Having turned in only their second ten-win season since moving to the Desert in 1988, the Arizona Cardinals appear to be going all in for 2014. Star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald agreed to a contract restructure this offseason, lowering his cap hit from $18 million to $8.6 million, freeing up $9.4 million in available cap space converting $11.75 million of his base salary for 2014 into a guaranteed roster bonus for salary-cap purposes.
In addition to this, the league-wide salary cap has increased by nearly $10 million to $133 million this offseason, which is expected to jump again to above $140 million in 2015, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter. This gives the Cardinals $17,875,088 in available cap space, according to Spotrac, prior to the signing of tight end John Carlson on a two-year deal. Team General Manager Steve Keim proclaims that the Cardinals are ‘at least 2-3 players away from being an upper-echelon team [in the NFL]‘. One would assume that given the money available to spend on a large pool of free agents, plus the draft, the Cardinals can acquire these ‘2-3 players’ Keim is alluding to.
Before we get carried away, there is the elephant in the room which is of course, Patrick Peterson’s contract extension. The 2011 first round draft choice is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and expects to receive a large extension which will make him one of the higher paid defensive players in the NFL. While Peterson hasn’t ruled out the possibility of holding out for a new contract, ESPN’s Josh Weinfuss believes the star corner will not do that. Peterson wants to have a similar pay packet to other elite corners in the NFL such as Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, so he’s looking for around $15 million a season.
So factoring that in mind, the Cardinals really only have around $7-12 million in cap space to work with, including the recent release of ILB Jasper Brinkley. It’s not unlikely however that some current Cardinals could be asked to take a pay-cut or restructure their deal, otherwise they face being let go altogether. Here are some candidates for pay-cut, restructure or release from the team:
Defensive End Darnell Dockett is projected to count $8,750,000 against the cap this season, which elevates to $9,800,000 for 2015. Some may argue he’s not worth that amount of money. The long-time Cardinal showed signs of slowing down this past season, and isn’t as impactful as he has been in previous seasons. It would be ideal for Dockett to perhaps take a pay cut to something around $4 million a year for the remainder of his contract, or he will be let go. There are options to replace him through the draft. One guy that comes to mind is Minnesota prospect Ra’Shede Hageman. The defensive lineman can across the line like Dockett can and is a nice fit in the 3-4 scheme.
Another candidate for release is veteran guard Daryn Colledge. With a cap hit of $7,250,000 each year for the remainder of his contract, Colledge simply hasn’t being playing up to his contractual value. Although moving to right guard next season when Jonathan Cooper returns from injury to play at left guard should help his play, Colledge isn’t worth the big money he is being paid. Much like Dockett, if it can be negotiated so his earnings are reduced to something like $4 million a season, that would be ideal. If I were to take a guess, if he doesn’t take a pay cut, Colledge won’t be playing in Arizona in 2014. The 2014 NFL draft is loaded with guards on Day 2. Someone like UCLA’s Xavier Su’a-Filo would be a great fit.
Although a favourite of mine and many in the Cardinals organisation, running back Ryan Williams just simply hasn’t lived up to his second round stature. His career has been plagued by injury, but even when healthy, he was a healthy scratch on game day this past season because he doesn’t contribute on special teams. He currently counts for $1,593,274 against the salary cap, which will be reduced by approximately $1 million should he be released or traded in the offseason. With Rashard Mendenhall likely not being brought back, Williams could have a role to play in 2014, but his future is unknown.
Other potential cap casualties: Lyle Sendlein, C. Paul Fanaika, G. Ryan Lindley, QB.
So who’s available to be signed off the street for the Cardinals? First, let’s establish our main areas of ‘need': offensive tackle, outside linebacker and safety. All three positions have some Pro Bowl calibre players available in free agency.
The team has been heavily linked with Kansas City Chiefs offensive tackle Branden Albert for the majority of the offseason. Recent reports suggest that both Arizona and Miami list him as a ‘high priority’ free agent. Albert was franchised by Kansas City last offseason, but drafted Eric Fisher with the first overall pick in last year’s draft, and Albert is expected to walk. He headlines a list of quality tackles available which includes Eugene Monroe and Michael Oher of the Baltimore Ravens, Jared Veldheer of the Oakland Raiders and Anthony Collins of the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s expected that the Cardinals make a play for one of these available players.
The main thing holding the team back is their lack of consistency when it comes to offensive line play. The turnstile which is the left tackle spot is currently filled by Bradley Sowell following the trading of first round bust Levi Brown mid-season to the Steelers. It’s unlikely Sowell gets the gig from Day 1 in 2014. The free agent tackles will be looking at Jason Peters’ extension with the Eagles as a benchmark for what they will be looking for. A fellow Pro Bowl tackle, Peters got a 4-year, $41.3 million extension with Philadelphia, with $19.55 million guaranteed. So we are looking at the region of $10 million a season for a premier offensive tackle.
The team also has a big need at safety, headlined by two players this offseason: Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward. Having been torched by opposing teams’ tight ends in 2013, the need to have a play-making safety who can cover effectively is a must. The draft doesn’t really present much value at the position outside of the early rounds, with prospects such as Alabama’s HaHa Clinton-Dix, Louisville’s Calvin Pryor and Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward leading the way as the top-tier prospects in the first round.
As for Byrd and Ward, they will be highly sought after players in the coming days. Byrd, who has been demanding a long-term deal from the Buffalo Bills for a couple of years now, looks destined to leave the team through free agency after seeing his team-mate Aaron Williams handed a multi-year extension. The Bills also announced the were not going to hand the three-time Pro Bowler the franchise tag for a second consecutive season.
T.J. Ward on the other hand has had ‘several conversations’ with the Cleveland Browns regarding a contract extension. The Browns have a fair amount of cap space, meaning they have the financial capabilities to re-sign Ward to a long-term deal, but a player of his calibre could be a hot property on the open market, especially to teams chasing a Lombardi. The Cards aren’t blessed with an abundance of cap space like the Oakland Raiders are, but they have enough available to make one or two big splashes in the free agent market.
Despite having a great defensive year all round, the Cards have a problem at outside linebacker. With Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander both missing considerable time through injury, it was left to the veteran John Abraham to pick up the slack, and he did just that, but he’s 35 now, he shouldn’t be a full-time starter. 2013 free agent pick up Matt Shaughnessy was impressive this past season though, and the team are‘actively trying to re-sign him’ for the long haul.
Reports are suggesting that the Cards are looking to sign Packers linebacker Mike Neal. Neal had a career year last season, recording career highs in solo tackles (36), total tackles (47), sacks (5) and interceptions (1). If there’s one thing that separates the Cardinals from their NFC West foes it’s their lack of a dominant pass rusher off the edge. The Seahawks have Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett (who is a free agent) and Chris Clemons, the Niners have Aldon Smith and the Rams have Robert Quinn. Neal is a nice rotation option, but he’s not your dominant play-maker, which is something the Cardinals should consider in the draft, where a player like UCLA’s Anthony Barr or Auburn’s Dee Ford could be a great first round selection come May.
This is just a quick look at some options for the Cardinals in free agency and even the 2014 NFL Draft. but if this team has serious post-season aspirations, then they must go hard for some of the premier talents available so they can go one step beyond in 2014. Any ideas on who you think the team should sign, leave a comment.