During his first two seasons as general manager of the Arizona Cardinals, Steve Keim has had at least one moment when he treats free agency like a yard sale.
He bypasses the rarely used exercise bikes of free agency and heads straight to some decaying old couch complete with cushion rips and various pizza stains. He buys it for barely more than zero dollars, then a week later the same couch has been given a magical face lift and is the centerpiece of a living room.
During Keim’s first swing at free agency in 2013 his bargain veteran gem was Karlos Dansby. The middle linebacker was paid only $2.25 million on a one-year deal and then recorded 6.5 sacks along with four interceptions and 19 passes defensed.
Then in 2014 he cleared the fences again while digging through discarded and unwanted items. Keim gave Antonio Cromartie only $3.5 million on a one-year contract, and the cornerback produced one of his best seasons.
Now in free agency he needs to have one priority: bringing Cromartie back.
Cromartie is a pending free agent and was part of a secondary that faced 579 pass attempts in 2014, the league’s seventh-highest total. That high volume was a product of opposing offenses doing a collective shoulder shrug after being unable to run against Arizona for most of the season.
Going airborne was the only other option to move the ball, and eventually when faced with a repeated bombardment even the league’s best cornerbacks could be exposed.
Cromartie was on the field for 594 snaps in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus. That was the 10th-highest total among all cornerbacks, and yet the 30-year-old didn’t wither away. No, he did quite the opposite, and the shine on his 2014 season is pretty bright when put alongside some of the league’s best at the position.
|Top 2014 coverage snaps per reception|
|Chris Harris Jr.||5||623||13.5|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
Cromartie’s turnaround in Arizona was tied to both his health and a better fit within a defensive system. In 2013, during his final year with the New York Jets, he struggled through a hip injury. That resulted in many Sundays spent chasing and flailing.
Eventually dollars were ripped out of Cromartie’s pocket too. He was cut as a cap casualty, and then in a saturated cornerback market he had to settle for the proverbial “prove it” deal, which of course comes with the potential a player fails in that endeavor and proves absolutely nothing.
But quickly Cromartie made everyone forget about a 2013 season that was indeed forgettable. In Todd Bowles’ defensive system a physical cornerback was allowed to tap into his inner fury. Quickly the old Cromartie returned and a sluggish season became only a memory.
|Antonio Cromartie: 2013 vs. 2014|
|Year||Yards allowed||Yards/reception||TDs||Passing rating|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
Cromartie’s 2014 season actually gets better when we remove his one significant hiccup. He was torched by Demaryius Thomas in Week 5, a common fate for many cornerbacks this season. The Denver Broncos wide receiver was one of only three pass-catchers to average over 100 receiving yards per game.
Thomas roasted Cromartie for 221 yards and two touchdowns. That means nearly a third of the yardage Cromartie allowed over a 17-game season (playoffs included) came during one afternoon. Cromartie logged eight games when he gave up fewer than 15 yards in coverage, per PFF.
Cromartie’s play ascended swiftly across the board, and as a second physically imposing cornerback he formed the ideal tandem with Patrick Peterson. His physicality also complemented the ball hawking of safety Tyrann Mathieu.
Keim has to jump through some fiery contract flames this offseason, starting with potentially heaving one of two anchors overboard. Both defensive end Darnell Dockett and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald are climbing in age and dollar value.
I explored Dockett’s immediate future at length earlier this week, and he’s the more replaceable of the two. If he’s cut, Keim would save roughly $6.8 million against the 2015 salary cap, per Spotrac, with even more sweet cash piling in on top of that once Fitzgerald either agrees to a pay cut or is axed too. The Cardinals are currently $9.3 million over the projected cap but have options available to escape the red and appease Cromartie as his price escalates.
But now there’s the small matter of Cromartie wanting to come back. Darren Urban of Cardinals.com talked to Cromartie Thursday as the Pro Bowl prep continues (he’s making his fourth appearance, this time as a replacement for Richard Sherman).
His response when asked about the immediate future was, well, pretty much no response and a solid roundhouse kick to any sort of commitment. Maybe Keim should dust off the ol’ boom box and vintage Peter Gabriel tunes?
That’s how every pending free agent should respond when asked about his future.
In football years Cromartie is getting closer to old and further away from young while set to blow out 31 candles in April. This offseason is likely his final chance to cash in with something in the neighborhood of market value for his services. Cromartie could justifiably seek a contract in the Brent Grimes range.
The Miami Dolphins cornerback provides a perfect barometer for Cromartie’s value. He’s a year older (he’ll turn 32 in July), and like Cromartie he had to accept a bargain one-year contract after tearing his Achilles in 2012. The shark-infested free-agency pool generally isn’t kind to gimpy cornerbacks.
Then after he excelled in 2013 with 17 passes defensed and four interceptions, Grimes was handed a juicy extension with $16 million in guaranteed money and an average annual base salary of $8 million, all per Spotrac.
After the aforementioned maneuvering with Dockett and/or Fitzgerald, the Cardinals will likely have enough free-agency dough to absorb a Grimes-like contract. But the problem of appealing opportunities elsewhere still remains.
Cromartie has said many kind words in recent days about both of his former coaches who are now doing their coaching elsewhere: Bowles and new Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan. He shared some of those sweet nothings about Bowles with Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News.
Bowles’ press-coverage scheme just led to a rejuvenated Cromartie, making the Jets and their cap room that can buy several small countries a logical fit; they're projected to have about $49 million in cap space, according to OverTheCap.com. That’s why who the Cardinals name as their next defensive coordinator will heavily influence Cromartie’s next move.
Cromartie admitted that to ESPN.com’s Josh Weinfuss, saying the shape of Arizona’s defensive scheme going forward will be a factor in his decision-making process. Both Bowles and Ryan have maximized Cromartie’s talent by isolating him in man coverage. They’ve made Cromartie’s football heart smile.
“It’s just a point of understanding what kind of defensive scheme it will be,” Cromartie told Weinfuss when asked about possibly returning to the Cardinals. “If it’s the same scheme as Rex Ryan and Todd Bowles, when you’re playing a lot of man-to-man and you’re putting your corners out on an island, that’s something that every defensive back thrives on.”
The currently nameless Cardinals defensive coordinator will have a name soon, and all signs point to Cromartie being quite pleased with the direction. Tuesday night Alex Marvez of Fox Sports reported the Cardinals are finalizing a deal with Dick LeBeau to make him the new linebackers coach.
In that role it’s likely LeBeau would use his years as a highly successful defensive coordinator (he recently resigned from that role with the Pittsburgh Steelers after 11 seasons) to work alongside and mentor someone who’s promoted from within the Cardinals organization to lead the defense.
Educated speculation led Weinfuss to believe current outside linebackers coach James Bettcher is a strong candidate in that scenario. Bettcher is 36 years old, so promoting him makes sense if head coach Bruce Arians is seeking a young football mind that can be guided by LeBeau’s vast experience.
There are conflicting reports regarding LeBeau, of course, because it’s still January and nothing is final until ink is on paper. The most prominent dissenting voice is Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The name of the eventual coordinator matters less to Cromartie than the scheme, and for now LeBeau is a link to continuity.
A swing and miss on Cromartie would likely make cornerback a first-round priority for the Cardinals during the upcoming draft. Or in free agency Tramon Williams, Walter Thurmond, Brandon Flowers and Kareem Jackson highlight potential consolation prizes the Cardinals could afford.
But Cromartie is familiar and a piece that’s already working well within Arizona’s current defensive structure. Keeping a cornerback who jells with Peterson should be atop Keim’s offseason wish list.