News broke that the Patriots were going to do this several weeks ago. Now that it has happened, it is a jolt to the New England offseason to-do list.
Even though the franchise tag would keep Cassel in New England 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. Along with Brady's $14.62 million hit, the two contracts amount to almost a quarter of the Patriots' salary cap space.
Cassel and Brady are slated to be on board for next year, but 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—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, but it will take money to keep them. Wilfork has been adamant about it.
The Patriots will do everything possible to extend most, if not all five, players. To do that, they'll need cap space. Giant contracts given to Cassel and Brady will make contract extensions tough.
However, the Patriots are also about preparation. The move addresses the gap between February (start of free agency) and late July. The Patriots could not afford to let Cassel walk away, wait four or five months, and find 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.
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 mastered in remarkable speed last year.
The Patriots can bite the bullet of a healthy quarterback and unhealthy quarterback chewing up cap space for one year. They won't tolerate keeping an expensive trade chip.
It's not the Patriot way. For New England quarterbacks, that means a change will be coming.