'Pepper'ed with Possibility: New England Pats Can Still Make Good On Bad Deal

Ben CarderCorrespondent IMarch 4, 2009

In Bill we trust.  In Bill we trust.  In Bill we trust.

Like an incantation, this refrain has been repeated over and over again by members of Patriots Nation after last weekend’s misbegotten trade that sent QB Matt Cassel and LB Mike Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs for an early second round pick (34th overall). 

For most, the incantation serves as an elixir, a preventive balm to treat what could amount to be a colossal bust of a pick (à la CB Brandon Meriweather), for two bona fide Pro Bowlers in exchange (Cassel should have made last year’s Pro Bowl over Brett Favre; Vrabel went to Honolulu in 2007).  

However, since the Patriots have won all three of their Super Bowls with Bill Belichick at the helm, it’s not unreasonable to put one’s faith in the “Hooded One.”

But unlike that song that grows on you the more often it’s heard, the same can’t be said for this verse.  Not with me, anyway.  In fact, the more often I hear it, the more hollow it rings.

Why?  Because the deal could have been so much better.

Admittedly, much of the hollowness derives from lofty expectations.  Before news broke this past weekend that Cassel and Vrabel were to be reunited with Scott Pioli—the Chiefs new GM and former vice president of player personnel for the Patriots—the rumor mill was piping hot. 

Inside sources from a variety of mediums had Carolina Panthers’ LB Julius Peppers headed to the Patriots in a possible three-way deal that also involved the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  With Vrabel on the way out and an aging Tedy Bruschi nearing the end of his career, a 29-year-old Peppers lined up in the backfield would make for a nice addition to an already stacked linebacking core (Jerod Mayo, Adalius Thomas, et al). 

To my and others’ disappointment, though, the trade was not to be—as predicted by the NFL Network’s Adam Schefter and other NFL insiders hours before the trade was made official.

So while the Peppers-to-Pats deal turned out to be something of a mirage, the likelihood of it still happening is anything but illusory.

For starters, the Patriots pulled the trigger on the deal early; few thought Matt Cassel would be traded before the NFL Draft, let alone a full month before the draft.  There had to be a reason for that kind of haste. 

It could be that Carolina wants the Patriots’ first-round pick (23rd overall) as compensation for Peppers, who has made it clear he wants out of Carolina before the end of the year. 

The Patriots are believed to be one of four teams Peppers has expressed interest in joining, and it’s hard to blame him with QB Tom Brady, WR Randy Moss, and a newly-signed RB Fred Taylor geared for another Super Bowl run.

If money is the sticking point, it can be unstuck quite easily.  By trading Cassel, the Patriots freed up nearly $15 million in cap space. 

That leaves more than enough money to cover Peppers’ asking price, likely to be in excess of $17 million. 

Similarly, the Panthers would free up cap space by releasing the franchised Peppers, giving Carolina the opportunity to seek out a possible replacement at quarterback (finishing 19th in overall passing yards, combined with the $5 million Delhomme’s due to receive after last year’s five-interception playoff performance, tends to precipitate this kind of move).

True, the Pats have worked wonders in the NFL Draft in past years, with the likes of LB Jerod Mayo (Defensive Rookie of the Year), DE Richard Seymour (five straight Pro Bowl appearances) and NT Vince Wilfork (66 tackles and two sacks last year) among their “Best of” picks. 

But all those picks came when Pioli was on board.  Pre-Pioli, the Pats picked such luminaries as LB Andy Katzenmoyer (hasn’t played since 2001), RB Robert Edwards (released by the CFL’s Toronto Arganauts in 2008) and CB Tebucky Jones (hasn’t played since 2007; arrested at a Connecticut casino in 2008 and charged with third and fourth-degree assault).

It’s anyone’s guess whether the Pats’ picks this year will turn out to be studs or duds (the Pats have four of the top 58 picks); there’s precedent for the latter.

There’s still time for the Patriots to make good on a bad deal.  If Belichick and Co. do decide to pursue Peppers, Patriots Nation will have a new incantation to chant with regards to their potential February 7, 2010 date with destiny:  With Bill, we will.

Now that’s music to my ears.