How Arizona Can Capitalize on Cap Room from Larry Fitzgerald's Reworked Contract

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How Arizona Can Capitalize on Cap Room from Larry Fitzgerald's Reworked Contract
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After a weeklong media tour in New York City, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald had some business to take care of when he returned home from the Super Bowl. The All-Pro wideout announced on his Twitter page Tuesday morning that he was heading to the team’s facility in Tempe to sign a restructured contract.

According to Albert Breer of NFL.com, Fitzgerald converted $11.75 million of his $12.75 million base salary for the 2014 season into a bonus. The move created $9.4 million of cap room for the Cardinals in 2014.

This, in turn, proved to be a win-win situation for both parties involved.

The simple base-to-bonus conversion means two things: Fitzgerald gets the money he is owed quicker, and the Cardinals now have some much-needed flexibility heading into free agency. Prior to Fitz’s restructure, Arizona was set to have about $1 million in cap room after quarterback Carson Palmer’s escalators kicked in, via Over the Cap.

Once the restructure is finalized by the league office, the Cardinals' cap number will jump up to $6,105,581, per Spotrac.com. Even though that number gives Arizona offseason wiggle room, general manager Steve Keim will have to do his part and take advantage of the newfound cap room.

Based on Arizona’s inefficiencies at particular positions, Keim will put the $6,105,581 to good use. With a little over a month to go until free agency, the Cardinals have glaring needs at offensive tackle, outside linebacker, safety and tight end.

Some would say quarterback and cornerback are positions of need as well. I agree with that sentiment to a certain extent; yet offensive tackle, outside linebacker and tight end are more pressing issues at this point in time.

Bradley Sowell was the lowest-graded left tackle in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Arizona doesn’t have a competent edge-rusher opposite John Abraham, Yeremiah Bell is 35 years old and Rob Housler hasn’t lived up to expectations.

The only help Abraham received on the edge this year was from run-stuffing phenomenon Matt Shaughnessy. In 355 pass-rush snaps, Shaughnessy tallied three quarterback sacks, five quarterback hits and 19 quarterback hurries, per PFF.

Just imagine how much more effective Todd Bowles’ defense would have been if Arizona would have had two double-digit sack guys at outside linebacker.

As far as the strong safety position goes, Bell is on his last leg, and Tony Jefferson is still adapting to the speed of the NFL game. Despite finishing the 2013 season with a plus-2.1 grade from the folks at PFF, Jefferson had his fair share of struggles in coverage.

Per PFF, opposing quarterbacks accumulated a quarterback rating of 99.5 when throwing into his coverage area. Moreover, they completed 88.9 percent of their passes when they targeted the rookie safety. Jefferson was a guy whom talent evaluators were high on when he came out of Oklahoma, which can only mean one thing: The talent is there. He just needs to be coached up.

Here's a look at Tony Jefferson's coverage grade, via Pro Football Focus.

Yet, as we know, talented college players don’t always maximize their potential in the NFL. This is exactly why Arizona needs to do its due diligence and bring in a capable backup who enhances the Cardinals’ depth at the strong safety position. Having too much depth is never a bad thing—just ask the Seattle Seahawks.

When it comes to Housler, the Cardinals are in a much different predicament.

As I mentioned above, Jefferson is a player whom Arizona hopes to develop. The same can’t be said about Housler. Why? Because for the third straight season, he garnered less than 50 receptions and 500 yards receiving. Additionally, he has one touchdown catch on 151 targets for his career.

Obviously, Keim and the rest of the front-office staff hope Housler reaches his ceiling as player, but it’s safe to say they aren’t holding their breath. In three seasons' time, the third-round pick out of Florida Atlantic hasn’t made a whole lot of progress. If anything, he has shown that he is a subpar blocker and is prone to drops.

With that being said, it’s evident that there is plenty of work that needs to be done during the offseason. The $6,105,581 in cap space will go fast.

Let’s not forget, Arizona has a couple of its own players to take care of as well.

Cornerback Patrick Peterson will be looking for a contract extension, and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby is scheduled to hit the open market. Here’s what Cardinals beat writer Kent Somers of AZCentral.com wrote about Peterson’s contract dilemma on Dec. 31, 2013:

Peterson has another year left on his rookie deal, but the Cardinals would prefer to extend his contract now rather than later.

Peterson will command huge money, and the Cardinals have been trying to budget for it. For instance, they maintained a little cap space in 2012, a few million, so they could carry it over to 2013.

Money will be tight if Peterson is signed to an extension, yet Arizona has a couple of players who could be relieved of their contracts if need be.

The first cap casualty that may take place is left guard Daryn Colledge. In 2013, Colledge played well in spurts, but he carries a cap number of $7.275 million in 2014 and 2015, per Spotrac. By cutting him loose, the Cardinals would save $7.725 million over the course of the next two years.

The second contract Arizona could look at axing is that of defensive end Darnell Dockett. Dockett carries a cap number of $8.75 million in 2014 and $9.8 million in 2015, via Spotrac. If the Cardinals handed him his walking papers, they would save $9.55 million.

However, as tempting as it may be, one should fully expect Dockett to finish out his playing career in the desert. Like Fitzgerald, Keim could approach the 10th-year veteran and ask him to restructure his contract. Shoot, the Cardinals may even ask him to flat out take a pay cut.

Spotrac

From now until the start of the 2014 season, it’s clear that changes will be made to take full advantage of the team’s salary-cap situation. Some of the decisions that take place will be hard, but that’s the nature of the beast.

The organization is still paying for the slip-ups of Ken Whisenhunt and Rod Graves.

The good news is, relief is on the horizon.

Arizona’s salary-cap situation starts to improve in 2014 and 2015. The Cardinals have to continuously get creative in terms of player contracts and hit on their draft picks. That’s the only way they will be able to weather the storm.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all cap numbers via Spotrac and all statistics via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

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