The New England Patriots haven't mismanaged a whole lot in the past eight years, during which they have appeared in four Super Bowls.
Will this year, with $29.27 million (or nearly one-fourth of the $123 salary cap) committed to two quarterbacks, be an exception?
Not likely, according to a former NFL team salary-cap manager and an agent familiar with the inner workings of the Patriots.
They insist New England has a sound plan behind its decision to place a franchise tag on Matt Cassel, who soared to prominence in 15 starts after Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 2008 opener. Cassel's newfound wealth -- he has accepted a one-year tender offer guaranteeing him $14.65 million in 2009 -- won't impede the team's ability to pay other important players or stay in the hunt for another Super Bowl.
At the very least, tagging Cassel creates a tradable asset. At the very most, it provides a viable quarterback option should Brady, who already has suffered one setback in his recovery because of an infection, be unable to return for all or most of the upcoming season.
Once the Patriots are certain Brady has fully recovered from his injury, they likely will trade Cassel. Their hope would be to receive at least a first-round draft pick, but they're expected to seek two choices -- probably a first- and a third-rounder. The demand for starting quarterbacks figures to be strong enough to give the Patriots good leverage, especially with a draft widely seen as offering only two top quarterback prospects (Matthew Stafford of Georgia and Mark Sanchez of USC).
When will the Patriots be satisfied that Brady's recovery is complete? Ideally, that would come by April's draft, but even if it isn't until the summer, the Patriots still would have time to make a deal. They'd also feel comfortable with second-year pro Kevin O'Connell, for whom they have high hopes, as their backup to Brady.
A team that acquires Cassel obviously wouldn't want him for only the one-year term of the franchise-tender offer. It would have to work out a multi-year contract that could then be made more salary-cap friendly by amortizing a signing bonus (which could easily top the $14.65 million that Cassel already is guaranteed) over the life of the agreement.
"Matt Schaub (traded from Atlanta to Houston in 2007) was a backup for the Falcons who went in for a few games and did well, and he got $8 million a year from the Texans," said the agent, who requested anonymity. "What do you think Cassel is going to bring with the cap going up again? He's going to get at least $10 million (per year), maybe $12 million, maybe $14 million. He's going to get a huge deal."
Should Brady suffer a setback and be unable to start the season, the Patriots would hang onto Cassel for the one-year tender. According to the former NFL cap manager, who also requested anonymity, New England is prepared to handle the consequences of having nearly $30 million of its cap devoted to quarterbacks (Brady's cap figure is $14.62 million) because it has streamlined the salaries of front-office personnel. That allows for greater availability of cash to be spent over the cap, even though contracts are compliant with the actual cap total.
If Brady recovers in time to play in 2010, the Patriots could place another franchise tag on Cassel and trade him.
If the Patriots retain Cassel under the terms of the franchise tender, they probably would have a hard time hanging onto anyone on their short list of players headed for free agency this year -- including safety James Sanders, wide receiver Jabar Gaffney and running back LaMont Jordan. But they could get by without them.
The interesting challenge would come after the 2009 season, when 22 New England players are scheduled to become free agents. That list includes big names such as defensive end Richard Seymour, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, offensive guards Logan Mankins and Stephen Neal, running back Kevin Faulk, cornerback Ellis Hobbs and kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
Some of those players are getting older, and the Patriots are unlikely to break the bank to pay them.
"They'll be dumping some high-priced vets, as they always do," the former cap manager said. "Don't be surprised if Tedy Bruschi is gone (by then). Don't be surprised if you see a few restructured contracts. Don't be surprised if some veterans are asked to take the (10-year) veteran minimum (salary of $845,000)."
Another option if Brady isn't healthy is for the Patriots to sign Cassel to a long-term contract.
It's also possible that, if no collective bargaining agreement is reached before the 2010 season, there won't be a salary cap that year, thus leaving plenty of cap room for the Patriots to retain the players of their choice and sign replacements.
Either way, the Patriots figure to manage the situation as well as always.
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