Arizona Cardinals' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency
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What do the Arizona Cardinals need to do to win free agency? We know they now need a strong safety after releasing the best defensive player in franchise history, Adrian Wilson.
General manager Steve Keim has an unequivocal plan this offseason: Get younger and lower the burden of the salary cap.
And he is holding nothing back in executing that plan. Firing a close friend—partly because of whom he was able to move up within the franchise—took guts and courage. As difficult as it had to be to tell one of the first players he scouted that his services were no longer needed, finding his replacement may be even harder.
Here is what the Cardinals must do to win free agency.
Sign OG Jake Scott
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Doing this instantly upgrades the interior offensive line.
Adam Snyder was signed last offseason despite the Cardinals also talking to Jake Scott, and the offensive line suffered from it.
Scott signed a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles midway through the 2012 season. He started the final seven games for them, and the Eagles’ line was better for it.
With the Scott signing, Snyder would no longer start and could either be released or have his contract reduced. It doesn’t make much financial sense to keep a guy on as a backup who will be making as much as your starter, so whichever way they go, the end result should be to lower the overall cap number.
I would place money on Snyder being released. After starting 83 games over eight NFL seasons, he likely will not tolerate being someone's backup. I also don't foresee him having much trade value, so a release would be best for all parties involved.
Fill the Void Left by Adrian Wilson
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This is a tricky endeavor. Replacing the longest-tenured and best player the franchise’s defense has ever built around will not be easy.
It could backfire on them if the Cardinals bring in the wrong replacement.
They could re-sign Rashad Johnson (which they reportedly want to do, according to Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com).
Or they could go out and sign an outside free agent.
Or as a third option, they could re-sign Johnson and bring in an outside free agent and have them combine to be Wilson’s replacement until one can be found in the draft.
NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah gives a hint via Twitter as to what Arizona will do:
According to a good source, the Cardinals will aggressively pursue a safety in free agency.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) March 9, 2013
The list of safeties available is not very impressive. In fact, Wilson may be the best strong safety on that list. But finding at least a temporary fill-in would help.
I have been asked by fans of the franchise if the team should look to the draft to find a replacement for Wilson—specifically if taking former Texas safety Kenny Vacarro with its first pick is a good idea.
Although Vacarro is far and away the best safety prospect available in the 2013 NFL draft, using the No. 7 pick on him is not a good idea, especially when considering the players likely to be left on the board if he is the pick—offensive guard Chance Warmack and tackle Eric Fisher, to name two.
Replacing a legend is not an easy task. Keim knows that, and he knows he has work to do in finding that guy.
Sign QB Carson Palmer (If Released)
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His release is speculation at this point, but it’s worth noting that any quarterback rumored to be released or traded these days will be—and has been—linked to the Arizona Cardinals. It’s just the nature of the business when your team lacks a “franchise quarterback.”
Palmer does make sense for head coach Bruce Arians and the Cardinals, however.
He is willing to push the ball downfield and is accurate on his short and intermediate passes. At his age (33), he hasn’t been as active a passer as one might assume.
In today’s aerial-assault league, quarterbacks throw now more than they ever have. But Palmer has not kept up with the times. His 4,118 passing attempts rank him 18th on the list of passing attempts by quarterbacks from the time they've entered the league to their 33rd years on earth.
No one threw more passes before age 34 than Drew Bledsoe, who rocketed 6,548 attempts from 1993-2005—no one, that is, until Matthew Stafford gets there (at his current two-year pace, by then Stafford will have thrown more than 8,000 passes).
For a veteran quarterback of his age, Palmer has not had the wear-and-tear on his arm others have had. If he stays healthy, he could have at worst two to three good seasons remaining.
At best? Five to six years.
Re-Sign CB Greg Toler
I highlighted Greg Toler’s 2012 season in a piece from February (moves the Cardinals must avoid).
To recap, Toler allowed quarterbacks to complete just 41.5 percent of passes intended for receivers he was covering—that led the team, according to ProFootballFocus.
He also allowed an opposing passer rating of 51.5 during the 10 games in which he played—that also led the team.
According to Yahoo! Sports’ Jason Cole via Twitter, the Cardinals are among the lead candidates to sign free-agent cornerback Sean Smith:
Leading candidates for CB Sean Smith, as if this moment, appear to be Tampa Bay, Arizona and Pats. But things are fluid.— Jason Cole (@JasonColeYahoo) March 9, 2013
Smith and Toler were part of the same draft class in 2009; Smith was a second-round pick to the Miami Dolphins, Toler a fourth-rounder to the Cardinals. That is where their similarities end.
Though he has played in far fewer games than Smith has due to injuries, Toler has been the better corner so far. He has allowed a 53.6 percent completion rate, a touchdown rate of 3.31 percent (percentage of passes resulting in a TD), an interception rate of 3.31 percent (same formula as TD rate) and a passer rating of 73.05.
Smith’s slash-line looks like this: 56.9/4.66/1.46/91.85. By comparison, fellow 2009 draftee and former first-round pick Vontae Davis’ slash-line is as follows: 61.3/5.73/4.30/90.67.
There is no reason to bring in Smith. Toler, however, must be re-signed. He has earned a starting role opposite Patrick Peterson, and the duo could be a good one for years, as Toler is 28 and Peterson is just 22.
All coverage numbers provided by PFF.
Sign RB Reggie Bush
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Reggie Bush earned a pay increase over the last two seasons in Miami.
Over that time, he rushed for 2,072 yards while averaging 4.68 yards per carry. He caught 78 passes and scored 15 total touchdowns.
Bush reinvented himself in a Dolphins uniform, becoming more than a situational scat back with contact issues. He learned to run between the tackles with force instead of searching for the first opportunity to bounce a run to the outside. That helped him become more of an every-down back—though he still is not exactly that.
But perhaps he can be in Arizona.
Injuries haven’t been an issue since leaving the domed turf field of New Orleans, as he missed just one game in two seasons with Miami and started every game in 2012.
Luring Bush will take more than money. The offensive line must be the first thing Arizona addresses during free agency; Scott has to be the first man Keim calls and ultimately signs.
Getting Scott to sign will show potential free-agent signees the team is serious about improving what was among the worst units over the last handful of years. He is one of the best interior linemen in the game, and his signing is a must if the Cardinals intend to bring in a name such as Bush.
So Steve and Jake, if you're reading this: Regardless of Bush being a target, make it work this time, yeah?
Free Up More Cap Space
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According to Spotrac, the team’s 2013 cap hit is currently at $113,363,450. That means it has roughly $10.5 million in cap space with which to work.
While that is much better than two weeks ago when the team was in the negative, it still is not enough to do what the Cardinals need to do in order to get the ball rolling on free agents—let alone rookies.
Cutting Wilson, Stewart Bradley, William Gay and Early Doucet is a start (though I loathe seeing Wilson go), but big-money decisions have yet to be made.
Kevin Kolb’s contract still needs reworking—or sending through a paper shredder, whichever they choose—before anything else happens. Releasing him would reduce the overall cap hit another $7.5 million.
Larry Fitzgerald may also be asked to lower his sizeable salary.
Also, extending the contract of Kerry Rhodes would reduce his $6 million cap hit for 2013. I laid out a possible contract for Rhodes in early March, suggesting a three-year, $21 million extension for the 30-year-old, eight-year veteran. He has earned an extension and the deal would be beneficial to both parties.
Rhodes would get the security of one of his final NFL contracts, while Arizona would get more room to breathe underneath the salary cap.
However they do it, the Cardinals must reduce the weight of the cap for 2013. They have done nice work so far, but the job is not complete.