By: Bob George/BosSports.net
March 01, 2009

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Let's agree on this much: Scott Pioli leaving the Patriots went a wee bit better than when Eric Mangini flew the nest.

Mangini was in discussion with the hated Jets, so he wasn't even allowed on the team flight back home following the Patriot playoff loss in 2005 to Denver. Mangini returned the favor by finking on Bill Belichick two years later for illegal videotaping during the regular season opener of 2007. Mangini quickly went from the brightest young head coaching candidate to a New England pariah.

Pioli, on the other hand, took off for the team responsible for costing Tom Brady practically all of his 2008 season. He was given a hero's sendoff, and now has been given a Happy Housewarming gift: a new franchise quarterback and the top candidate for defensive captain who Belichick often referred to as the "smartest player I have ever coached". The cost to the Kansas City Chiefs? A second round pick, the 34th selection of the 2009 draft.

A second round pick for Matt Cassel and Mike Vrabel? When you were expecting a first rounder for Cassel alone?

Rumours have been running about since Vrabel said on Friday that he had been traded to the Chiefs. The Patriots will use the cleared cap space to sign Vince Wilfork to a long extension. Or, they will use the cap space to sign a top tier free agent. Or, they will trade for Carolina defensive icon Julius Peppers, convert him to outside linebacker, and sign him to Albert Haynesworth money.

So, Peppers and the 34th pick for Cassel and Vrabel? That becomes more palatable, unless it means that Wilfork is a goner when his contract is up.

Let's first discuss the departure of Vrabel, which caught most everyone who follows the Patriots by surprise. Vrabel has a most unique Patriot legacy, in that he caused one of the more infamous turnovers in team history, then came here and helped win three Super Bowls. He is also perhaps a better tight end than Benjamin Watson; at least he is better at catching touchdown passes than any tight end of recent memory.

Vrabel came out of Ohio State in 1997 and, as a rookie with Pittsburgh, effectively ended the Patriot defense of their AFC Championship. He forced a fumble by Drew Bledsoe late in the game to seal a 7-6 Divisional playoff win at Three Rivers Stadium. Four years later, the Steelers cast Vrabel aside because they basically could find no work for him.

Vrabel came to New England in 2001, and would help cause the most famous turnover in Patriot history. In Super Bowl XXXVI, his fierce rush on Kurt Warner resulted in Ty Law's interception return for a touchdown, igniting the Patriots to a 20-17 upset win over the Rams. Vrabel would overshadow that rush with touchdown catches in each of the next two Patriot Super Bowls. He became the next player to be referred to as "all he does is catch touchdowns!", a rarity for a linebacker.

But Vrabel's true value to the Patriots was more cerebral than physical. Vrabel had the capability to make plays that other more heralded linebackers could not. He had an instinct for being in the right place at the right time, and was one of the most capable Patriots in "doing his job", perhaps the most consistently popular Belichick dogma. Even when he was called upon to play inside backer a few years ago, which is not his strength, Vrabel was able to hold down the fort and not cause the position to turn into a weakness.

Vrabel, 34, could be considered past his prime. 2008 was his least productive Patriot season, and anything mid-30s in the NFL is never a good thing unless they kick for a living. But his leadership skills alone more than made up for any adverse qualities brought on by aging. He could be the Patriot equal of Jason Varitek, to some degree.

Cassel must still be considered an unknown commodity, though he did well in 2008 when finally called upon to start for the first time since high school. Cassel did lead the Patriots to 11 wins, and in most years that should have been good enough for the playoffs. But it seems that he lacks the long track record to be considered worthy of a high draft pick, and it could be stated that 2008 might have been more of a fluke than the real Matt Cassel.

Still, this trade doesn't sit well with many observers. The Patriots usually loathe high draft picks anyway, but only a second for both Cassel and Vrabel on the surface seems a little bit small a return. Cassel did look really good when Josh McDaniels opened up the playbook and let him loose with more complex plays versus the vanilla stuff they were running in September. Cassel really didn't play at the "awful" level, though in the five losses at times he was exposed as inexperienced and was presented with situations where Brady might have dealt with more expertly.

To counterbalance this, there are a lot of observers out there who are afraid that Wilfork will price himself out of Foxborough, and clearing this cap space will make it easier for the Patriots to retain the keystone of their defensive line. Despite reports that 2010 will be an uncapped year, the Patriots may opt to lock up Wilfork as part of the compensation for losing both Cassel and Vrabel. Richard Seymour will also be coming up for a new deal pretty soon, and that may also factor in the equation.

Peppers is a stalwart pass rusher, one of the best in the league. He is weak in run defense, as the Patriots found out when playing against him in Super Bowl XXXVIII. With Peppers and Adalius Thomas as bookend outside backers, the Patriots would have one of the most formidable such tandems in the league. Peppers is not a free agent and would have to be acquired via trade, but Peppers is asking out of Carolina and the price may not be so prohibitive to make it out of the question.

The Patriots have to hope, above all other things, that Brady is ready to reassume full helmsmanship of the Patriot offense, and that Vrabel wasn't cast adrift too early. Brady's knee has been the subject of as big an offseason soap opera as his alleged marriage to Gisele Bundchen. Vrabel is a huge loss from a leadership standpoint, but perhaps the Patriots know more about both Brady and Vrabel than they are leading on to. You could figure that neither Cassel nor Vrabel would have been traded if there hadn't been a darned good reason to keep either player.

Now, if that 34th pick yields another Jerod Mayo, the complaining will stop and quick.


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