The decision to void the final year of his contract with the Minnesota Vikings has opened the door for Matt Cassel to understand how badly the new-look Vikings want him back while also finding out his actual value on the open market as a low-end starting quarterback.
According to Darren Wolfson of KSTP-TV and 1500 ESPN, Cassel, a six-game starter for the Vikings last season, will void the 2014 option on his two-year deal by Friday's deadline and become an unrestricted free agent.
If he does, the 31-year-old Cassel will jump head-first into a weak quarterback market that he'll hope can provide an opportunity to cash in on a more lucrative, long-term deal. He was scheduled to make $3.7 million in Minnesota next season, a lesser amount than backups such as Matt Hasselbeck and Matt Moore will bring in during 2014.
Other quarterbacks expected to hit free agency alongside Cassel include Michael Vick, Josh McCown, Chad Henne, Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Flynn.
While the Vikings will have every opportunity to bring back Cassel, his departure leaves Minnesota with only one quarterback—2011 draft bust Christian Ponder—under contract for next season. Josh Freeman, who was acquired via an in-season signing last October, is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Joe Webb, a former quarterback, converted to receiver.
The new Vikings coaching staff, which includes head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, will have to decide if Cassel is the right guy to help bridge the gap between present and future. Considering the duo were united less than two weeks ago, it's likely the evaluation of the current roster is still ongoing.
Before he voided his deal, Cassel was believed to be an ideal one-year stop-gap for the Vikings, who are expected to use a top pick on a quarterback in May's draft.
In his most recent mock draft, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller slotted Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the Vikings in the second round.
The Vikings also hold the No. 8 overall pick in the first round, which might present an opportunity to take one of the top quarterbacks available in this year's class. Options there may include Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, Central Florida's Blake Bortles or Fresno State's Derek Carr.
While rookies these days are almost expected to play right away, having Cassel around for another year would allow the Vikings to play it slow at developing a young player.
Just last spring, Minnesota signed Cassel to a two-year deal worth $7.4 million, with the vision the veteran could help along Ponder's progression while also providing a capable backup option. When Ponder's development stalled and Freeman tanked his one appearance, Cassel emerged as the team's most productive quarterback.
Over nine games and six starts, Cassel threw for 1,807 yards, 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He led Minnesota's quarterbacks in completions (153), passing yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt (7.1), passer rating (81.6) and yards per game (200.8).
Overall, the Vikings averaged 24.3 points and recorded three of their five wins with Cassel starting under center. He finished 3-3 as the starter, while Minnesota went 2-7-1 with Ponder and Freeman.
In a best-case scenario, the Vikings would have entered next season with a top pick such as Manziel, Carr or Garoppolo learning directly under Cassel, the veteran starter.
That possibility still exists, but the Vikings will need to compete with several other teams for Cassel's services. And that could get somewhat pricey in a league starved for even average quarterback play.
If the Vikings do sign a veteran QB this offseason, who should it be?
Almost one-fifth of the NFL could be in the market for a quarterback like Cassel this offseason. Some will use the draft to satisfy that need, while others may dip into free agency. The Vikings could need both.
A nine-year veteran, Cassel likely looked at other contracts signed by similar NFL quarterbacks and then decided there was a bigger chunk of the money pie available.
In 2014, Carson Palmer of the Arizona Cardinals will earn a total of $11 million. Matt Moore, a backup in Miami, will make $5.5 million. Even Kyle Orton, a starter washout, has a cap hit of $4.4 million next season.
Cassel played more than both Moore and Orton, and his passer rating wasn't far off from Palmer's (83.6). Armed with that leverage, Cassel ditched the otherwise guaranteed money waiting for him in Minnesota to find out what the market will offer.
The Vikings will have their own options.
The team can make sure it wins the free-agent bid for Cassel, or make a play for a different veteran quarterback in March. There may also be quarterbacks available via trade, such as Washignton's Kirk Cousins. Or, in a less likely scenario, Minnesota could keep Ponder on board to bridge any gap the Vikings are facing with a young quarterback.
Zimmer and Turner both took a job knowing the quarterback situation wasn't anywhere close to solved. Cassel's decision to opt out of his final year only complicates that matter.
The Vikings are still top contenders to take a quarterback high in the draft, but who will be working alongside that pick next season is now very much up in the air.