First off, it means that the Patriots have offered Cassel a one-year contract worth just over $14.6 million—and that entire amount hits their salary cap today.
Second, it means that Cassel will officially be able, when the free agency period begins on Feb. 27, to negotiate contracts with other teams.
Third, it means that if another team wants to sign Cassel, that team must either (1) sign Cassel to a long-term offer sheet that the Patriots refuse to match, and give the Patriots two first-round draft picks; or (2) work out a long-term contract acceptable to Cassel and a trade package acceptable to the Patriots. Either way, if there is a "bidding war" for Cassel's services, it will be a very strange one. (The most important consequence of this is that it will be nearly impossible for the New York Jets, who are already over the cap and not in the Patriots' good graces, to sign Cassel.)
As I've said before, anyone who says they know exactly how this is going to turn out is lying. That said, there are basically five possibilities:
The Patriots keep Cassel under the franchise tag for the entire season. This is, by far, the least likely possibility. The Patriots only have about $20 million in cap space, so they would be left with only about $5 million, before other moves, to sign free agents; sign rookies, practice squad players, and injury replacements; and extend their own players. This would happen only if the Patriots already feel that neither Brady nor 2008 third-round draft choice Kevin O'Connell is capable of leading the team in 2009, and maybe not even then.
- The Patriots keep Cassel under the franchise tag, and trade him just before the trade deadline. As Floyd Reese, now the Patriots' senior football advisor, said just a few weeks ago, "A team like New England can sit back and bide their time. . . . There's always teams out there in need of a quarterback, teams who'll think 'We don't like this guy. We can't win with him.'" This is slightly more likely, since the Patriots would regain close to $10 million in cap room if they trade him before the Week 6 deadline, but it would still leave the Patriots in a quandary for six months.
- The Patriots sign Cassel to a long-term deal. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk thinks this is a reasonable possibility, and I (for once, at least) agree with him that it's reasonable. The biggest problem with this option, though, is that given the current cap rules (since 2010 is slated to be uncapped), it is almost impossible for the Patriots to craft a deal that would be acceptable to Cassel yet allow them to trade him in 2009, when his value is highest.
Another team signs Cassel to an offer sheet, which the Patriots refuse to match. Again, because this requires two first-round draft picks, it's relatively unlikely that a team will be inclined to go this route, especially since they might get a better deal negotiating with the Patriots. That said, a truly desperate team might just be willing to do it. (From the Patriots' standpoint, this is the best possible outcome: Cassel's cap hit comes off the books as soon as the Patriots refuse to match, and the Patriots get maximal compensation for him.)
- The Patriots willingly trade Cassel to another team. This is, by far, the most likely outcome. By all indications, Brady's rehab is proceeding on pace (as his Mexican vacation and golf outings suggest) for him to start in Week 1. Also, don't discount the possibility that O'Connell has progressed enough to be ready to start. In 2006, the Patriots were willing to start the season with Cassel as Brady's only backup. Most importantly, while the Patriots would probably not fare as well in a trade as they would if Cassel were signed to an offer sheet, they'd still get the salary cap relief.
There are a few other possibilities, but they are so unlikely or so bizarre as to not be worth mentioning.
In any case, all of Patriot Nation anxiously awaits the outcome of this unusual situation.
Update: On February 7, 2009, Cassel accepted the tag. Thus, scenario #4 (another team signs Cassel to an offer sheet) is no longer operable. The other four scenarios, however, are all still in play.
Coming soon: An analysis of where Cassel might be playing in 2009.