DISCLAIMER: I am a Cardinals’ fan.
The biggest mirage in the NFL turned out to be the Cardinals 4-0 start. Down and Distance accurately called the Cardinals the most overrated team in football in the mid-October Power Rankings, and the Cardinals continued their downward spiral to a 5-11 record. President Mike Bidwill decided three losing seasons in a row was enough and cleaned house, firing head coach (HC) Ken Whisenhunt and general manager (GM) Rod Graves. Was it the right move? The NFL is all about winning and the Cardinals’ performance over the last year dictated accountability for their failure. After missing out entirely on even getting a chance to interview Andy Reid, the Cardinals were the last team to fill their head coaching position, hiring Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians. As for GM, the Cardinals promoted internally, promoting Vice President, Player Personnel Steve Keim, who has been with the organization for 14 years. On the surface both hires appear smart: Arians had success in both Indianapolis and Pittsburgh with quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck and the hiring of Keim follows a current NFL trend of hiring GMs with scouting backgrounds. The Cardinals’ roster does not have a quarterback of Roethlisberger’s or Luck’s pedigree, but there is hope that between Arians’ coaching and Keim’s drafting acumen, they will bring one to the desert.
According to John Clayton of ESPN, the Cardinals head into the off-season $723,000 over the projected $121 million NFL salary cap for 2013, even with 19 of their players set to hit free agency. Keim will have to be very creative and prudent with the players he chooses to keep. The Cardinals have talent on their team but with the departure of so many free agents, they will be woefully thin at many positions. There are areas among the Cardinals highest paid players to create salary cap room, either by renegotiating the contract or outright cutting a player. The Cardinals could choose to attempt to trade away a player also. The chart below breaks down the Cardinals’ top 10 paid players’ salaries in terms of base salary, bonuses, and cap hit (in millions). The contract information is pulled from http://www.spotrac.com.
|Player||Base Salary||Bonuses||Cap Hit|
No, that is not a misprint. Quarterback Kevin Kolb is set to make more than All World wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, and there is little doubt that Kolb will not see that $9 million base salary for 2013. Although not entirely Kolb’s fault, his play and injuries dictate that the Cardinals must aggressively pursue a reduction of that number. He is due a roster bonus of $2 million and is no longer owed guaranteed money. However, he is currently the best option the Cardinals have at quarterback so expect him to be back in the fold for 2013. Fitzgerald’s contract has a surprisingly palatable $2 million per year signing bonus, so the Cardinals could covert part of his $5 million base salary into a signing bonus for more room. The Cardinals have to be careful about doing that; teams who use that tactic are ones who feel they are in contention for a Super Bowl and “kicking the can” down the road so they can sign a few more players to put them over the top. Since the Cardinals have worked to do to make this roster competitive, expect Keim to shy away from using this tactic much this off-season.
The table below details how Pro Football Focus (PFF) graded out each player in their position and then displays where that player ranks in terms of salary cap hits for their positions. For example, Kolb is the 11th highest salary cap hit among quarterbacks in 2013, but was graded out as the 20th highest rated quarterback by PFF. Whether you agree or disagree with how PFF grades players, they provide a valuable baseline for the purpose of this article.
|Player||PFF Rank||Salary Cap Rank|
It came as a surprise to see Larry Fitzgerald rated as the 61st wide receiver in PFF”s rankings, so I contacted PFF to see if the grade was all Fitzgerald or influenced by poor quarterback play. PFF responded that quarterback play did not help at all; Fitzgerald still did not play his best, but not so poorly that he would drop that far from his 2nd overall ranking in 2011. Indeed, it appeared that PFF was somewhat surprised that he was that low. Whispers that linebacker Stewart Bradley may be let go could be true, but cutting him would help future cap years, not 2013. Bradley would still count $3.5 million against the 2013 salary cap (remaining $3 million signing bonus accelerated against the 2013 cap, plus $500,000 more to pay his $10 million guaranteed). Due to his poor play and injuries, expect to see Bradley released.
Tackle Levi Brown, who’s contract was renegotiated in 2012, suffered a season-ending torn triceps injury in preseason. Although he was the worst rated left tackle in pass protection in 2011, expect to see the Cardinals bring him back after their offensive line was abysmal in 2012. There have been rumors defensive stalwart Darnell Dockett is disgruntled and could be on the trading block, but that may have been because of then-head coach Ken Whisenhunt. Now that Whisenhunt is gone, and given that Dockett still played well in 2012, expect to see him back also. Keim could definitely look to Dockett’s contract for relief, since his contract has no signing bonus against it. Guards Daryn Colledge and Adam Snyder were both overpaid in relation to their performance, but given the way their contracts are structured, plus the fact that Colledge is the best guard on the team and Snyder offers versatility, expect both to be back. Fan favorite Adrian Wilson could be a cap casualty this year, but with a base salary of $2.5 million, he could keep his job. That leaves center Lyle Sendlein, who has been a model of consistency (until a late season injury this year) for the Cardinals since they signed him as an undrafted free agent; with no other viable options currently available for the Cardinals at center, expect Sendlein to also be back. Of the Cardinals top 10 paid players, only Bradley and Wilson are the players I see as possible cap casualties.
Of the Cardinals free agents, there are at least two they would definitely like to see back with cornerback Greg Toler and utility running back LaRod Stephens Howling likely their highest priorities. Toler was solid after returning from a 2011 knee injury, and Howling provides an added dimension as a returner. A few other names like running back William Powell, quarterback Brian Hoyer, and safety Rashad Johnson may be considered to give depth at some positions, but expect the majority of the Cardinals free agents to be with other teams or out of work. As for other teams’ free agents, expect the Cardinals to focus heavily on the offensive line. It is difficult to evaluate the talent at quarterback when the offensive line is a wreck. Indeed, PFF charted Kolb’s snaps during the Buffalo Bills game; he was sacked, hit, or hurried an astounding 53% of his drop backs. While Kolb showed immense progress from the 2011 season, the lack of protection ultimately doomed any chance to see what he, or any of the other Cardinals quarterbacks, could offer.
Heading into the draft, the Cardinals needs are among the clearest in the NFL: quarterback and offensive line, specifically the tackles. While the 2013 NFL draft may be lacking in quarterbacks of Robert Griffen III’s or Luck’s caliber, it is deep in offensive lineman. If the Cardinals don’t see a future starting quarterback when they draft at the 7th spot, they would be smart to not overreach and pick the best player available, especially if it is a tackle. Beyond those positions, the Cardinals will likely look to bolster their linebacking corps and add depth at the safety, defensive end, and cornerback positions. Running back will be a tertiary concern, but they could take a back in the later rounds.
Heading into the 2013 season, it is difficult to look at the Cardinals and see a contender. The addition of a new coach and general manager always imbues the fan base with a sense of optimism, and there is excitement of seeing what the changes will bring. However, it takes a year or two for a new staff to be able to acquire the players that fit their system, and the 2013 season will likely be filled with growing pains as the current roster meshes with the influx of new players and a new coaching philosophy. In NFL circles, no one is setting high expectations for the Cardinals, so it will be easy to dismiss them. Schedule wise, the Cardinals have drawn the NFC and AFC South, with the Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars as the remaining two games. While division wins will be tough again (1-5 in 2012), they could hover around .500 in their non-division games. The NFC West will be tough for the foreseeable future, and as the Cardinals are the only team in the division without a solidified starter at quarterback, they will likely be at the bottom looking up until they find their Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, or Sam Bradford.