As the popular saying goes, “it’s not how you start but how you finish”. Cardinals’ defensive end J.J. Watt was brutally honest when calling his team’s season “a massive failure” and it certainly was. They began the season 10-2 before losing five of their next six games to finish the season with a 11-7 record.
With general manager Steve Keim, head coach Kliff Kingsbury, and his staff entering the final year of their contracts with so much to prove, Cardinals’ owner Michael Bidwill will be reluctant to extend or fire anyone. And that includes defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, whose defense allowed an average of 29.3 points in the last six games. He likely will let things play out.
Front office moves aside, this team has holes throughout the roster. Spotrac projects the Cardinals having a little more than $9.82 million in cap space next season while Over the Cap has them at around $17.65 million.
Whichever one is correct, the Cardinals will still need to free up cap space to be aggressive in free agency. With that said, here are my potential cap casualties for the 2022 season (saving/dead money from Over the Cap):
It is his seventh season in the NFL since being the Cardinals’ 24th overall pick in the 2015 draft. After having a breakout year in 2020, Humphries followed that up by allowing seven sacks, 42 pressures, and was the second-most penalized (11) player in the NFL this season. Though he has been durable having missed only one game the last three seasons, Humphries just has not been consistently good as the blindside protector. Entering the final year of his three-year $45 million contract in 2022, releasing him would save the Cardinals $15 million in cap space with over $4.3 million in dead money.
Replacement: Kelvin Beachum and 2020 third-round pick Josh Jones, a career left tackle at the University of Houston, compete to be the starting left tackle
Though I strongly believe the Cardinals should upgrade their interior of the offensive line, it is difficult to identify a clear-cut upgrade among the 2022 free agents at left guard. Justin Pugh is coming off a quiet but very respectable season with no sacks allowed and having only been flagged twice this year. Arizona would save around $10 million with his release and incur $2 million in dead money. Cardinals will not be able to upgrade every position in free agency and the draft so the best move will be to keep Pugh and hopefully he is willing to take another pay cut as he did this past season.
Replacement: Ask Justin Pugh to take a pay cut
Cardinals signed Jordan Hicks in 2019 because of his pass coverage prowess but he has been everything but that due to his athletic limitations. Statistically speaking, the 29-year-old had three solid years with 384 career tackles as a Cardinal but they drafted Zaven Collins (6’4’’ 260lbs) with their 16th overall pick for a reason in 2021. It is time to turn the page. Entering the final year of his four-year $36 million deal, Hicks’ release would save the Cardinals $6.5 million in cap space with $3 million in dead money.
Replacement: 2021 first-round pick Zaven Collins
With Chandler Jones scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, maybe the Cardinals will be inclined to keep Kennard on the final year of his three-year $20 million contract. Though Kennard offers an inconsistent level of pass rush, he was arguably the Cardinals’ best outside linebacker in stuffing the run this season. Kennard made 20 solo tackles this season. If released, Arizona will save around $4.9 million with a little over $4.22 million in dead money.
Replacement: 2021 sixth-round pick Victor Dimukeje, 2022 draft pick, or a free agent
Phillips will go down as one of the worst signings by Steve Keim in his tenure as a Cardinal, with the worst going to Sam Bradford. After signing Jordan Phillips to a three-year $30 million contract in 2020, he has missed 16 games which includes last week’s Wild Card matchup against the Rams. When healthy, he is an average interior pass rusher but struggles mightily against the run. If released, Arizona would save around $4.1 million while having a whopping $9.2 million in dead money. To make matters worse, Phillips has a $5.9 million cap hit in 2023 due to Keim’s method of prorating cap hits with voidable years at the end of player contracts. If he is never healthy to play a full season, it is best to use the $4.1 million in savings on someone else that can actually stay healthy and play to the level that they were paid for.
Replacement: A free agent veteran
That’s around $40 million in cap saving to go along with the $17.65 million OTC projects the Cardinals to have.