The Arizona Cardinals have a long offseason ahead of them, with question marks on both sides of the ball as well as holes to address.
What are 5 predictable moves that they could make before the start of free agency?
Let’s take a look...
#1. The Fitzgerald decision
This is clearly a move that will determine a lot for the offseason. And it might be made for them in the end.
Should Larry Fitzgerald choose to retire and walk off into the sunset, then this box will be checked and Arizona will be relieved of making a difficult decision...
How much do you allocate for a 38 year old veteran wide receiver who’s been getting $11 million a year and is coming off of a career low....yet was still your team’s 2nd receiving option in terms of catches?
Especially with a limited cap after the pandemic?
Man....it’s tough. And it may determine if Arizona is able to go out and bring in a veteran receiver who can work out of the slot or if they already have that guy coming back.
#2. Clear cap casualties
There’s the unfortunate reality of the NFL in where some players’ production and what their contracts are set to be don’t quite line up, and if there aren’t enough guarantees allotted, a team may move off of a player to be able to gain cap room.
There’s moves that can be made before June 1st OR ones that can “kick the can” down the road by releasing them and pushing their $ into this year by paying off what’s owed for next year (or in this case 2022’s) cap room.
Some players that Arizona could create cap space by releasing are easier to see. Some, like Devon Kennard and Robert Alford, make sense given that for the former, Haason Reddick exploded onto the scene in a new role making the former expendable, and the latter hasn’t played in 2 years healthy.
Some players...are tougher. Maxx Williams struggled to stay healthy last year and could free up some $3 million in cap room if released, but he’s a dynamic blocker when healthy and has even had impact in the passing game. Could a more reliable option be found tho? Or should Dan Arnold’s role expand?
Arizona finalizing these decisions will help quite a bit.
#3. Notable Extensions to gain cap room
The Cardinals have another way of gaining as much space as possible ahead of free agency: extending players they want to keep to lower their overall cost down
The three players that come to mind here? Two of them are easy to point out, while one of them might not be...
-Chandler Jones (1 year left, $20.8 million cap number)
-Justin Pugh (2 years left, $11 & 12 million cap numbers)
Jones has already had his contract restructured, and it’s unlikely to me that he would be willing to add years to his contract rather than see the potential for a large payday in free agency following the 2021 season. It’s possible he could add a year, but I think that’s overly optimistic.
Pugh has two years left before he hits free agency, however, he has no guaranteed money left on his deal and is in a similar place as Deandre Hopkins was when he came to Arizona. He’s someone many have pegged as a possible cap casualty but being honest...he’s been a valuable starter and leader and has performed up to par with his contract. It makes no sense to cut him and have to replace him.
Rather, extending him by converting and adding guaranteed money to his deal would seem to be a prime move.
There’s one other player that could potentially be extended...
#4. The Reddick decision...to tag or not? (Same with Patrick Peterson)
To me, the first three moves are simple ones.
This is where the REAL offseason gets started. Haason Reddick and two decisions by the Cardinals loom large, sadly to no fault of Reddick himself.
First, Arizona chose to play him at inside linebacker for the first 3 years of his career in a primarily off-ball role. He struggled in coverage and space and really didn’t make an impact until he was moved to being an edge rusher.
Second, due to this, Arizona declined his 5th year option and is now in the unfortunate place that the Tennessee Titans were with Jack Conklin in which a player had a career year shortly after the team made a decision to not use the 5th year option. Given where Arizona stands in having only 1 edge rusher under contract in Chandler Jones coming off of an injury (and even Dennis Gardeck if tendered is likely not going to be ready to start the year) they will likely need to pony up to retain Reddick’s services.
There’s two ways to go around this, and the one that might be optimal is the franchise tag of $15 million for the 2021 season aka the aggregate of the top 10 paid players at his position.
While it’s a pretty penny, it would essentially reward Reddick, keep him under contract but also do so in the short term. AKA a “was it a fluke?” sort of move. It’s similar to how Arizona used a transition tag on Kenyan Drake, who had a solid year but not one that justifies continuing at $8 million per year...and saved themselves likely several millions by keeping it as a one year deal and can let him walk.
Is that the right approach with Reddick? Depends.
Let’s say that Reddick goes off and suddenly looks to be worth some $15 million per year after getting 14 sacks next season? Now, Arizona will have to pony up a bit more and likely will struggle to pay him and Jones or will need to look to draft a replacement.
But what if they are prescient and extend him at a rate of say a 4-year deal for $9 million per year? They would save $7 million by NOT tagging him, have future cap flexibility to add talent now and might be able to justify paying Jones by getting in “early” with Reddick on his deal. That does depend on this season not being a statistical fluke, however, and that’s hard to know given that hindsight isn’t always 20/20, and the Cards can look at another 9.5 sack player on their own team from the year previous in Jordan Phillips who didn’t live up to those expectations in year one.
#5. Exploring the trade market ahead of free agency for a starting cornerback
The Deandre Hopkins trade news broke just ahead of the official start of free agency, and it was indeed a doozy.
Arizona entered the free agent period and draft not needing a wide receiver, avoiding having to pay some $20 million per year of market value to Amari Cooper, and also not having to draft the likes of CeeDee Lamb at #8 overall just due to lack of a true WR1.
It effectively changed their offseason outlook, and the team was freed from needing to draft a receiver and instead took the best defensive player on their board as a result in Isaiah Simmons with the 8th pick.
I think the Cardinals could be looking at a similar situation to that as last year given that there’s similarities to the Hopkins trade. Last year, the Texans didn’t want to extend Hopkins and add guaranteed money to his deal & dealt him as a result.
This year, there are 6 teams that currently sit at $20 million or more over the salary cap in terms of available cap room to spend: Saints (-105 million) Eagles (-51 million) Falcons (-33 million) Rams (-27 million) Steelers (-26 million) Packers (-25 million)
Each of these teams will need to clear cap room by releasing or restructuring players before the start of the league year. And for some of those teams, especially the Saints, that will mean there’s a LOT of questions to consider...
For Arizona, it might mean an easy way to be able to acquire a player in a way similar to Hopkins or to the deal for Chandler Jones in adding a player who might not be available otherwise to sign to a long-term deal that the team will not be able to do.
For starters, the Cardinals need some help at cornerback. Should they determine that they are not extending Patrick Peterson, or if his price on a franchise tag is too expensive/should be assigned to Reddick, they’ll need 1-2 starting corners.
Here are some of the players on these teams whose deals will end in either 2022 or 2023:
-CB Isaiah Oliver, Falcons
-CB Chris Williamson, Falcons
-CB Jaire Alexander, Packers*
-CB Josh Jackson, Packers
-CB Marshon Lattimore, Saints*
-CB Patrick Robinson, Saints
-CB Craig James
-CB Michael Jacquet
-CB Avonte Maddox
-CB Bradley Robey
(I’m assuming they won’t trade in-division here)
-CB Bradley Robey
CB Justin Layne
CB Joe Haden
The two names that clearly stand out here are Lattimore and Alexander, both of whom might be top 5-10 shutdown corners in the game.
Each, however, is marked with a * as their respective teams could offer a 5th year extension to keep them at a relatively low price and thus not have to pay them after this offseason due to their first round draft status.
That said....even if neither of these corners are available for trade as their teams clear other players to create cap, there’s still quite a few veterans who could possibly be traded for. Some have 2 years left on their deal, some are entering their final season.
If the Cardinals are able to deal a high pick for Alexander/Lattimore, I’d say they should. But dealing a Day 3 pick for one of these veterans might be a savvy way to address their hole at corner ahead of free agency.