Cardinals' offseason agenda include free agency, big contracts, defections and draft needs.
An improving defense that was the NFL's toughest to run against gives the Cardinals a solid starting point for 2014.
Bruce Yeung / FOX Sports Arizona
By Craig Morgan
TEMPE, Ariz. -- First-year general manager Steve Keim and first-year coach Bruce Arians haven't had much time to bask in the satisfaction of a successful transition season that saw the Cardinals post just their second 10-win season since moving to the Phoenix area in 1988.
Such is life in the NFL. Success is difficult to maintain and momentum must start anew each season.
"I'm very proud of the 2013 Cardinals. The shame is that a lot of them won't be back to be the 2014 Cardinals. That's just the NFL," Arians said Monday after the team cleared out its lockers. "We'll do everything we can as an organization to keep the pieces we think are extremely important. Steve's already reached out to a number of guys' agents, and we'll see how it goes. We start building the 2014 Cardinals today."
As with most NFL teams, the Cardinals face myriad offseason issues, whether it's impending free agents, contract issues or defections. Here's a quick look at a few of those as well as some reasons for optimism and concern.
In the coming weeks, FOX Sports Arizona will break down the roster in more depth with a position-by-position analysis of potential losses, strengths and needs.
TOP OFFSEASON NEEDS
A left tackle: Bradley Sowell did as much as he could, taking over the starting role after the Cardinals gave up on Levi Brown and traded him to Pittsburgh. But Sowell is not starting material at one of the offense's two most important positions. He would fit in well as a rotational guy. The Cards could either draft his replacement to play alongside left guard Jonathan Cooper or they could target a big-name free agent like Kansas City's Branden Albert, who made $9.828 million this season.
A young QB: Carson Palmer progressed as his knowledge of the offense and personnel increased, but at 34 he is not the team's QB of the future. General manager Steve Keim has said he won't force a pick if the right guy isn't on the draft board, but it makes sense to find the QB of the future and allow him to play understudy while Palmer plays out his current deal.
A strong safety: Yeremiah Bell was a serviceable replacement for longtime franchise icon Adrian Wilson, but he was not a difference maker on a defense rife with them. Bell will be an unrestricted free agent, so the Cardinals will need a solution at that position quickly. It makes sense to find that through the draft, but they might also need a player to bridge the gap until that pick is ready to start. It would be nice to find somebody who can cover tight ends.
Darnell Dockett's replacement: Dockett's cap hit will be $8.75 million next season, but there is $6 million in dead money associated with it, so the Cardinals would only save $2.75 million by cutting him. The greater savings ($6.8 million) comes the following year in the final year of his deal, but the Cardinals do not have anyone ready to step in and fill Dockett's role. Now is the time to draft that player.
FIVE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
The emergence of Michael Floyd and Andre Ellington: Early in the season, Floyd was struggling and so was the offense. But he had his four highest receiving totals of the season over the second half and that had a trickle down effect on the rest of the Cardinals passing game. He and Larry Fitzgerald combined for just under 2,000 receiving yards, and the Cardinals offense looked competent for the first time in four years. Ellington was revelation as a sixth-round pick. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry and 9.5 per catch to produce 1,023 combined yards on his 157 touches. He is a dynamic force out of the backfield.
Injured players returning: Injuries are a yearly staple of the NFL, but the Cards had some big ones, losing top pick Jonathan Cooper in the preseason, starting outside linebackers Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander in Week 3 and starting free safety/nickel corner Tyrann Mathieu on Dec. 8. Getting those players back in the fold should help, although Mathieu's return will likely be delayed.
Palmer's improvement: Palmer threw 14 interceptions in the first eight games and finished with a career-high 22, which tied Joe Flacco for the second-highest total in the NFL this season. But he cut the pace to one per game over the second half of the season and should be able to make better decisions now that he knows the offense and is on the same page with his receivers. He threw for more than 4,000 yards, showed the ability to put early mistakes behind him and when given time, he made some big plays, helping the passing offense finish in the top half of the NFL (13th) in yards per game (250.1).
Defense: The Cardinals finished the season as the top-ranked run defense in the NFL and the league's sixth-ranked unit overall, despite playing in the NFL's toughest division. This is an elite unit -- one that can win games.
Arians' coaching: From his bigger-staffs-equal-smaller-classrooms approach to the dual practices to the relationship Arians built with his players, the Cardinals first-year coach made it clear that his interim success in Indianapolis was no fluke. The wisdom of years has taught Arians how to straddle the lines between disciplinarian, coach and friend, but it clearly matters to him what his players think of him. When it was noted that players view him as a father figure, here's what he said: "I don't like that. I'm the cool uncle you want to have a drink with."
FIVE REASONS FOR CONCERN
Alameda Ta'amu's and Tyrann Mathieu's injuries: Ta'amu suffered a torn ACL in the season finale against the 49ers and will likely have surgery next week. Ta'amu and Dan Williams formed a powerful rotation at the nose tackle position and were perhaps the biggest reason the Cardinals finished first against the run this season. Even if Ta'amu is back by the start of the regular season, his conditioning will take time to regain. That could hurt the Cardinals early in the season. Ta'amu will become an exclusive rights free agent this offseason. As for Mathieu, his torn ACL and LCL will likely keep him out of camp and the beginning of the season, so the Cards will have some holes to fill. Mathieu is a playmaker. It's hard to replace those types of players.
Defections: It's impossible to say who will and won't be back, but it's a certainty that some key players won't be return -- and perhaps some assistant coaches as well, including defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who could get some looks from teams seeking a head coach. Leadership and chemistry are among the factors the front office will weigh when determining who returns, but money is also a factor, and some players could price themselves out of the Cardinals' ballpark.
A tougher AFC slate: The Cardinals took advantage of a weak AFC South to go 4-0 in their nonconference games. It's impossible to predict how a division will fare from season to season, but the Cardinals will face the AFC West next year. That division is the only one in football to put three teams in the postseason: Denver (13-3), Kansas City (11-5) and San Diego (9-7).
Special teams: The Cardinals' coverage was good most of the year, even if it had a breakdown on the key play in Sunday's loss. Punter Dave Zastudil and Justin Bethel were spectacular. But Jay Feely missed six of 36 field goal attempts to finish 21st in the league in percentage (83.3), and Arians wasn't always happy with his kickoff placement. Even worse, the Cardinals got almost nothing from their return games, despite the presence of Patrick Peterson. This used to be a weapon under former special teams coach Kevin Spencer. It's a liability now.
Larry Fitzgerald's contract: Fitzgerald's cap hit next season is $18 million. Is he willing to restructure that to keep other players in the fold and sign other free agents? Will the Cardinals ask him to take a pay cut, a move Fitzgerald is unlikely to make? Will the Cardinals do the unthinkable and trade him if they can't reach an agreement? This will be one of the team's biggest offseason storylines.
ILB Karlos Dansby: He played at a Pro Bowl level with 114 solo tackles, 6.5 sacks and four interceptions, but if his contract demands get too high and another team is willing to pay those demands, Dansby's return could turn out to be a one-season cameo.
K Jay Feely: Feely had a decent season, but he ended on a sour note with two misses against San Francisco that brought his total to six misses. Arians wasn't always pleased with Feely's kickoffs and brought in Dan Carpenter to compete with him in training camp. He'll be 38 when next season begins. It could be time to move on.
RB Rashard Mendenhall: Mendenhall was an Arians guy and ran much better when he was healthy in the second half of the season. But he didn't distinguish himself with 687 yards on 217 carries (3.2 average), and the Cards have two young backs in Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor itching for bigger roles.
WR Andre Roberts: Roberts is still capable of impacting games, but he didn't get many opportunities this season (43 catches, 471 yards) in Arians' multiple-tight end sets. Tight end Rob Housler's presence in the slot also makes it difficult for Roberts to earn targets. The Cardinals need a reliable third receiver, but Roberts could be too pricey to keep around.
RT Eric Winston: Winston played much better as he adjusted to the Cardinals offense and its personnel. He's also a strong, credible, articulate voice in the locker room. Again, this will likely come down to money and opportunities.