By John McMullen
There are quite a few NFL teams who need a quarterback but this is not the year to find one.
The free-agent market is headlined by names like Mark Sanchez and Jake Locker, while the draft has only two signal callers with first-round grades (Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota), and one of them is regarded as more of a project, especially if you are planning on using a traditional, pro-style offense.
Rex Ryan, the new head coach of the Buffalo Bills, saw that landscape and decided to lay up and play for par, acquiring a dynamic high-priced running back to build his offensive around before snagging veteran QB Matt Cassel from the Minnesota Vikings.
Neither trade will be official until the start of the new league year on March 10 but it’s now clear what Ryan wants, continued dominant defensive play coupled with competent stewardship from Cassel as LeSean McCoy carries the offensive load from the backfield.
A day after the Bills agreed to send promising young linebacker Kiko Alonso to Philadelphia for McCoy, the team confirmed that Cassel was on his way back to the AFC East, along with a 2015 sixth-round pick, in exchange for a pair of late-round selections, a fifth-rounder this year and a seventh-round choice in ’16.
Whether Ryan’s plan is plausible or not is another matter. McCoy is not only a big-ticket item, he’s also a player who seems to be on the downside of his career and hardly the ground-and-pound type Ryan claimed he wanted.
After a brilliant ’13 season, McCoy morphed into post CJ2K Chris Johnson, always looking for the home run last year and not taking the yards blocked for him, a style that frustrated Eagles coach Chip Kelly so much it sped up Shady’s exit from the City of Brotherly Love.
Unlike McCoy, the 32-year-old Cassel comes with a moderate price tag for a starter, especially considering the position he plays. The veteran has one year remaining on the two-year, $10 million deal he signed with the Vikings last March when he was expected to be the placeholder for Teddy Bridgewater, He will make just $4.15 million of that in ’15.
“It’s a great opportunity (for Cassel),” Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He wants that opportunity to be a starter, and obviously we wish him the best. Obviously, he was set to make a lot of money here (as a backup). There were a lot of things all going through (the trade).”
Things were going as planned for Cassel in Minnesota last season and he was putting in yeoman work before a foot injury put him on the shelf for the remainder of the season in Week 4. Bridgewater in turn played so well as a rookie the Vikings felt comfortable moving forward without their security blanket in exchange for a couple of future assets.
“I’m a big fan of Matt,” Turner said. “It’s just too bad (about) the injury he had, because I think he was getting ready to have a real solid year.”
Cassel will be taking on a familiar role in Western New York in the hopes he can mentor and help develop a young player with upside in E.J. Manuel.
Manuel, the Bills first-round pick in 2013, was benched by ex-coach Doug Marrone in favor of the now retired Kyle Orton last season. He’ll be getting a clean slate with Ryan but it’s pretty clear the new regime isn’t counting on the former Florida State star just yet, first playing footsie with the 35- year-old Josh McCown, who eventually signed in Cleveland, before settling for Cassel.
Cassel is no star but he’s got plenty of NFL experience, compiling a 33-38 record over the years as a starter and twice reaching double digits in wins, as Tom Brady’s injury replacement in New England during the 2008 season and as Kansas City’s leader two years later.
John McMullen is the NFL Editor for SportsNetwork.com.