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.