Placing the franchise designation on Cassel was a savvy move on the part of New England. Without the franchise tag, Cassel would have been able to test the market and negotiate with any of the league's 32 teams. While he and his agent can still talk to other teams once free agency begins at the end of the month, anyone who wants to sign him will face two hurdles. First, the Patriots can match any offer if they choose and, if they don't, that team will be required to give New England two first-round draft picks as compensation. It is that second issue that almost surely will take the Vikings out of pursuing that option.
However, simply franchising Cassel doesn't mean that is the end of the story. The Patriots are legitimately concerned about the short-term future of Tom Brady, who was injured in the season opener last year and had two subsequent surgeries after infections were discovered. Brady is expected to be ready for the start of the 2009 season, but some believe that the franchising of Cassel, which has been anticipated for the last month, would be the safeguard procedure in the event Brady is slow to recover.
That may be true, but the reality is that Patriots want to call all the shots in dealing with Cassel. By giving him the franchise designation, if he remains with the Patriots, he will receive a whopping $14.65 million – the average 2008 salary of the top five quarterbacks in the league – in 2009. Because the tag doesn't include bonuses or incentives – it is all base pay – the Patriots won't have to shell out that money until the regular season begins. As a result, they have time to work out a deal to trade Cassel (for much less than two first-round picks) to a team of their choosing, not Cassel's.
The conventional wisdom has it that Cassel could be had for one first-round draft pick. That might be too steep a price for quarterback-starved teams like the Lions or Chiefs (which own two of the top three picks in the 2009 draft) to pay. A more likely scenario would be that the Lions might consider trading the pick acquired from Dallas in the Roy Williams trade in order to sign Cassel.
If that's the case, it would be ironic because many NFL insiders whisper the same two words when it comes to a team backing up the money train to pay Cassel – "Scott Mitchell."
Longtime NFL fans may remember Mitchell, who burst on the scene with the Miami Dolphins when Dan Marino was injured. Like Cassel, Mitchell had been in the system for four years and played well in limited duty when Marino was lost to injury. As fortune would have it, he became a free agent at the end of the season and the Vikings were one of the teams most interested. Mitchell came to Minnesota for a workout and was offered a contract. Instead, he went to Detroit for a visit, where the Lions wowed him and his agent with a huge offer that they accepted.
The problem turned out to be that Mitchell was a "system quarterback" – a great fit with Miami, but ill-prepared to take a different team with different receivers and a different offensive scheme. He had his moments, but they were few and far between. His time with the Lions was marked by mediocrity, especially considering the size of his paycheck. To some, Cassel seems to fall into that same general category – a player who could excel in a system he's been in for four seasons, but not necessarily in a different system with different personnel.
Considering the Vikings gave up their first-round pick and two third-rounders last year, it doesn't seem extremely likely that they will give up another first-round pick this year to get Cassel – the early rumors mongers have the Vikings trading Chester Taylor and a first-rounder to the Patriots for Cassel, but that seems to be more based on speculation than hard evidence.
It seems clear that the Vikings are going to make some kind of offseason move to improve themselves at quarterback. Outside of Winter Park, there aren't too many people who believe Tarvaris Jackson is the long-term answer at QB – or even the short-term answer. Cassel would come with a steep price tag and, considering that Vikings gave up a premium pick (and two third-rounders) last year to acquire Jared Allen, they may be much less willing to do so two years running.
The Patriots have done their part by effectively taking Cassel off the free-agent market. But does that mean the Vikings and Lions will get in another QB bidding war? Detroit might, but don't be too quick to throw the Vikings' hat in the ring.