Pretty much everyone who voiced an opinion this offseason on Matt Cassel's overall value and football future - including fans, analysts, ex-players, draftniks and even former NFL decision makers - can pat themselves on the back. Of course those same people also have to admit they were wrong.
Nearly everyone on the planet thought the backup-turned-franchise-QB would be traded after New England slapped Cassel with the franchise tag early in the process this February. That became reality Feb. 27 when the Patriots shipped Cassel, along with veteran starting outside linebacker Mike Vrabel, to Kansas City in exchange for the Chiefs second-round pick in April's draft, the 34th overall selection.
The deal brought the Patriots, a team that was right up against the $127 million salary cap heading into free agency to the point where Randy Moss tweaked his contract to give the team a little relief, nearly $18 million in instant cap space.
What it didn't bring was satisfaction to the bulk of Patriots Nation. New England fans had heard and read for months that Cassel was the best quarterback available for a team looking for a young passer to build around. That he was a better, safer choice for teams than top draft prospects Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez. That Cassel would bring at least a first-round pick in a trade, and more likely a deal for his services would involve more than a first-rounder.
When the new NFL league year ticked off at midnight on Feb. 27 it was expected that Cassel would be traded, probably relatively quickly. But it was expected that he'd return a first-round pick and then some. That's where the problem lies for New England fans. They now feel Bill Belichick in some way either got hoodwinked by his former understudy Scott Pioli or, worse, that the Patriots boss did a favor for his former underling.
Those feelings intensified when reports subsequently trickled out that other teams had interest in Cassel. Detroit was supposedly offering the 33rd pick in the draft, maybe more. Denver, led by new head coach and former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, was reportedly looking to get its hands on Cassel and was willing to ship Pro Bowler Jay Cutler to another team in a three-way deal that would have potentially landed a first-round pick in New England, maybe even the Broncos No. 12 overall selection.
The reality is, though, that Belichick had two major factors in mind when shipping Cassel to K.C. He wanted to get the deal done quickly and safely in order to get cap relief with which to continue into the offseason. He wanted to sign the likes of Fred Taylor and Chris Baker while also re-signing starting safety James Sanders and maybe even working on extensions for potential 2010 free agents Logan Mankins and Vince Wilfork.
He could do that and get a valuable, very high second-round pick from Pioli and the Chiefs. And according to sources, that's pretty much the only deal that was on the table when the league year opened. It was a good but not great deal, and Belichick took it.
By the time the other reported deals supposedly coming from the too-slow-to-the-game new coaching and front office regimes in Denver, Detroit and Tampa Bay got to New England the deal with the Chiefs was already done. Belichick couldn't and wouldn't pull out.
The final part of the transaction, the fact that the 33-year-old Vrabel was included as seemingly a throw-in just a year removed from an All-Pro season, is also pretty simple to explain. The veteran was set to get a $1 million bonus on March 2. He was scheduled to count more than $4.3 million on the Patriots cap. Had he not been traded, he almost assuredly would have been cut after a lackluster 2008 campaign that had the Patriots believing Vrabel's best years were well behind him.
So the reality for New England fans is the market for Cassel never developed to the level analysts predicted. Belichick wanted to trade him quickly and unload his $14.65 million salary cap figure. As quickly as possible he took the best deal he could get so that he could move on with the rest of his offseason. Maybe he could have gotten more had he waited longer. Maybe he couldn't have. But he knew had a sure-thing with the Chiefs that brought him a more than respectable second-round pick for a former seventh-round pick who was a nobody prior to opening day 2008. It might not feel like a good deal for Patriots fans or even NFL analysts, but it did to Belichick. And that's all that mattered.
--New England added veteran running back Fred Taylor to the roster Feb. 27. The 33-year-old former first-round pick was released by the Jaguars earlier this offseason after 11 seasons and 11,271 rushing yards in Jacksonville.
"I have tremendous respect for Fred Taylor, both as a person and as a player whose production is outstanding," said Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick. "I look forward to working with Fred as he joins the rest of our running back group."
After also visiting with the Bills, Taylor said the chance to join the winning tradition in New England was just something he couldn't pass up at this point in his career.
"After talking to Coach Belichick and looking at everything, looking at the type of players they have, it was pretty much a no brainer," Taylor said. "Who wouldn't want to play in New England? They have been the most successful organization in the last decade or so. It feels like a good fit with Tom (Brady), Randy (Moss), Wes Welker, Kevin (Faulk), Laurence (Maroney) and all the other guys. It's going to be a good fit. And they have great defense that gets you the ball back.
"When you weigh all those options, for me it was a no brainer. We got the deal done quick. They said they would and that's why they are a first class organization that knows how to win. That's why it's easy to choose them."
--Former Jets tight end Chris Baker joined his former arch-rivals in New England on March 2. After seven seasons in New York the 6-3, 258-pound tight end moves slightly Northeast to join a team he's caught plenty of passes against over the years.
"I always got up a little bit more for that game to be honest because they were always the best team," Baker said of playing New England. "Besides the '02 year they have won the division every year in the AFC East since I have been in the league. So, I always looked forward to playing them or maybe it just could have worked out that way. I always really try my best to have good games against New England because they have been the best in the division since I've been in the league.
"I am very happy to be joining a team like the Patriots. Obviously, they have a ton of success, great players, great coaches and things like that. So, it was a very easy decision for me."
--Veteran backup G/C Russ Hochstein re-signed with New England on March 2, remaining with the team he's played for over the last seven seasons. Hochstein has seen action in key games over the years at both guard and center for the Patriots. Last fall he also took on expanded duties as an extra tight end and short-yardage fullback. He actually started the final two games of 2008 at fullback.
--SS James Sanders reportedly turned down more money on the open market to agree to return to New England on March 1. Sanders has started in the back end of the New England defense for the last two and a half seasons, finishing last year with 66 tackles and an interception in 14 games.
"It gives him a chance to grow and become a playmaker," Sanders' agent Steve Feldman told the Boston Globe. "He stays in the same system with a championship team. They know him. He knows them. It was the right fit."
--LB Tedy Bruschi was pretty open in a recent radio interview as to how much he's going to miss former teammate and friend Mike Vrabel, both on and off the field.
"Sometimes with me personally -- with Vrabes, our relationship -- my personal feelings get involved," Bruschi told Boston's sports radio WEEI, calling Vrabel one of his "best friends throughout my entire career" in New England.
"In my own selfish way, we hung out together. There goes my boy, you know, he's going off to somewhere else. I get a little upset about that, and I wonder, what happened? How come he couldn't stay here?" Bruschi said.