Saturday, March 21, 2009

Reflecting on the Matt Cassel Trade

There was great consternation about the Matt Cassel trade, especially in the popular media. Some criticized Bill Belichick for failing to get more for Cassel, even suggesting he made the trade as a favor to long-time associate Scott Pioli and that the NFL should investigate that possibility.

As often happens, I did not agree with those popular sentiments then, and as the last few weeks have played out, I believe even more strongly that the Patriots made the right decision to pull the trigger on the trade.

Before the trade, the Patriots had very little salary cap room, meaning they could not sign free agents or re-sign their own players to long-term deals. Some estimates put the number at less than $1 million. After the trade, they had an extra $17 million to spend, and spend it they have.

The Patriots re-signed seven of their own players since free agency opened less than a month ago. There were no superstars among them, but Mike Wright, James Sanders, Chris Hanson, Russ Hochstein, and Wesley Britt were all solid contributors last year. And the Patriots might have lost them all if they'd waited to trade Cassel.

Also since the 2009 free agency season began the Pats inked eight free agents who were with other teams last year. On offense, Fred Taylor gives them depth and experience at running back, and Joey Galloway gives them a better third receiver to take pressure off of Randy Moss and Wes Welker. On defense, Tully Banta-Cain will provide better linebacker play than the backups last year -- and has an outside shot at starting -- and Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden are sure to be an improvement over the 2008 secondary.

If you want to consider what might have happened if the Patriots waited for a better offer for Matt Cassel, look no further than the Carolina Panthers. They placed the Franchise tag on defensive end Julius Peppers, putting themselves in the same situation the Patriots were in -- little or no room under the salary cap. However, they have not been able to trade Peppers (as they obviously planned to do), leaving them completely out of the market for new free agents.

In fact, I just checked the Free Agency tracker at (link), and the Panthers haven't signed any free agents from other teams. Not a single one. They just don't have the salary cap room, so they are effectively out of the free agent market. Which means that when they eventually trade Peppers, the Panthers will have missed most of free agency, and many (if not all) of the good players will have signed with other teams.

The Carolina cautionary tale brings to light another positive aspect of the Matt Cassel trade. I think the Patriots made certain promises to Cassel in order to get him to sign his offer sheet, because they could not trade him or even talk with other teams about trading him unless he signed it. Maybe they promised they would trade him quickly. Perhaps they promised not to trade him to a perennial doormat (e.g. Detroit), or said they would trade him to a place where he would start right away.

Whatever promises they made to Cassel, he had nothing but great things to say about the Patriots organization on his way out the door. And the Patriots organization had nothing but great things to say about Cassel as he moved on to Kansas City. The transition went smoothly, and everyone came out a winner. So in the future when players consider whether or not to sign with the Patriots, they will have the example of how well Matt Cassel was treated in the back of their minds.

Contrast that with the Carolina Panthers again. Peppers has not signed his Franchise tender, meaning the Panthers can't trade him or even talk with other teams about a trade. And trust me, the Panthers would love to trade him. Not only would it free up lots of room under the salary cap, but Peppers has been publicly trashing the organization, and is demanding a trade, a new long-term contract, *and* a conversion to linebacker, those demands making him less attractive to other teams.

Trust me, if the Panthers had one wish it would be to get Peppers out of town and fast. But Peppers has them over a barrel and there's nothing they can do about it. So again, when free agent players are considering which team to sign with, they've got the Patriots and how they dealt with Matt Cassel on the one extreme and the Panthers and how they dealt with Julius Peppers on the other. And anything that makes them think twice about signing with your team is bad. So the Patriots look like a vastly superior option to the Panthers.

In fact, in the player-relations battle, the inclusion of Mike Vrabel in the Matt Cassel trade works in the Patriots favor, too. They could have cut him to reduce his salary cap hit, just as they did by trading him. But if they cut Vrabel, he would likely have made a lot less money this year than he was due to earn under his existing contract. I don't think the market for 33 year-old linebackers would provide over $3 million this year -- unless most of that money was incentives.

By trading Vrabel instead of cutting him, they kept his 2009 salary at a high level and also moved him to a team where he will undoubtedly start and will certainly provide experience in a locker room of very young players. Trading Vrabel rather than cutting him was almost like a gold watch from the Patriots for years of great service and a significant role in three Super Bowl championships.

So the next time you hear the Patriots should have waited for a better offer for Matt Cassel, ask the person how s/he thinks Joey Galloway, Fred Taylor, or Leigh Bodden will do this year. And ask if the 2009 Patriots would have been better with a higher draft pick and none of those players.

And if anyone posits some conspiracy about the trade, kindly point them to the destructive effect Julius Peppers is having on the Panthers and their ability to compete in the free agent market -- this year and in the future. Ask if having an angry Matt Cassel would have helped anyone involved.

And lastly, when people wonder aloud why Mike Vrabel was traded rather than cut, be sure to mention the positives that Vrabel got after his years of yeoman service to the Patriots organization. And perhaps wonder aloud how future free agents will view the Patriots versus the Panthers.

The answers to those questions make it more and more obvious that the Patriots made the right choice in trading Matt Cassel and Mike Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs. If you hear otherwise, don't you believe it.

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

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