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REPORT: PATS TO FRANCHISE CASSEL

With New England quarterback Matt Cassel set to become a free agent -- and with two key current members of the organization, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and V.P. of player personnel Scott Pioli, possibly heading to new teams -- the Patriots are prepared to slap the franchise tag on Cassel. Former NFL exec Mike Lombardi said on the most recent edition of Showtime’s Inside the NFL that the move will be made. “The Patriots are way too smart, and I’ve talked to people in the organization,” said Lombardi, via the Providence Journal. “They are going to franchise Matt Cassel. He’s an asset, and they can control their ability to trade him if they franchise him.” Though the move will result in the quarterback position commanding upwards of $26 million in cap space for 2009, it’s the right decision, regardless of whether it’s a hedge against Tom Brady not being healthy or it’s a strategy for getting something of value in exchange for Cassel. The franchise tender for Cassel will be based upon the average of the five highest-paid quarterbacks in the league. It’s expected that the number will be in the range of $12 million. The amount becomes fully guaranteed if Cassel signs the tender. Though the move might be nothing more than an effort to ensure that the Patriots will receive significant compensation by trading Cassel, we still wouldn’t be surprised if Cassel and the Pats work out a relatively short-term deal, perhaps only two or three years in duration, aimed at keeping him around until it’s clear that Brady is back to 100 percent -- and giving Cassel a crack at becoming the Steve Young to Brady’s Joe Montana.