Without Cassel Are Patriots Exposed?

Matt Cassel cashed in after backing up Tom Brady in New England. Is there another Cassel on the roster?

The news of Matt Cassel reaching a six-year, $63-million deal with Kansas City comes as somewhat of a surprise since he essentially has less than a year's worth of experience in the NFL and had his share of ups and down during 2008 as Tom Brady's backup.

Seattle Seahawks' Rocky Bernard pressures New England Patriots Matt Cassel (16) Dec 7, 2008
(AP/Elaine Thompson)

This also raises an interesting question: If, by some chance, Brady should get hurt again in 2009, do the Patriots have another Cassel ready to step in? Chances are there's not another potential $63 million man waiting amongst this group of backups, but the Patriots owe it to themselves this summer to see exactly what they have.

Second-year pro Kevin O'Connell, whose strong arm earned him some praise during training camp, looked ordinary at times during the preseason -- as is the case with most rookies. O'Connell attempted six passes last year, which seems alarmingly low for a potential backup, but it's worth nothing that's his "output" accounts for one fewer pass than Cassel threw in all of '07, which was the year before he became the most famous ex-backup in the NFL. In other words, the lack of experience doesn't always mean anything.

If the Patriots aren't comfortable with O'Connell, they could turn to Matt Gutierrez, who nearly beat out Cassel for the backup role last season. Gutierrez also has limited experience and might not be worth much in high-pressure situations, but he gained notoriety last summer while Cassel struggled during the preseason.

New England Patriots Kevin O'Connell (5) walks past Tom Brady (12) at training camp July 24, 2008.
(AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

Playing against third-string competition, Gutierrez racked up some decent numbers and, at one point, was the fans' choice to win the backup role. Cassel ultimately claimed the post and parlayed his stint as the full-time starter into a lucrative deal with the Chiefs.

As far as pros and cons concerned, O'Connell has the rocket arm while Gutierrez seems to have more of a knack for when the pocket will collapse and can scramble to safety without the gift of exceptional speed. Both have a significant leg up on rookies Julian Edelman and Brian Hoyer, who'll likely be gone before fans have a chance to memorize their jersey numbers.

In the end, though, either choice will leave the Patriots with another inexperienced backup in 2009. Coming off a year in which they rode the arm of a similar quarterback to a near playoff berth in '08, that shouldn't keep head coach Bill Belichick awake at night. Monitoring the progress of his starter is a more worthwhile endeavor.

CAMP CALENDAR: Camp opens July 30 with double sessions from 9:30 to 11:15 a.m. and 3:45 to 5:30 p.m. The same schedule applies for the next six days through Aug. 5.

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