Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
As organized as Bill Belichick is, the New England Patriots probably didn't wait for the Scott Pioli situation to shake out in Kansas City before getting started on free agency.
The Patriots are expected to franchise unrestricted quarterback Matt Cassel as an insurance policy for Tom Brady's blown-out left knee. Cassel would receive a one-year qualifying offer worth almost $15 million -- the average of the top five salaries at his position.
Even if the Patriots and Cassel hammer out a deal on their own terms, his salary will gobble up a huge portion of the roughly $18 million to $20 million cap space they currently have. The actual salary cap number for 2009 hasn't been released.
Unrestricted (free to negotiate with any team beginning Feb. 27)
QB Matt Cassel
G/C Russ Hochstein
LB Larry Izzo
LS Lonie Paxton
LB Junior Seau
DL Kenny Smith
OL Barry Stokes
DL Mike Wright
Restricted (Patriots have right to match offer from other team)
Exclusive rights (cannot negotiate with other teams if tendered qualifying offer)