Larry Fitzgerald (11) and Bradley Sowell (79) are part of two of the five tough decisions the Cardinals have to make this offseason.
Every NFL team's offseason is chock-full of tough decisions, and some franchises—such as the Cleveland Browns—are seemingly stuck in a perpetual nightmare situation every year. The Arizona Cardinals are not in that situation this offseason, as general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians worked hard to put together a 10-6 squad that narrowly missed the playoffs.
It appears as though the coaching staff will remain fully intact after defensive coordinator Todd Bowles withdrew his name from the list of potential Browns head coaches, according to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com.
And what a relief that is, because replacing the defensive coordinator two straight years would be difficult to do—something the Browns have to do this season after losing former Cardinals DC Ray Horton, who took the same job with the Tennessee Titans to work once again under Ken Whisenhunt.
To a lesser extent, the Cardinals still have some tough decisions to make this offseason, so let’s go over some of them here.
Just before the trade deadline, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com reported that the Cardinals could trade future Hall of Fame wideout Larry Fitzgerald to make room underneath the salary cap for offseason transactions, be it before the late-October deadline or during the offseason.
Keim quickly dismissed that claim, telling Arizona Sports 620 (h/t Josh Weinfuss, ESPN.com) there had been no discussion and would be no discussion with regard to dealing the franchise’s best-ever receiver.
I can tell you two things, and I want to make this clear and simple -- I have not had one conversation with another NFL team regarding a trade with Larry Fitzgerald. Number two, starting with [Cardinals president] Michael Bidwill on down, it is our intent for Larry Fitzgerald to retire a Cardinal. Period. If there is any gray area there, let me know, and we can get that out.
Okay, so Fitzgerald will not be traded this offseason, or any offseason from here on out. But what of that massive, $18 million cap number in 2014?
Keim took care of that question as well: "Regardless of the situation, we have accounted for Larry’s deal moving forward. Anything else that’s done is something we will have to look at and continue to talk through. But Larry Fitzgerald is a Cardinal and will remain a Cardinal."
Arizona brass believes it can work with the salary-cap situation with Fitzgerald’s hit remaining at $18 million. But in reality, it cannot. Not with just under $6 million in cap space, according to the latest public report from NFLPlayers.com.
Too many players would have to be traded, released or have their contracts reworked to make room under the cap for the offseason to continue.
While other contracts assuredly will be looked at, Fitzgerald’s cap number must be lowered.
At some point, cornerback Patrick Peterson’s contract will have to be looked at as well. The Cardinals obviously have a good one in Peterson, and losing him to free agency would be devastating.
He has one year remaining on his rookie contract, and at just over $5.8 million, he comes at a franchise-friendly price. (Peterson’s 2014 cap hit ranks 18th among cornerbacks, according to Spotrac.)
But do the Cardinals extend his deal now, or do they wait until after the 2014 season and risk losing him? An extension this offseason would have to be back-loaded, as Arizona does not currently have the cap space to accommodate a large first year for Peterson.
He fired agent Patrick Lawler in November, a move that surprised many and led to unwarranted speculation that the Cardinals would lose Peterson. That could be to Arizona’s advantage, however.
While it was never revealed why Peterson dumped his agent, it could be because Lawler was in his ear telling him to do things he didn’t want to do—like prepare to hold out for more money, a la Darrelle Revis. He also could have been telling Peterson that Arizona would low-ball him and that leaving the team that drafted him in favor of a more lucrative contract elsewhere was the best plan of action.
By all accounts, Peterson is a loyal person who does nothing but what is best for the team. That’s not to say he will take a pay cut just to stay in Arizona when the time comes, but if Keim holds off on extending Peterson, and it comes down to the Cardinals and another franchise with a similar monetary offer, Keim would likely emerge victorious.
Argue all you want about the franchise paying or not paying inside linebacker Daryl Washington the $10 million option bonus he’s due in fewer than two months. The fact remains that his past makes him a risk; paying him that kind of money now only to watch him earn a season-long suspension on another failed drug test would set the franchise back tremendously.
Not to mention the legal matter he has been dealing with since last offseason.
Washington is due back in court in late January and, according to Kyle Odegard of AZCardinals.com, he still could face suspension from the NFL, regardless of the outcome of the assault charge.
Though Washington wants to be back with the Cardinals next season, he understands the franchise has a difficult decision to make regarding his bonus.
That probably could be one of the biggest things (the team is looking at). I’ve never looked at it like that. I think that will all get taken care of. I am hoping and praying that all gets put behind me and I don’t miss any more games next season. I am confident where I stand in this organization that I am a good enough player and a good enough person on and off the field to come back next season.
While it may be true that Washington is a good player and will be a good player going forward, the truth of the matter is this: If the Cardinals pay the $10 million bonus and lose him to suspension—for any reason—it will hamper the defense and seriously annoy Bidwill, Keim, Arians and all of Cardinals Country.
Kicker Jay Feely will be 38. Safety Yeremiah Bell will be 36. Punter Dave Zastudil just turned 35. Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby just turned 32. Right tackle Eric Winston just turned 30. These players find themselves without a contract heading into the 2014 league year and are all 30 and above.
Some are worth re-signing at the right price, while others are not worth bringing back at any price.
Feely began the 2013 season by missing a 50-yard field goal during a Week 1 loss to the St. Louis Rams—a game Arizona lost by a field goal. He did rebound by connecting on his next 21 unblocked field goals from Weeks 2 through 11.
But he missed both field goals against the Rams during a Week 14 home victory and two more in the season finale loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
It’s probably best Feely does not return in 2014. In fact, the team already began looking for a younger replacement, reportedly trying out Norwegian kicker Havard Rugland last week according to Adam Green of ArizonaSports.com. But you may know Rugland as "Kickalicious."
In case you missed it, I covered these players and more in early January. You can find that piece here to find out what Arizona should do with each of its 20 free agents.
Anthony Collins could be a cheaper free-agent option for Arizona.
One upgrade will happen by default when left guard Jonathan Cooper is ready to go. The highly touted interior lineman, following a broken leg, has kicked his rehab into high gear since the season ended according to Kyle Odegard of AZCardinals.com, and he should be ready to go when pads are distributed during the summer.
But what about the tackle positions?
Winston is a free agent, and though he struggled early at right tackle in 2013, he shored up his game during the final two months of the year and could have earned another contract.
But if the Cardinals re-sign Winston, what will happen with the much younger Bobby Massie? After starting every game as a rookie and improving greatly as the 2012 season wore on, he did not start once this season and played only a handful of snaps.
Then, there’s the left tackle position. While some fans were content with Levi Brown returning from injury, it was quickly apparent that he would not work out in the long term. He was thoroughly destroyed by the Rams’ Robert Quinn to the tune of three sacks allowed during Week 1, and by the beginning of October, he was on a plane to Pittsburgh.
But Bradley Sowell proved not to be an upgrade over Brown. While his pass-blocking was highly suspect, one thing Brown had going for him was that he was an above-average mauler in the run game. Sowell is not that.
So what to do? Odegard reported the team could be in the mix for former Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowler Branden Albert once he hits the market on March 11.
But what happens if Albert doesn’t sign in Arizona and the Cardinals are left with Sowell as the starter going into the draft? Do they take a tackle with the 20th-overall pick and name him the Week 1 starter?
If we know anything about Keim, it’s that he wants to build the team through the draft. But his draft philosophy is to take the best player available while keeping team need in mind. If a tackle is not the best player on the board at No. 20, there is a good-to-great chance the pick will not be a tackle.
But other free-agent left tackles could be in play as well. There’s Eugene Monroe, who was traded from the Jaguars to the Ravens this season and has been consistently among the best tackles in the game since Jacksonville made him the eighth-overall pick in 2009.
There’s also Anthony Collins, the former Cincinnati Bengals left tackle who spent his first six NFL seasons filling in for injured blindside blockers but who has allowed six sacks in 53 career games and none in his past 42.
He’s a full year younger than Albert, and he could save the team a boatload of cash on a short multi-year deal.