Winners and losers: Broncos blow it

The Denver Broncos have just stumbled into the stupidest predicament of the offseason.

They’ll spend the next several hours and days and weeks denying it, but the world will know better: The Broncos flirted for a moment with the idea of acquiring New England Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel. A league source confirmed to Yahoo! Sports that the Broncos showed legitimate interest in acquiring Cassel – a move that inevitably would have spelled a trade for Jay Cutler.

Ultimately, Cassel went to the Kansas City Chiefs, but the Broncos already had opened Pandora’s Box. Indeed, it’s an unambiguous signal. Considering another starting quarterback shows a lack of total confidence in the current one.

Now the spin control will be shifted into high gear for the Broncos over the next few days, with a semantics game about having to “answer the phone” when someone calls. Certainly, you have to answer the phone, but if you’re 100 percent sold on your franchise quarterback, you don’t explore Cassel’s price tag. According to a source, the Broncos did just that, and now they’ll have to pay for it, via a round of awkward denials and attempts to mend hurt feelings with their star player.

It will be interesting to see how the situation plays out, considering the Broncos will have an easier time dousing this story than they will soothing Cutler. He has shown in his brief NFL career that he doesn’t take being slighted very well. And for a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback, there are few things more embarrassing than having your franchise looking at another potential starter.

As Cutler told the Denver Post Saturday night, “I’m upset. I mean, I’m really shocked at this point. I could see why they want [Matt] Cassel. I don’t know if they think I can’t run the system or I don’t have the skills for it. I just don’t get it. Or if they don’t think they can sign me with my next contract. I just don’t know what it is. I’ve heard I’m still on the trading block.”

Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels denied Cutler ever was on the trading block, telling the Denver Post, “He’s our quarterback. We’re excited about this season.”

Let the spin begin.

Here are some of Saturday’s winners and losers on the second day of free agency …


WINNERS

The Kansas City Chiefs:

Photo
Cassel

Picking up quarterback Matt Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel and surrendering only a second-round pick is a very good move. Had the Chiefs already had a long-term contract in place with Cassel, it would have been a great move. Instead, the deal comes with additional risk. I’m going to assume that the Chiefs will get something done because they won’t want to pay Cassel the astronomical franchise-tag sum for this season ($14.65 million) and then risk reaching an impasse next year and having to franchise him again at a whopping $17.58 million for 2010. Bank on them reaching a six-year deal before training camp. Now Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli and new coach Todd Haley have their franchise quarterback. All of the sudden, this team is looking like a contender for a Miami-esque rebound in 2009.

The New York Giants:

We still are waiting for an upgrade at wideout, but the Giants landed their top two defensive targets: linebacker Michael Boley and tackle Rocky Bernard. Boley is athletic but a little soft against the run. He will benefit from the system and playing next to Antonio Pierce. Bernard is a very active defensive tackle who should be fantastic in the Giants’ rotation on the interior of the line. Even if they don’t land Chris Canty – which looks like less of a priority now – this defensive front looks loaded for next season. Cornerback still is a little thin, but it will benefit greatly from the push that will come from the front four.

The Denver Broncos: From a leadership and experience standpoint, the additions have been very solid. Granted, guys like safety Brian Dawkins, linebacker Andra Davis and running back Correll Buckhalter are a little long in the tooth, and Denver might not get a great deal of mileage out of them. But the team – and the defense in particular – could use some leadership. Dawkins will add that in spades and make sure guys are where they should be. Davis will add some experience in a 3-4 alignment. Adding Canty as an end in that defensive front would kick this class up another notch.

The Houston Texans:

The team went into the offseason seemingly only a move or two from finally realizing its potential. Keeping Eugene Wilson was a plus, as was moving backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels for a fourth-round pick. But the Texans took their biggest step of the offseason by adding defensive end Antonio Smith, who had a solid career in Arizona. Smith is balanced against both the run and pass and adds great size to the Texans’ defensive line. He greatly will benefit playing opposite Mario Williams and should up his sack numbers. If Houston can get Amobi Okoye back on track, this could be one of the AFC’s better defensive lines.

The New Orleans Saints: They still have work to do on the defensive side of the ball, but they did well in retaining offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb and linebacker Jonathan Vilma. The re-signing of Vilma was particularly masterful. Had New Orleans signed Vilma before he hit free agency, the fourth-round pick the Saints sent to the New York Jets for him would have escalated to a second-rounder. And that was an extreme problem, because New Orleans already had promised its second-round pick to the New York Giants as part of the Jeremy Shockey trade. So signing Vilma before he hit free agency would have triggered a disastrous scenario: The Giants would have gotten the Saints’ first-round pick, and the Jets would have gotten their second-rounder. In essence, by allowing Vilma to hit free agency and then re-signing him, the Saints saved their first-round pick.


LOSERS

Photo Ray Lewis had 117 tackles and 3.5 sacks for the Ravens in 2008.
(Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Linebacker Ray Lewis: His agent, David Dunn, already is doing damage control, talking about how much Lewis loves Baltimore and how he’s a symbol of the team’s defensive greatness. It smacks of a free-agent failure. The market for Lewis just never has materialized. But don’t blame Dunn. Lewis never has grasped his true value to the world outside of Baltimore. He might be a superhero to that organization. But to anyone else who has to shell out a massive deal, he’s just a super-pricey free agent who will be 34 when the season starts and likely not worth his paycheck by the time the third year of his deal rolls around. Lewis is worth exponentially less to any team but the Ravens, and now he finally is figuring that out.

The Detroit Lions: Seeing Cassel sent to Kansas City for a second-round pick had to sting. Somehow, Daunte Culpepper doesn’t instill great faith. While there’s no guaranteeing Cassel will be a star for the Chiefs, a second-round pick is a modest gamble, and it’s saying something that Pioli thought enough of Cassel to deal for him.

Look at it this way: If the Lions draft Georgia’s Matthew Stafford, they will be staring at a six-year contract that comes in around $75 to $80 million, with at least $35 million in guaranteed money. Detroit likely could have had Cassel – who has one season as a proven NFL commodity – for the same terms. Then the Lions also would have retained the No. 1 overall pick. So, which is better? Having Stafford and the No. 33 overall pick? Or having a more proven Cassel and the No. 1 overall pick? Personally, I’d have taken Cassel and retained the option of drafting a franchise left tackle or Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry.

Wideout Laveranues Coles: The fact that he still doesn’t have a deal is troubling, considering Coles walked away from a guaranteed $6 million payday with the Jets in 2009. When he left that money on the table, the natural assumption was that something fishy was going on and that Coles already had another lucrative landing zone in place. But now that he hasn’t gotten a new deal, it just looks like Coles was betting he could land a whopper of a deal in free agency. But the wide receiver market has been ultra-weak, to the point that Cincinnati’s T.J. Houshmandzadeh may have to return to Cincinnati to get a solid payday. Like Ray Lewis, it’s looking like the 31-year-old Coles may have grossly overestimated his worth.

Charles Robinson is the senior investigative reporter for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Charles a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Mar 1, 2009