I can't figure out a landing spot for Matt Cassel, but I'll be surprised if he's a Patriot on July 1.
Cassel did sign his franchise tender, by the way; I confirmed that Sunday night. There'd been some speculation at the combine that Cassel hadn't signed it yet for some inexplicable reason, but it's definitely a done deal.
I'm surprised that a quarterback who played as well as Cassel did for the last 10 weeks of the season is being viewed by most people in the league as too risky to chart a long-term course with. It's not often in free agency or in trade that a young quarterback with promise is available. And while I understand it's a millstone around Cassel that he'd require probably two fairly high picks plus an average of $14 million-ish a year in a contract, I still think I'd rather have Cassel as my quarterback of the future than, say, Matthew Stafford. And the money's not that much different.
The logical places for New England to trade Cassel are Kansas City (because Scott Pioli is the man who drafted him in 2005 in New England), Detroit (because the Lions have $36 million in cap room and three of the top 33 picks to play with), Tampa Bay (because the Bucs have $55 million in cap room and no QB of the future), Minnesota (because Brad Childress needs a long-term quarterback) and the 49ers (because their quarterback is named Shaun Hill). I don't buy San Francisco or Minnesota because of the draft picks they'd have to give up, plus neither are cash-rich. The Lions don't seem inclined to risk taking a quarterback they're unsure of; ditto the Bucs.
That leaves Cassel's old pal Pioli. I think Cassel and Todd Haley would make beautiful music together. The Hunt family wouldn't grouse at the money. But I say no -- not because Pioli doesn't love the kid. I say no because of Pioli's history. The Patriots took Tom Brady with the 199th pick in 2000. They took Cassel with the 230th pick in 2005. Let's say the Patriots asked Kansas City for its second-round pick in 2009 and 2010. Pioli values picks in the 30s the way most team value picks in the teens. I'd be stunned if he did it. I think he'd trust Haley to pick a Josh Freeman in this draft in the third round, let's say, and work with Freeman, Brodie Croyle and Tyler Thigpen over the next couple of years and say, "Let the best man win.''
Matthew Stafford is going to be a conundrum for teams in the next two months.
I write about Stafford, the Georgia quarterback pegged to be a top 10 pick and the first quarterback to go in the draft, for this week's Sports Illustrated. I liked him a lot. He's an engaging kid, confident bordering on cocky but not obnoxiously so. I found it interesting that when he was working out at Athletes Performance Institute in Tempe, Ariz., this winter, he wasn't at all fazed or intimidated by the other star athletes in the house. Dustin Pedroia, for instance, the American League Most Valuable Player, was working out at the same API facility, and Stafford had no problem giving it back to Pedroia when the barbs started flying. Once, when Stafford's visage appeared on ESPN during a training session, Pedroia yelled out, "Oh look! We're in the presence of GREATNESS!'' The mental book on Stafford is he's a great huddle guy, his teammates like him, and he'll be fine in the leadership vein.
Football? Great thrower of the ball, just-OK escapability, made some dumb throws, never turned into the great player some thought he'd be. The Lions had dinner with him in Indy on Thursday night, and coach Jim Schwartz sounded like he was very much on the fence -- as he should be this far from draft day -- about him.
"He answered a lot of questions,'' Schwartz told me last night. "He left us with more work to do. You're not going to invest the money that we're going to invest without being extremely thorough with a decision like that, obviously. He's excited about it, which I like. Excited about the chance to be the first pick. He has a pretty good background, and a good knowledge of the history of the game. He talks about Troy Aikman, Peyton Manning, and he wants to be included with the great ones.
"But it's just too early to tell. There was a lot of discussion about Matt Ryan last year, and what some people perceived as some weaknesses in his game. I remember all those discussions. Those evaluations underestimated him. We're going to need some time to answer a lot of questions about him, and about the other guys at the top of the draft.''
The Lions delegation had dinner with USC quarterback Mark Sanchez on Friday night and Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry on Sunday night. I expect all of them, and more, to be making trips to Detroit in the next eight weeks.
Teams are resorting to different ways of poking and prodding the college prospects here to get through the veneer.
The neatest aspect of the combine is the time from 6-10 each night at the players' hotel, the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza downtown. That's when players in position groups go in 15-minute increments from one room housing a team's coaches and staff to another. "Speed dating,'' Mark Sanchez calls it. Each team can do a maximum of 60 interviews for the entire combine, and 16 per night. It's a dizzying flurry of activity, obviously, but something that has become more and more important to the decision-making process. A combine official blares an airhorn to start the process at 6 p.m., then another at exactly 6:15, and at 6:30, and so on, and players move from one room to another by strict appointment schedule.
But agents have worked so hard to make their players presentable that teams now have to do things to get players out of their comfort zones. This year, I heard more and more stories about teams challenging players instead of simply interviewing them or exchanging niceties.
My favorite story involved a defensive coach for one team asking Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis why they should pick him. "Tell me something,'' the coach said. "When is the last time a linebacker from Ohio State came to the NFL and was worth a s---?'' That shook the Buckeye out of whatever confident zone he might have entered the room in.