiring" this year, Favre noted his ailing shoulder and sundry other nagging injuries. The bad shoulder clearly affected Favre's late-season performance in 2008.

Regardless of Favre's mood, if his shoulder does not operate any better than it did at the end of last season, the Vikings ought to pass on him. If the shoulder is in order, however, the Vikings could do, and have done, far worse at the quarterback position than an aging Favre.

After Warner and Favre, the most prominent free agent quarterback is non-free agent Matt Cassel. With purported concerns about Tom Brady's recovery progress, the Patriots slapped their franchise tag on the giddy Cassel. The move cost the Patriots $14.6 million for a player who, before 2008, had not started a sanctioned football game in seven years, and allotted over 20% of the Patriots' salary cap in 2009 to the quarterback position.

While it is possible that Brady's recovery might linger into the 2009 season, Brady is on record stating that his recovery is progressing fine. That comment likely irked Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick who has been working hard to parlay Cassel's strong 2008 into a trade coup for the team. So far, the effort appears to be flagging, though numerous Vikings' reporters insist that the Vikings have an interest in Cassel.

The interest in Cassel is spurred by the recognition that, despite not having started a sanctioned football game in seven years, Cassel to throw for 3,700 yards and 21 touchdowns at the highest level of competition. That, despite having virtually no running game of which to speak. Even in light of the second-year drop-off Cleveland Browns' quarterback Derek Anderson, that's fairly impressive.

What causes pause about Cassel, however, is that he attained his impressive statistics by throwing to one of the top deep threats in the game, Randy Moss, and to one of the speediest receivers in the game, Wes Welker. And despite the otherwise gaudy numbers, Cassel still only managed to put up a quarterback rating of 89.4, good for tenth in the league.

With Gus Frerotte finishing with a 73 quarterback rating and Tarvaris Jackson ending the season with a 45 rating against the Eagles, Cassel might be an upgrade over the Vikings' current options. And he might not be.

Despite the dismal quarterback ratings, Frerotte and Jackson finished the season with 12 and 9 touchdown passes, respectively, despite playing in the most conservative offense in the modern NFL era. For the season, that's one more touchdown pass than Cassel managed with far superior targets in a pass-happy system.

There is also the issue of elusiveness, or lack thereof, for Cassel. In 2008, playing behind a suspect offensive line, Frerotte and Jackson took a combined 44 sacks. Behind a superior offensive line, Cassel took 47 sacks. Imagine the carnage standing in the pocket behind Ryan Cook, Bryant McKinnie, and, should worse come to worse, Matt Birk's replacement--it could be epic.

If doubts about Cassel's limited track record cause pause, so too should the fact that the Patriots are hard-selling the interest in Cassel despite only recently arguing that they franchised Cassel not to trade him but as necessary insurance against Brady's slow recovery. To plant the rumor that the Chiefs are interested in trading for Cassel--reportedly with an asking price of at least two first round picks and/or a starting running back--shows the level of the Patriots' desperation to unload a player that they franchised for the clear solitary purpose of trading.

The planted Kansas City rumor is particularly disingenuous given how closely the Vikings have monitored the Kansas City quarterback situation in light of their own blunder that allowed Tyler Thigpen to escape to the Chiefs. In 2008, Thigpen passed for 18 touchdowns and nearly 2,700 yards despite starting only 12 games and playing for a head coach who, as an offensive schemer, made Brad Childress look brilliant.

Given the current asking price, the unlikelihood that Cassel would consent to a pay cut upon being traded, and Cassel's limited track record, as good as he looked at times in 2008, Cassel seems like at least as much of a risk for the Vikings going forward as does relying on Jackson to improve. There are better, more reasonable options.

Up Next: The Remaining Options. Plus, what to do with Booty, Frerotte, and Jackson.

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