Friday, February 27, 2009

Pats reach behind enemy lines

Ty Law, Curtis Martin, Vinny Testaverde, Tom Tupa, Hank Poteat, Victor Hobson.

All players went from the Patriots to the Jets, or vice versa. Now we can add Chris Baker to the list.

The tight end agreed to terms with the New England Patriots on Friday, keeping his home in the AFC East but moving it from the Meadowlands to Gillette Stadium.

Just as the Fred Taylor signing was a boost to a thin running back corps, this signing does the same for the tight end position. Baker is a versatile player with decent pass-catching (he caught 41 passes in 2007) and blocking skills. While Ben Watson will likely still be the top receiving option at tight end, Baker provides some able blocking that New England has missed since seeing Daniel Graham and Kyle Brady leave as free agents in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

Double whammy

Friday saw the Patriots gain an icon and lose another.

The start of free agency didn't take long to prove fruitful for New England, which added star running back Fred Taylor, but then turned around and dealt fan favorite and eight-year Patriot Mike Vrabel to Kansas City (get used to hearing the Chiefs in negotiations).

Though a dip into the free agent pool was peculiar for a team facing the salary cap problems that New England is, Taylor is a smart addition. The 16th all-time leading rusher, Taylor has defined the word 'consistent' throughout his career with Jacksonville, and will be in the running for a bust in Canton when his career finishes up.

Taylor will also provide depth to a running back corps that was riddled with injuries in 2008. Laurence Maroney lasted only four games before landing on IR, while LaMont Jordan and Sammy Morris both missed substantial time with injuries, forcing Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis to take on starting roles. Taylor will certainly help create a deep backfield that preserves the health of its members.

But while the offense gained another weapon, the defense lost one. In 24 hours, the Patriots went from potentially gaining an impact defender (DeAngelo Hall, who re-signed with Washington) to actually losing one in Vrabel.

From a depth chart point of view, Vrabel's trade (for an undisclosed draft pick) is understandable, as the team is looking to cut salary, and linebacker is the deepest defensive position.

It makes financial sense as well, as Vrabel's contract was set to expire in 2009, and the trade takes another deal off the books that the Patriots would have had to spend valuable dollars and cap space to renew.

Furthermore, the $3 million-plus that is now off the roster frees the Patriots to make another run at another impact player, via free agency and trade. With Julius Peppers mentioned in various rumors, an essential Vrabel-for-Peppers swap would benefit New England greatly.

Emotionally, however, this deal makes little sense at all. Vrabel was still an effective defensive player, was the team's best pass rusher, and was a leader in the huddle and in the locker room. While Tedy Bruschi was the symbol of New England's grit, determination and heart, Vrabel was easily 1A, a guy who went from being a cut Pittsburgh Steeler to being Mr. Versatility with three Super Bowl winners.

So day 1 of free agency gives the Patriots a former Pro Bowl running back, and deprives them of a former Pro Bowl linebacker. With plenty of players remaining in the market, these seismic moves could very well be joined in the next few days.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Cassel's tag sets up interesting offseason

It was hinted at for months, but on Thursday, the Patriots made it official: Matt Cassel is the 2009 franchise player.

News broke that the Patriots were going to do this several weeks ago, but now that it's happened, it's still a jolt to the New England offseason to-do list.

Though the franchise tag would keep Cassel in New England for next season, and provide a hell of an insurance policy should Tom Brady have an iffy return from knee surgery, it is hardly cost-effective. The tag amounts to $14.65 million against the cap, and along with Brady's $14.62 million hit, helps amount to almost a quarter of the Patriots' salary cap space.

Though both Cassel and Brady are slated to be on board for next year, the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of one of them (most likely Cassel) being traded before the start of next year.

The Patriots aren't built to shell out nearly $30 million a year to two healthy quarterbacks. They are the ultimate team, and being this top-heavy in one position violates the balanced structure they've been gunning for and accomplishing since Bill Belichick took over in 2000.

Furthermore, the Patriots have financial work to do elsewhere on the depth chart. Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Vince Wilfork all have contracts set to expire in 2010. All five will likely want to stick around New England (Wilfork has been adamant about it), but it will take money to keep them.

The Patriots will do all possible to extend most, if not all five, players, but to do that, they'll need cap space. Giant contracts given to Cassel and Brady will make contract extensions a tough commodity.

However, the Patriots are also about preparation, and what this move does do is address the gap between February, i.e. the start of free agency, and late July. The Patriots could not afford to let Cassel walk away, wait four or five months and find out that Brady could not be back in time for the season opener.

They love Kevin O'Connell in Foxboro, but not that much. Not yet.

So the Patriots have bought themselves flexibility. If Brady can start, Cassel gets a thank you and the boot. If not, Matt returns to the helm of an offense he figured out in remarkable speed last year. They can bite the bullet of a healthy quarterback and unhealthy quarterback chewing up cap space. What they won't tolerate is keeping an expensive trade chip.