The trade of Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel to the Chiefs did not surprise nearly as many people.
The fact that both players only netted the Patriots a single pick in the 2009 draft—Kansas City's second rounder, No. 34— mystifies everyone, including longtime Patriots beat writer Tom Curran (although, to his credit, Mike Reiss of the Globe predicted that the Patriots would get a second for Cassel).
Of course, this raises the question of why the Patriots would "settle" for such low compensation, especially in the light of previous trades. The short answer is: economics.
In particular, three economic concepts explain the Patriots' dilemma.
Supply and demand
Thanks to the salary cap, payroll dollars have a fixed supply. Cassel's franchise tag accounted for $14.6 million—over 10 percent—of the Patriots' 2009 salary cap allotment. Vrabel's contract ate up another $3.3 million that could be saved with a trade (about $1 million was dead money from his last signing bonus).
Had the Patriots not traded Cassel and Vrabel, they would have been more or less out of salary cap room; moreover, there isn't a whole lot of cap room available in other players' contracts, and it is plausible that the Patriots felt they could replace Vrabel's production, at least, at a much lower cost.
On an interesting side note, though, as of yet, Cassel has not agreed to a long-term deal with the Chiefs. If a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is reached, it is likely Cassel would then become an unrestricted free agent.
If a new CBA isn't reached, and the salary cap goes away, Cassel would then be owed a minimum of 110 percent of his 2009 salary, or about $16 million.
Thus, Cassel may have little incentive to sign a long-term deal with the Chiefs this year, unless they're willing to fork over $30 million in guaranteed money, which may help to explain why the Chiefs only offered a second.
In economics, the alternatives that are given up when one option is chosen are known as opportunity costs. For example, if you spend $10 on a pizza, you can't also spend that same $10 on a movie ticket.
In this case, the opportunity cost referred to the cost of trying to wait for a better offer for Cassel. In this case, those opportunity costs would be the inability to sign other free agents, and the inability to try and re-sign their own free agents.
While the $18 million freed up by trading Cassel and Vrabel won't solve all the Patriots' free agent questions, it will certainly help in retaining and/or extending some of those free agents, such as nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
Given the choice between a first-round pick in the mid-teens and losing more of their free agents on the one hand, and the No. 34 pick and retaining more of their free agents, the Patriots chose the latter.
Here's where things get interesting: according to reports in the Denver Post the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were trying to pursue a three-way trades that would have given the Patriots their first-round draft pick, sent Matt Cassel to Denver, and sent Cutler to Tampa Bay. Moreover, according to Lions+were+trying+to+get+Matt+Cassel+--+to+get+Jay+Cutler" target="_blank">the Detroit Free Press, the Lions were attempting to do the same thing.
Although the Broncos decided against it (although, by all indications, not quickly enough), it raises an important question: If the Broncos had said yes, would the Patriots have agreed?
That's because the gain in draft order (Tampa Bay has the No. 19 pick, and Detroit has Dallas' pick at No. 20) would have come at the cost of sending Cassel to a team in much better position to make use of his talents: Accuscore.com predicts that Cassel alone would give the Chiefs about four points per game, and about three more wins per season.
(Of course, if anyone thinks Cassel alone would be enough to turn the Chiefs' fortunes around, I've got a great deal on a stadium!)
Adding Cassel to the Broncos, however, would potentially be much trickier to the Patriots, since the two teams will meet in Denver this season, and a resurgent Denver team might have caused problems for the Patriots.
Of course, this entire assessment could be completely off base—after all, the only people who know for sure are folks who'll probably never let us know why.
Of course, the true judge of who, if anyone, got the short end of the straw on this trade will be time: How will Cassel and Vrabel do with the Chiefs, and what will the Patriots do with their No. 34 pick?