First-year GM Steve Keim was very active in free agency during his first offseason in 2013. He cut some costly veterans and aggressively chased veteran free agents, ultimately inking cheap deals with Karlos Dansby, John Abraham, and Eric Winston. Although the Cardinals narrowly missed a playoff spot, they still surprised many and won 10 games, including being the only team to beat the Seahawks in Seattle over the last two seasons.
While it will be difficult to improve on the 10 wins from 2013, especially with the Seahawks, 49ers, and improving Rams in their division, Keim has vowed to be even more active in the early free agency period in 2014, as Pro Football Talk reported several weeks ago. With the salary cap being finalized, and reportedly increasing by about 8% to $133 million for this season, Keim may have to be aggressive to beat some other teams to the punch. With a current cap figure North of $120 million, the first order of business will be trimming some of the fat.
Potential Cap Casualties
Inside linebacker Jasper Brinkley became the first significant cap casualty for the Cardinals last week, but there are a few other candidates for release as well.
– Guard Daryn Colledge performed better than some of his linemates in 2013, especially in pass protection, but franchise left guard Jonathan Cooper should be healthy for training camp. Keim will not want to pay a right guard $7.25 million, and could save almost $3 million against the cap by letting Colledge go.
– Running back Ryan Williams has had three lost seasons in the NFL. After finally being healthy in 2013, Williams was still a healthy scratch for all 16 games. With Keim and head coach Bruce Arians talking up Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor, the Cardinals could save over $1 million by cutting loose the second round bust.
– The Cardinals appear to have two franchise cornerstones in the secondary in Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. Jerraud Powers had an up and down 2013, and the Cardinals could recoup almost $3 million against the cap by letting the cornerback go.
Levi Brown and Bradley Sowell combined to hold down left tackle for the Cardinals in 2013, but they acted as more of a turnstile than anything else. To be fair, facing the likes of Robert Quinn, Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Michael Bennett and other fearsome NFC West pass rushers for 6 games is a bit rough. However, the pair still combined for a -44.2 cumulative grade, totalling 11 sacks, 18 hits, and 48 hurries throughout the season. Brown was even shipped off to Pittsburgh after 4 games, leaving Sowell to man Carson Palmer's blindside. Despite the troubles at left tackle, Palmer still looked competent in Bruce Arians' vertical passing scheme. Even a minor upgrade at the position could allow Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd to stretch the field even more.
Free agent fix: With the Cardinals picking 20th overall in May's draft, they're likely to miss out on at least the top four offensive tackles. The hottest names at left tackle are Eugene Monroe, Jared Veldheer, and Branden Albert, but the first two look somewhat likely to re-sign with their respective teams. Albert was rumored to be a trade target for the Cardinals when he was shopped by Kansas City last season, so there could be some appeal there. However, a name that's being whispered around Arizona is former St. Louis Ram Rodger Saffold. Despite appearing in just one game at left tackle last season, Saffold is a versatile lineman, and when pressed into duty at the blindside in Week 17 against the Seahawks, he held up well in 40 snaps. St. Louis wants to keep Saffold, especially with Jake Long recovering from an ACL injury, but it would be a coup for Arizona if they could lure him to the desert.
With Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett striking fear into opposing offensive lines at their 3-4 DE positions, you'd think Arizona wouldn't struggle to create disruption at OLB. 35-year-old John Abraham certainly didn't struggle, tallying 67 total pressures of the quarterback in 2013. The veteran pass rusher is signed for another season, but he'll be another year older. Matt Shaughnessy lined up opposite from Abraham for most of the season, and was strong against the run (+7.6). However, Shaughnessy struggled rushing the quarterback (-12.4), and is a free agent. He can't be expected back with the team in 2014. The Cardinals expected 2013 fourth-round pick Alex Okafor to take on a starting role at some point last season, but he tore his biceps in September and was lost for the season. The prototypical 3-4 edge rusher should get a chance to garner a role in 2014, but Keim is likely to bring in some competition for the youngster, who previously struggled when dropping into coverage at Texas.
Free agent fix: In a perfect world, Brian Orakpo or Jason Worilds would have been targets for the Cardinals. However, both were out of Arizona’s price range, and after Monday, are off the market with a franchise and transition tag. The OLB market falls off a bit after Orakpo and Worilds, so Arizona will likely be settling for an aging veteran. While it's unlikely the Cardinals could entice Shaun Phillips to turn his back on the Broncos, Phillips would be a fit across from John Abraham. The veteran pass rusher had his hand in the dirt the majority of the time as a 4-3 DE in Denver last season, but a move back to OLB could be tempting as he closes out his career. If Phillips re-signs with the Broncos, perhaps Arizona could kick the tires on two former players. O'Brien Schofield was cut last spring, but showed well in limited snaps for Seattle. Additionally, Calvin Pace played his first four seasons in Arizona, and could help mentor Alex Okafor.
Last week, at the NFL Combine, head coach Bruce Arians made some remarks about his ideal tight end. As the former offensive boss for the Steelers, Arians lauded Heath Miller, who he called “the best tight end in the National Football League.” Zigging while the rest of the league zags, Arians prefers a blocking first tight end to the seam-stretching pass catchers that have emerged in recent seasons. Whether he's throwing out a smokescreen ahead of free agency and the draft, as many coaches and GMs do this time of year, the results from last season seem to back up Arians' remarks. Jim Dray logged the most snaps for Arizona tight ends last season with 698, but his snap breakdown is the interesting part. On 475 of those snaps, or just over two-thirds of the plays, Dray run or pass-blocked. Dray's deputy, Rob Housler, is known as more of a receiver, running 311 routes of his 531 snaps.
Free agent fix: The Cards have just one tight end, Rob Housler, signed for 2014. They may look to get younger at the position through the draft, but they're more likely to draft a developmental prospect. Keim and Arians are likely looking at a cheap, blocking first option in free agency. Dray, who's 27, could probably be had back for a reasonable price, but the former Stanford Cardinal struggled blocking last season, finishing the year with a negative grade in run-blocking (-11.2) and pass-blocking (-3.8). The best blocker on the market is Ben Hartsock, who helped key Carolina's run game in 2013. While Hartsock may get some looks from the few run heavy teams left in the NFL, his price shouldn't be too prohibitive for Arizona, as he turns 34 in July. Other “block-first” tight end options for the Cardinals could include Ed Dickson or Michael Hoomanawanui, who both had down years in run-blocking last season, but could fit Coach Arians' specifications.
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