Matt Cassel is one of the great rags-to-riches stories in the NFL -- or anywhere else, for that matter. Here's a guy who never won a starting job as a quarterback at USC and finished his college football days as a backup tight end, his biggest moment coming when he recovered an onside kick as a member of the hands team.
In 2005, the New England Patriots surprised the rest of the NFL when they drafted Cassel in the seventh round as a quarterback -- his first twist of fate. Cassel threw just 39 passes during his first three seasons in New England, but he had his second twist of fate in the 2008 opener. Starting quarterback Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury, and the Patriots turned to Cassel to lead them. He responded by helping New England go 11-5 and fall just short of a playoff spot, though he completed 327 of 516 passes for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns with just 11 interceptions.
Cassel's solid production last season drove the third twist of fate, as he received the franchise tag, worth $14.65 million, from the Patriots.
Now comes the tough part for the Chiefs and Cassel: What is the quarterback worth in dollars, and what is the risk the team and the player are willing to take at this stage of his career? Is Cassel a guy the Chiefs want to lock up for the next six or seven years? Can the Chiefs afford to wait and see if Cassel can lead them out of the AFC West basement and into the playoffs before offering a deal?
Under the franchise tag, Cassel will receive $915,625 per game in 2009. Never in his wildest dreams did Cassel think he would be in this position at this point in his career, but he is. Where the next twist of fate brings him is a topic worth exploring.
Three things could happen in 2009 to make the Cassel journey more interesting.
Cassel could repeat last season's production and possibly even surpass it with a year of experience under his belt. That would put him in the driver's seat and force the Chiefs to franchise him once again. Because of the 20 percent rule -- which states that a franchised player receives the average of the top five quarterbacks in the league, or a 20 percent raise of the previous year's salary, whichever is greater -- Cassel's 2010 tag would be worth $17.58 million, putting his two-year salary haul at $32.23 million. Not bad for a guy who couldn't get on the field in college as a quarterback.
But is Cassel willing to bet that he can play well enough to receive the second franchise tag and not sign a long-term deal that pays less than $32.23 million over the first two years? How close to that figure would the Chiefs be willing to go with Cassel in the first two years of a long-term deal to secure his services now?
In the second scenario, Cassel flattens out because of a combination of lesser talent in Kansas City, an injury or even the loss of his starting job to Tyler Thigpen, and he is considered a bust. The Chiefs don't tag Cassel and simply show him the door. Pioli can stand tall and say that the team didn't give up a first-round pick for Cassel and still landed Vrabel in the deal. It's not a disaster for the Chiefs like the teams that use a first-round pick on a quarterback, tie him up in a long-term contract and find out he can't play in the NFL.
There's more pressure in Detroit for Matthew Stafford to play well than for Cassel in Kansas City. Stafford has $41.7 million guaranteed, and no one knows if he can play in the NFL because he hasn't done it yet. But even if Cassel fails in Kansas City, he could find work as a capable backup somewhere else. That likely would bring him a contract worth close to $3 million for a season. His two-year salary average for 2009 and 2010 still would be impressive at $8.825 million per season.
Finally, Cassel could end up falling somewhere in the middle, and it becomes a gray area about what the Chiefs should do with him. Let's say Cassel throws 15 to 17 touchdown passes and the Chiefs go 5-11. Is Cassel worth a franchise tag? Should the team let him go? Rest assured, there will be more than one team waiting to sign Cassel if that happens. Does Cassel run back to his old quarterbacks coach, Josh McDaniels, who's now the head coach in Denver? Will teams such as Houston, Buffalo, Jacksonville, Minnesota, St. Louis, San Francisco, Tennessee and Washington be looking to change quarterbacks by then and want Cassel?
Doing the right thing now is hard for both sides. What contracts that reflect Cassel's value can the two sides work off? Cassel is so unique because of the franchise tag, but there has to be a starting point to do a deal.
Let's look at quarterbacks who proved very little or had only one year of success before they landed their big deal as a jumping-off point for negotiations between the Chiefs and Cassel. We'll analyze the average compensation of the first three years of other quarterbacks who might fit the profile.
1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: Rodgers was a first-round pick in 2005, but he didn't start a game in his first three NFL seasons. However, after becoming the Packers' starting quarterback in 2008, he signed an extension that averages $14.25 million over the first three years. What's interesting about Rodgers' deal is that he will receive $31.182 million over the first two years of the contract, which is very close to the $32.23 million Cassel would if he's tagged next year by the Chiefs. The Rodgers contract could be the benchmark for a Cassel deal. Look at Rodgers' production in 2008 and see the similarities to Cassel. The Chiefs probably would find this deal to be too rich, but Cassel likely believes he's worth every penny -- and maybe more.
2. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys: Romo signed a new deal in 2008 after his breakout season in 2007. He had similar numbers in 2007 to Cassel's last year, but Romo led his team to the playoffs. The three-year average of Romo's contract is $12.66 million per season, which might be closer to what the Chiefs would tolerate, though Cassel might believe he's leaving too much money on the table when he factors in the possibility of franchise tags in consecutive years. This deal makes sense for Cassel because it takes the risk of injury out of the equation and assures him that he's the guy in Kansas City. For the Chiefs, it provides a buffer from that gray area where production could be a dilemma.
3. Matt Schaub, Houston Texans: Schaub's contract with the Texans, signed in 2007 after he was an Atlanta Falcons backup with very little playing time, has a three-year average of $10.73 million. Cassel can make the case that much more was known about his ability to play in the NFL than when the Texans traded for Schaub.
4. David Garrard, Jacksonville Jaguars: Garrard's contract with the Jaguars has a three-year average of $10.65 million, which shows what the market is for quarterbacks who rise up the ranks and win the starting job, no matter where they're drafted. Garrard, a 2002 fourth-round pick, beat out Byron Leftwich, a 2003 first-round pick, for the No. 1 job in 2007 and then led the Jaguars to the playoffs. But has Cassel even really won a quarterback job in his career? The Chiefs will say that he didn't win one in New England and isn't expected to have to win the job in Kansas City.
5. Derek Anderson, Cleveland Browns: Anderson had one good season in Cleveland and signed a three-year deal that averages $8 million per year. The Chiefs would love this deal with Cassel, but he will point out that he came to Kansas City with the franchise tag, which Anderson never had. That changes everything. There's little chance Cassel would do this deal, even though the numbers compare favorably from Anderson in 2007 to Cassel in 2008. The Chiefs would see the logic in this deal when they point out Cassel's eight fewer touchdown passes and 33 more sacks.
I have done over 300 NFL contracts, and I can't remember a set of circumstances like this Cassel-Chiefs situation. It seems there is more risk on the team's side than on the player's side with the $14.65 million already guaranteed for Cassel. There doesn't appear to be a way the team can expect to wait and sign Cassel after the season to a long-term deal without using another franchise tag, and that starts the whole problem over again. It really boils down to this: How much money over the $14.65 million in the first year are the Chiefs willing to guarantee to Cassel and make him realize it's the "right" deal?
If both parties really wanted to do a deal now, here's an educated guess at what it would take to secure Cassel:
Give Cassel a six-year deal, with $18.65 million in the first year (the $14.65 million they already owe him, plus $4 million of new money). In 2010, with the team realizing it could have been into the player for another $17.58 million on a franchise tag and a two-year total of more than $32 million, it could split the difference. Cassel has great leverage on his side here, and he could have another $6.67 million in his pocket through salary and bonuses for a two-year number of $25.32 million. For the third year, factor in the three-year averages of Rodgers ($14.25 million), Romo ($12.66 million), Schaub ($10.73 million), Garrard ($10.65 million) and Anderson ($8 million), which is $11.25 million, and also realize that those deals, aside from Rodgers', were done over a year ago.
That should bring Cassel's three-year average to $12 million, which means he needs a $10.68 million payout in the third year on top of the $25.32 million he would receive in the first two seasons to hit the magic number. Half of the $10.68 million probably needs to be guaranteed ($5.34 million) to close the deal. The player will know the team won't cut him in the third year, and the team will have secured the services of the player it acquired.
Years 4 to 6 should have lower salaries to bring the total contract average closer to $10 million per year. Those years probably won't be guaranteed, as Cassel turns 30 in the fourth year of the deal. If the final three years are $8 million per season, that puts the six-year package at $60 million, with $30.66 million guaranteed over the first three years. That's still less than Stafford's $41.7 million guaranteed and less than the cost of two franchise tags, but we already have seen Cassel perform on an NFL stage.
This deal might sound rich to fans, but the market for quarterbacks in the NFL is that high, with a guarantee of just over 50 percent of the deal close to the standard.