You build an NFL team by any and all available means – the draft, free agency, trades and, as the Patriots have shown once again, even creative use of the franchise tag. The Pats have been masters over the years, perhaps the best in the league, at finagling compensation for players who were headed out the door, anyway.
For some reason, this has been forgotten in the voluminous discussion about the Matt Cassel trade, most of it revolving around whether New England should have come away with more than a second-round pick (especially with veteran linebacker Mike Vrabel thrown into the deal). But here’s another way of looking at it: How many clubs in the Pats’ position would have gotten anything for Cassel, would have managed their salary cap so well that they could – temporarily, at least – franchise him at $14.65 million?
By “in the Pats’ position,” I mean “already paying a huge salary to an established quarterback” (in this case Tom Brady). For most such teams, tagging a second QB for the purpose of trading him would have been a budgetary impossibility. But New England managed to pull it off – and thus created a No. 2 pick out of thin air, the 34th pick in the draft, no less.
Now if there’s a player expected to go in the top 10 that the Patriots really like, they can take a run at him using their own No. 1 (23rd) and that 34th pick, acquired from the Chiefs, as bargaining chips. (And should that happen, the Cassel move would look like one of the brainiest of all time – unless, of course, the Draftee In Question turned out to be a stiff.)
This is the second time in the last six years New England has dealt a player after tagging him. In 2003, the Patriots did it with free safety Tebucky Jones. One of the picks they got from New Orleans for him, a No. 3 in ’03, was sent to Miami for a future No. 2. The Pats then swapped that second-rounder for Corey Dillon, who rushed for a career-high 1,635 yards in ’04 as New England won the Super Bowl.
Tebucky Jones for Corey Dillon. Can’t beat that.
Bill Belichick has also managed to wangle high picks for disgruntled players – even though he had less leverage than he might have. After Brady took the quarterback job away from Drew Bledsoe, Belichick shipped the unhappy veteran to Buffalo (a division rival!) for a No. 1 that was parlayed into Ty Warren, a solid strong-side defensive end. And when Deion Branch wanted to redo his contract before the ’06 season and couldn’t reach an agreement with the club, Belichick traded him to Seattle for a first-rounder that brought free safety Brandon Meriweather.
Meriweather led the Patriots with four interceptions last year and tied for the team lead with two forced fumbles. And frankly, Branch hasn’t been missed much since Randy Moss and Wes Welker arrived on the scene.
The philosophy is this: Players are assets. So, as much as possible, try to get something – anything – for them when they leave. And don’t be so tight against the cap that you can’t tag a valuable commodity like Cassel, even if it’s just to deal him. It’s the Free Agent Era, sure, but that doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally force clubs to pay for a player you aren’t able to keep yourself.
This approach has certainly served the Patriots well. The Redskins, meanwhile, get nothing for Antonio Pierce and Ryan Clark, and they both go on to start for Super Bowl champions.
– Dan Daly