Update: I originally wrote this article in January 2009. I have added updates in italics, and left the original text unchanged.
Michael Lombardi of NationalFootballPost.com, a former Belichick employee, has been saying for a while now that the Patriots simply have to franchise Matt Cassel. Since then, there've been a number of misconceptions about the situation that need to be addressed. Here are some that have cropped up in various newspapers and message boards:
1. Myth: The Patriots have already franchised Cassel. Fact: The two-week period for designating franchise players begins 22 days before the start of free agency on March 1. So, at the moment, any talk of Cassel being franchised is hypothesis, not fact.
Update: The Patriots franchised Cassel on February 5, 2009, the first day they could do so.
2. Myth: If the Patriots franchise Cassel, Cassel must be a Patriot in 2009. Fact: The Patriots can, in fact, trade Cassel after he signs the tender.
3. Myth: If the Patriots franchise Cassel, they are obligated to pay him over $14 million. Fact: If Matt Cassel signs the franchise tender, then the money becomes guaranteed against both skill and injury if he plays under the contract. In other words, if he signed the tender and then, God forbid, suffered a Brady-like injury in Week 1, the Pats would still owe the $14 million. And if he doesn't sign the tender, the Patriots do not owe him anything; he would, of course, have the option of sitting out the season.
Update: According to ESPN, on February 7, 2009, Cassel accepted the tag. Thus the above guarantees are now in force.
4. Myth: If the Patriots franchise Cassel, the Patriots can send Cassel anywhere they want. Fact: The Patriots cannot trade Cassel unless he signs the tender; he isn't officially on the roster until he does. After he signs the tender, though, he can still torpedo a trade by refusing to negotiate a new contract with another team, which would force that team to carry his $14 million contract in 2009 if they went through with the trade.
Update: Since Cassel has signed the tender, they can now trade him, with or without his permission, as soon as the free agency period begins on February 27.
5. Myth: If the Patriots franchise Cassel, he can't negotiate a new long-term contract with the Patriots. Fact: When players are franchised, they can negotiate a new contract—but only until July 15. After that point, they can only sign a one-year contract that can't be renegotiated until the end of the season. Thus, the Patriots could place the franchise tag on Cassel and then, for example, sign him in May to a two-year deal.
6. Myth: The Patriots can't franchise Cassel, because they have no intention to keep him long-term. Fact: There is no requirement in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that the Patriots make any attempt to sign Cassel to a long-term contract. There is a requirement that teams and players act in good faith in negotiations, but the Patriots could only violate that if they tried to force Cassel to go somewhere he doesn't want to go.
7. Myth: If the Patriots franchise Cassel, a team looking to sign him would have to give up two first-round draft picks. Fact: This myth conflates two scenarios. On the one hand, if a "hostile" team signs Cassel to an offer sheet before Cassel signs the franchise tender, the Patriots then have seven days to match the offer. If they don't, Cassel's new team would owe two first-round draft picks. On the other hand, if Cassel, the Patriots, and the new team hammer out a trade, he can be traded for as much or as little as they can agree upon. (A similar scenario happened when the Patriots traded for Wes Welker: they actually gave up more than they would have had to give up had they signed him to an offer sheet.)
Update: Since Cassel has accepted the tender, he cannot be signed to an offer sheet by any other team.
8. Myth: If the Patriots don't franchise Cassel, they're guaranteed to receive a third-round compensatory pick. Fact: Again, a kernel of truth here: if Cassel signs a large contract with another team, the Patriots would be in line for a possible third-round compensatory pick—in 2010. And even that would be contingent upon the Patriots losing more quality free agents in 2009 than they sign.
Update: Since Cassel is now under contract for 2009, the Patriots cannot receive a compensatory pick for him in 2010. If he stays under the tag, they could earn a compensatory pick in 2011.
9. Myth: There is no downside to Cassel signing the franchise tender the minute it's offered to him. Fact: There is one specific disadvantage to doing so: if Cassel signs the tender, he loses the ability to negotiate with teams without the Patriots' permission. In the grand scheme of things, though, this isn't a major disadvantage, unless a team the Patriots would not normally deal with is willing to pay the two first-round draft picks mentioned above.
Update: This is no longer operable, since Cassel signed the tag.
10. Myth: Offering Cassel a franchise tender has no downside for the Patriots. Fact: The moment they offer Cassel the franchise tender, the entire amount of the tender will be applied to their salary cap. Given that the Patriots are estimated to have about $20 million in cap space available at the moment, they will be placing a significant limitation on their ability to sign free agents, which is already fraught with some difficulty, because of the rules that affect contracts heading into a year without a salary cap, as 2010 currently is. Thus, if they do franchise him, they don't want this situation still unresolved when training camp opens.
Update: The $14.6M franchise tender was applied to the Patriots' salary cap on February 5, and will remain there until and unless he is signed to a long-term deal or traded.
11. Myth: If Tom Brady isn't available to start the season, the Patriots can trade Cassel when he is ready. Fact: Again, this isn't entirely false, but there's a significant caveat. If Brady is healthy enough to start by, say, Week 5, the Patriots could carry Cassel and then trade him; they would have to pay him 1/17th of the franchise tender each week until then. However, if Brady ends up on the Physically Unable to Perform list, then he will not be eligible to return until after the trade deadline. That might be the worst possible situation, as Cassel would be untradeable at that point.
Update: The above is true, but the wording of the CBA is ambiguous on whether or not a player traded after July 15 while still under the franchise tag can sign a multi-year contract with his new team.
In conclusion, it might be possible to add one last "myth"—that anyone knows exactly what is going to happen. Matt Cassel's situation is, in almost every respect, unparalleled in NFL history—and no one can say for sure what's going to happen.