Cassel, Haynesworth headline big moves

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Feb 27, 2009



The free-agent season split open on Friday like Hitler's defenses in the summer of 1944, with a bevy of big-name players pouring through the gaps and onto the rosters of other teams. It continued Saturday with the midday trade of quarterback Matt Cassel from New England to Kansas City.
 
Here's the Cold, Hard Football Facts first reactions to the most notable moves as the off-season personnel market heats up suddenly.
 
Matt Cassel
Traded from New England to Kansas City
The short verdict: It was inevitable
Few players went from zero to hero faster and more unexpectedly than Cassel did last season with the Patriots.
 
You all know the story and we won't rehash it here.
 
Once the Patriots franchised him earlier this month, only two questions remained: who would trade for Cassel, and what would the Patriots get for him?

Now we know the answer to the first question, as word just broke as we prepared to publish this story that the Chiefs had acquired Cassel Saturday.
 
(Update: the Chiefs sent New England their second-round pick, 34th overall, in the 2009 draft. So now we know the answer to the second question.)
 
The Chiefs were one of the obvious places for him to land: Kansas City was desperate for help on offense, among the worst in the league in all our offensive Quality Stats.
 
Cassel could prove a big upgrade for Kansas City. But he's also a still major question mark. Some "pundits" have already proclaimed that Cassel is one of the top eight quarterbacks in the NFL today. His 89.4 passer rating was 10th in the NFL last year and represents a very, very solid number for a first-year starter – so he certainly makes more sense than gambling on a draft pick.
 
But you also have to wonder how much of Cassel's success was due to playing with a true Rolls-Royce of an offense, a unit that set an NFL record when it scored 589 points in 2007, but then scored a respectable (though obviously far less productive) 410 points with Cassel at the helm.
 
Either way, Cassel is clearly a bright young talent and it will be interesting to see how his career in Kansas City unfolds. It also seems like the Patriots should have got much more than a second-round pick for a such a valued commodity in a league (and from a team) desperate for all-important talent at quarterback. The league knew the Patriots had to unload Cassel, so that reduced his value when it came down to negotiation time.
 
But from Kansas City's perspective, a No. 2 for a guy who's proven he can play in the NFL is certainly a better bet than a No. 1 for a guy who has yet to show anything at the pro level.
 
The winner: Kansas City
 
Albert Haynesworth
Free agent from Tennessee to Washington
The short verdict: Short-sighted power play by the Redskins
This was easily the biggest move as we prepared to publish right before the Cassel trade – even in our muddy, Hog-loving world, the impact of QBs trump the impact of DTs.
 
However, the Haynesworth signing is big in every sense of the word. He is a rare game-breaking defensive tackle the likes of which the NFL has rarely produced since the 1970s. He takes a decent group of Defensive Hogs in Washington and could make them dominant.
 
The Redskins ranked 12th on our Defensive Hog Index in 2008, including a No. 9 ranking against the run (3.83 YPA). Haynesworth, meanwhile, was the primary reason why the Titans were one of the top defenses in football last year, including a No. 5 ranking in our all-important Defensive Hog Index.
 
So Washington should be a formidable defensive force in 2009.
 
The big problem, of course, is on the value side, as it always is with Redskins owner Dan Snyder. The Redskins gave Haynesworth the largest deal for a non-quarterback in NFL history (7 years, $100 million). It includes a record $41 million in guaranteed money.
 
In the salary cap era, record-breaking deals like that devoted to one player mean only one thing: the rest of the talent pool on the team will suffer, maybe in this case dearly. Washington, for example, just dumped cornerback Shawn Springs to make room in the books for Haynesworth.
 
The Redskins still won't win until they find a way to improve a passing attack that ranked 24th in Passing Yards Per Attempt last year – the ungodly gobs of money devoted to Haynesworth will make it awfully difficult to pay for those improvements.
 
The winner: Haynesworth
 
Kellen Winslow Jr.
Traded from Cleveland to Tampa
The short verdict: Who cares?
Winslow is simply the latest in a long series of brash, loud-mouthed tight ends who make virtually no impact on the field. Jeremy Shockey, anyone?
 
Winslow started eight games in 2008. The Browns were 2-6 when he started, and 2-6 when he did not start.
 
They scored a lot more points when he started vs. when he didn't – 138 vs. 94 – and he wasn't on the field when the Cleveland offense turtled over the final four games. But the team couldn't score early in the season with him in the line-up, either. The Browns also had their greatest offensive explosion of the year – their 35 points in the shocking Monday night win over the Giants – with Winslow on the sideline.
 
He could turn in a 1,000-yard receiving season for Tampa – like he did for Cleveland in 2007 (82 catches for 1,106 yards). But his first five injury-filled years in the league have trended far closer to bust than to gamebreaker.
 
The Bucs give up a second-round pick in the 2009 draft and a fifth-round pick in the 2010 draft, while Cleveland gets a couple insurance picks and unloads a headache.
 
Winner: Cleveland
 
Mike Vrabel
Traded from New England to Kansas City
The short verdict: Classic Belichick move
Vrabel will go down as a cult figure in New England. Picked up almost as an after-thought from a Pittsburgh organization that failed to see his talents, he became an all-purpose game-changing defensive player for three Super Bowl champions and earned a rep as one of the most versatile players in the league.
 
After all, he caught a stupendous eight regular-season touchdown passes in his career, and several others in the playoffs, including one in New England's win over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. NFL Films declared him one of the 10 most versatile players in NFL history (though they probably meant one of the most versatile players in modern NFL history).
 
But the decline of the New England defense during its four Super Bowl-less years has created an obvious need for changes to the unit and – on the heels of an outstanding 2007 season – Vrabel had one of the most unproductive seasons of his career in 2008. His 62 tackles were a low for his years in New England (other than his injury-plagued 2003 seasoon) and his 4 sacks were Vrabel's fewest since he had 3 during his first year with the Patriots in 2001.
 
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has a long history of cutting off veterans once the production starts to slip even a bit, under the pretty reasonable belief that players in their mid-30s (Vrabel turns 34 before the start of the 2009 season) don't suddenly return to the production they had at the peak of their athletic powers. So this was a classic Belichick veteran dump, in the mold of those we've seen in the past with Lawyer Milloy, Willie McGinest and others (though Vrabel remained a pretty cheap player).
 
Vrabel was also a year away from free agency, and this was the best opportunity the Patriots had to earn value for a strong, versatile player before he's lost to the open market – the Patriots received draft picks for him, though they remain undisclosed at this time. They would have got nothing for Vrabel next year.
 
The Chiefs suffered desperately in 2008 in the wake of the Jared Allen-to-Minnesota deal – their defensive front was truly inept at dead last on our Defensive Hog Index. Vrabel will provide a boost to the unit, including its awful pass rush, and he offers plenty of veteran leadership. But Kansas City still needs a lot of help to become a competitive defense, and Vrabel will probably be just a one-year stop-gap measure.
 
The winner: New England
 
Fred Taylor
Free agent from Jacksonville to New England
The short verdict: curious move
Taylor has had an incredibly productive and even largely unheralded NFL career, mostly because he spent his entire 11 years in the league with the small-market (and usually middling) Jaguars.

He's averaged a very impressive 4.6 YPA for this career – better than almost every running back in the Hall of Fame. Even more impressively, he's achieved that 4.6 YPA average with incredible, even historic, consistency: reaching or topping the 4.6 YPA mark in eight of his 11 NFL seasons.
 
Taylor was virtually unstoppable as recently as 2007 with the Jaguars, when he rushed for 1,202 yards on just 223 attempts – a tremendous 5.4 YPA average. But he was the poster child for Jacksonville's totally disappointing 2008 season, rushing for just 556 yards and a career low 3.9 YPA.
 
At 33, he's absolutely on the back nine based upon the historic production of running backs throughout NFL history. So his age, coupled with the big drop in production and big veteran salary, easily made Taylor expendable for the Jaguars.
 
The curious part, though, is that the Patriots would sign an aging veteran at a position in which they were very, very productive last year: New England averaged 4.4 YPA on the ground in 2008 – the organization's greatest ground game output in 25 years.
 
Taylor, at minimum, provides a bit of insurance in a productive back field and, at best, might provide the occasional home run ball in the ground game. But for a team with so many other needs, especially on defense, it's something of a curious move.
 
The winner: nobody

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