Thursday, March 5, 2015

Thoughts on Cassel, Manning and The Saints

Going over a few items from the past couple of days pertaining to the NFL offseason:

* The Buffalo Bills traded for Matt Cassel, giving them their likely starting quarterback for the 2015 season. The trade does make sense from the Bills' perspective -- they did send a fifth-round pick to Minnesota, but got a sixth-round pick back, so they'll still have six total picks, and the seventh-round pick in 2016 may be inconsequential, as they should get a compensatory pick that season, given that they will lose a couple of key free agents (notably Jerry Hughes).

Additionally, by trading for Cassel, not only do they avoid competing with other QB-needy teams for Cassel's services (it's likely the Vikings would have released Cassel if he hadn't been traded), they don't have to worry about giving him a signing bonus and thus, if Cassel doesn't pan out, they'll just let him depart without any dead money against the cap.

The only issue with Cassel is whether or not he will be the right fit for the offense the Bills want to run. I know some fans will point to Cassel putting up big numbers in the past, but he has just two seasons doing that. The first, of course, came with New England, and we all know Cassel's production had more to do with the Patriots having a consistent system in place, and coordinator changes only meant a few tweaks. The second came  with Kansas City in 2010, a season in which Jamaal Charles averaged 6.4 yards per carry. That might indicate Cassel can be productive with a quality running back, except for one problem: Charles averaged 5.3 yards per carry in 2012, but Cassel threw for just 1,796 yards with six touchdowns and 12 picks.

It's understandable why the Bills made the move -- and it's certainly a better move than giving $6.25 million in full guarantees to Josh McCown. But it remains to be seen if Cassel can be the QB who gets the Bills to the playoffs.

* The pay cut Peyton Manning took has nothing to do with ensuring the Denver Broncos don't lose key free agents. It has more to do with the fact that Manning is coming off a quad injury that affected his play down the stretch, and the question as to whether or not he can recover enough to get the Broncos back to the Super Bowl.

Converting $4 million into incentives based on whether the Broncos when the AFC title and the Super Bowl allows the Broncos to push the cap hit into 2016, at which point they can gain considerable space should Manning retire.

As far as retaining free agents, that has far less to do with the total amount of money the players and their agents are seeking, and more likely to do with how much in fully guaranteed money they will get. Let's sum up a few terms regarding money a player gets when he signs a contract.

- Fully guaranteed: The player gets the money no matter what happens to him in the future. Signing bonuses are always fully guaranteed.
- Injury-only guaranteed: The player will get the money if he is cut for an injury- or health-related reason, but not for performance-related reasons.
- Not guaranteed: If the player is cut, he doesn't get the money, regardless of why he is cut.

Since John Elway took over team operations, the only players the Broncos have given fully guaranteed money for more than one season are DeMarcus Ware and Peyton Manning -- and in Manning's case, there were conditions that had to be met before the full guarantees kicked in after the first year of the contract. Ryan Clady, considered one of the best left tackles in the NFL, received just one year of full guarantees.

With that said, Clady's deal was effectively a two-year deal because of how the contract was structured. But when agents want to attract players or talk about the deals they got clients, they aren't interested in contract structure, but the guaranteed money, and particularly the full guarantees.

This likely is the issue with Julius Thomas, whose agent can point to players such as Dennis Pitta and Jared Cook getting fully guaranteed money (even if it's not a large sum) beyond the first year of their deals. The Broncos are not likely to budge from their philosophy, as they can point to Clady's contract and say Julius Thomas is no different. They don't have to talk about JT's injury history. All they have to do is ask, if Clady took just one year of full guarantees, why shouldn't Julius do the same?

* The news that the New Orleans Saints are shopping around Curtis Lofton should not be surprising. When the NFL announced the cap for the 2015 season, the Saints were $22 million over the cap.

They did restructure Jarius Byrd's contract, but that isn't enough by itself. Neither is trading Lofton, nor is the recent release of Pierre Thomas. Several more players are likely to be cut, and others will have to restructure their deals, just to give New Orleans enough space to pay their draft picks and rookie free agents.

The Saints no doubt have the mindset they can still contend for the playoffs, but given how bad their cap situation is, they need to be more realistic. The team is about to enter a rebuilding phase and simply can't keep committing money to top players. Their lineup will certainly look different this season, likely with a lot of young players in the fold. It would be a shock to see the Saints land any top free agent this offseason -- and if they do pull off such a shocker, all they are going to do is make their cap situation worse in future seasons.

For those that want to get an idea about the Saints' cap situation, you can go to Over the Cap's cap calculator page. Even if you don't understand all there is to know about contract structuring, you'll quickly find out just how difficult it is for the Saints to get out of their situation and still keep together a roster that allows it to make a playoff push.

And while it might be easy to say that the Saints play in a weak division, who is to say that Carolina won't make another strong push or that the Falcons won't improve? The road to the NFC South title might not be as easy as people may think.

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