The Arizona Cardinals are making smart roster moves

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Jan 1, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Arizona Cardinals president Michael Bidwill (left) and general manager Steve Keim watch from sidelines before an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency has been rough on the Arizona Cardinals, but they are making smart decisions.

It’s going to be tough to see Calais Campbell in a Jacksonville Jaguar’s uniform, even though the writing was on the wall months ago. He has been a leader on the field and off – a true fan favorite. And then there’s Tony Jefferson – a player who was just beginning to blossom into one of the best safeties in the league. But doth say the Baltimore Ravens, “a Cardinal he shall be, nevermore.”

The list goes on – Kevin Minter, D.J. Swearinger, Marcus Cooper, Alex Okafor, Earl Watford. The mass exodus of Arizona Cardinals free agents has been downright disheartening for many fans.

There was no way the Cardinals were going to make anyone’s “winners” list in free agency. They had limited cap space and a lot of quality free agents. Their situation necessitated making tough decisions – including letting popular players walk. But as hard as this may be to accept, they have made the smart, but difficult moves.

It’s a business…

When players and fans discuss the more unsavory aspects of free agency, they often reiterate that the NFL is a business. In a sense, this is clearly true – the NFL and its franchises are for-profit entities. Yet there is an erroneous subtext that can underlie the “it’s a business” refrain.

When one speaks of the NFL as a business, they are drawing attention to the profit motive of the league and its affiliated teams. The underlying message is to suggest that teams will try to avoid paying market value for a player, all in the name of profits.

The problem with connecting profit motive to free agency in this manner, is that specific roster moves are not made in order to keep more money in the owner’s pockets. They are made in an effort to manage the salary cap.

Don’t get me wrong. In a larger sense, profitability is one of the reasons the salary cap exists in the first place, it limits the portion of revenues that are allocated to player salaries.

It is also partly to help maintain competitive balance, by preventing big market teams from outspending smaller market teams. But, ultimately, profitability is still a key part of the equation.

… but it’s still a game.

So while the very existence of a salary cap is associated with the profit motive of the NFL, the individual roster moves made by a team are not efforts to minimize payroll in the name of profit. Which is fine as long as a team is trying to build a competitive roster and is using its cap space to do so.

For the teams that fit this description, free agency is more akin to a game – a game of trying to build a better roster than your opponents. In this game, the winners are the teams that field the best rosters, using equal budgets. and operating under a common set of rules.

One caveat to this game of roster building, is that fielding a competitive team can increase a team’s profits through ticket sales, merchandise, and other sources of revenue. So, if anything, one can argue that the only profit-driven aspect of roster building, is that is is profitable to build a competitive team – which means spending as much of a team’s cap as possible, albeit prudently.

The Cardinals are counted among the teams that are striving in this game of roster management. The fact that they have limited cap room is evidence of such.

When Steve Keim made the decisions not to offer Calais Campbell or Tony Jefferson the kind of money it would have taken to retain their services, it was not because the savings were going to enrich the Bidwill’s. It was because he believed it was not the best use of the Cardinals’ limited cap space.

But if the objective of the game is to build the best roster possible, why didn’t the Cardinals re-sign their best free agents? How is re-signing A.Q. Shipley and Jermaine Gresham “smarter” than re-signing Calais Campbell and Tony Jefferson? Let’s examine the common strategies in this game of roster building.

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