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What DeAndre Hopkins to the Tennessee Titans can tell the Arizona Cardinals about Budda Baker

In a mercenary league, players are only valued as much as they are paid—will the Cardinals do the same for their team captain?

Syndication: Arizona Republic Joe Rondone/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

Just a few short years ago, now retired NFL DE J.J. Watt sent out a surprising announcement in that he was taking a deal with the Arizona Cardinals.

With teams like the Green Bay Packers and others in the running, this was a surprise to many.

In hindsight, other teams probably were not as close to signing Watt as they had hoped to be for one very specific reason. The money involved.

Watt signed a 2-year deal in the desert, and many have speculated (some even have said as much) that it was due to Arizona being the only team willing to offer and guarantee that second year of the contract.

The Cardinals were a team rising but had a need for a pass-rusher and were willing to pay more than other teams for his services. Watt went on to retire at the end of his contract despite clearly having something left in the tank.

This situation similarly played out for one DeAndre Hopkins, who inked a two-year deal with the Tennessee Titans after he was released by the Arizona Cardinals to the tune of 2 years and 26 million dollars:

Many wondered why Hopkins, who had said he wanted to go to a stable, playoff bound organization with a stud QB like the Chiefs or Buffalo ends up in a Tennessee room that...doesn’t seem to fit that mold?

Well, as far as the Titans’ depth chart goes...he’s instantly their best receiving option. They needed him. And, like the Cardinals with Watt, were willing to overpay a bit:

How does this have anything to do with Budda Baker? Well, Baker is inarguably the star player on the team. In fact, one might argue he is the only star on the team, especially given that no other Arizona Cardinal (post-Hopkins) has any grade in the 90’s besides him, and with Kyler Murray and Zach Ertz recovering from ACL’s, the Cardinals have good but not “great” talent.

The way the NFL works is that players are loyal...but only as loyal as teams are willing to pay them and/or have paid them.

Hopkins’ contract resulted in Arizona taking on a dead cap of $24 million this year in order to come off of it in 2024, and he received that original deal from Arizona as a leftover from his previous contract with the Houston Texans.

Why did Arizona do this deal? Well they had just traded for Hopkins, a key player for their playoff push in 2020, and he had no guaranteed money left on his contract besides injury guarantees. Although he did have two years under a team’s control.

Just in the same regard, Budda Baker of the Cardinals, himself, has no guaranteed money left on his deal and himself will be wanting some guarantees. This isn’t to say that the Cardinals will do to Budda what Bill O’Brien did in shipping Hopkins off, no.

What it means is that the NFL is built around teams wanting to maximize what they get out of their product, the players, while the players want to extract as much money from the league as they possibly can.

No shame in that. However, it becomes an issue when you look at popular, star players like Hopkins and Watt and recognize that in addition to their play on the field what they can represent OFF of it can mean great things as well. The 2020 Cardinals trading what little they did for DeAndre Hopkins remains one of the great trades and was the turning point for the Cardinals’ push to the 2021 playoffs.

It was also the falling star for the Houson Texans, who essentially struggled without Hopkins for a number of years and lost their starting quarterback to the Browns via trade.

If buying a name is seen as a team rising...selling would mean a team beginning to fade, just like the Hopkins release was for this upcoming Cardinals season.

In light of this, the Cardinals have a choice on their hands:

  1. Stay the course with Budda Baker’s contract, knowing that he might put up resistance and demand out similar to DeAndre Hopkins
  2. Extend him with a new contract for multiple years (knowing that you’ve invested a lot into the safety position and have set a precedent with years left for a top player who was only recently extended
  3. Meet in the middle by converting Baker’s 2024 salary into guarantees for 2023

This final option might seem optimal at first...but it would likely come at the cost of Baker having an additional year of control, and he might be able to hit free agency at the end of the year.

So the Cardinals are stuck in a way: you either have to “overpay” as it were for a fan favorite and star player amidst a rebuilding team (like J.J Watt & the Titans with DeAndre Hopkins)

OR you end up in a situation where Baker might demand out or there’s a risk he signs with a different NFL team in 2024 should you shift his contract.

Fans wouldn’t like that at all....No really good options...unless.

Unless...the Cardinals do feel like they will be competitive in 2024. Then you might look at a multi-year extension for the young star safety. Maybe keep and look to trade as some have suggested but as we have all seen—teams that trade star players away almost NEVER win that trade (Hello, Bill O’Brien)

At minimum the Cardinals will have to do SOMETHING to keep their star happy. It’s a mercenary league after all.

And if the Cardinals don’t pony up for one Budda Baker, they’ll be reliving yet another Hopkins scenario.

But this time they will be on the opposite, painful end.