Cardinals will be challenged to build upon stellar defensive season

Cap constraints, coaching carousel, offseason defections will present challenges in keeping elite Arizona Cardinals defense together.

Figuring out how (or if) to reward Karlos Dansby for a Pro Bowl-caliber season will be a big decision for the Cardinals front office in the off-season.

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TEMPE, Ariz. - Despite an offseason overhaul of the secondary and the loss of both starting outside linebackers to season-ending injuries in Week 3, the Cardinals defense ranks sixth overall in the NFL with one week left in the regular season.

If it finishes that high (or higher), it would mark the highest ranking for the Cardinals defense since finishing third in 1994. Arizona's defense has cracked the top five in league-wide rankings only twice since 1970 (1986, fourth).

So what might this revamped but chemistry-rich unit accomplish in 2014 after a full year together? How much better can it be with a full season to have mastered the nuances of coordinator Todd Bowles' system?

"The sky is the limit," linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "Come back next season, there's no telling what we can do as a team."

Unfortunately for the Cardinals, that's not how things work in the salary-cap era.

"Change is inevitable in the NFL now," coach Bruce Arians said. "There's no way this team will be put back together, but we're going to keep every component that we can.

 

 

"Some guys are going to test the market. Hopefully, what's happened in our locker room is worth some dollars, because if we can't match dollars, we can at least match that."

Throughout OTAs, training camp and the preseason, Arians and GM Steve Keim trumpeted the depth they had built throughout this unit, but that's what every staff says. It wasn't until the games began that it became clear it wasn't lip service.

The Cardinals lost starting outside linebackers Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander on Sept. 23 against the New Orleans Saints, but John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy stepped in to fill the void. When starting safety Rashad Johnson lost a fingertip, Tyrann Mathieu assumed the starting role and emerged as an NFL defensive rookie of the year candidate.

When Mathieu went down, and Johnson did, too, veteran Antoine Cason and rookie Tony Jefferson stepped up. And along the defensive line, Keim, Arians and vice president of player personnel Jason Licht reshuffled the deck to add better depth in nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu and tackle Frostee Rucker.

All have played major roles in this unit's rise, but not everyone can return. The Cardinals will have seven unrestricted defensive free agents when the season officially ends. They'll also have a big contract to mull along the defensive line and their coordinator figures to garner some interest from other clubs.

Here's a look at those defensive free agents, as well as the key offseason issues the team faces regarding this unit.

Change is inevitable in the NFL now. There's no way this team will be put back together, but we're going to keep every component that we can.

Bruce Arians

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: ILB Karlos Dansby, CB Antoine Cason, OLB Matt Shaughnessy, S Yeremiah Bell, DL Frostee Rucker, OLB Marcus Benard, CB Bryan McCann

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: CB Javier Arenas, DE Ronald Talley, S Curtis Taylor

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: DT Alameda Ta'amu (if the Cardinals offer the three-year veteran minimum salary, he has to take it or leave the NFL).

BIGGEST ISSUES

Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby: Dansby has played at a Pro Bowl level all season. He is third in the league in solo tackles (109), has four interceptions (including two pick-6s), a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and 6½ sacks. He thinks he's the NFL's defensive player of the year. The question is: Will he want to be paid as such?

Dansby didn't garner anything other than one-year offers when the Miami Dolphins released him in March after signing free-agent Dannell Ellerbe. With so many other salary issues, it's hard to envision the Cardinals handing out big cash for a 32-year-old linebacker when they are already paying Daryl Washington plenty (more on that later) and have 2013 second-round pick Kevin Minter waiting in the wings. When asked about his future this week, Dansby was vague.

"All depends on the situation," he said. "We'll see. It’s here -- it’s round the corner really. Once the season is over, we'll address it then."

Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles: Remember all the talk about how much the Cardinals would miss Ray Horton? Well, not so much. Bowles has helped transform the Cardinals into an elite defense, and that sort of transformation normally makes NFL executives sit up and take notice. There could be as many as nine head coaching gigs available this offseason. Some wonder about Bowles' interviewing ability, but he was the interim head coach at Miami in 2011, so he's no stranger to the process. Beyond that, his players tout him as a communicator, and the results speak for themselves.

"I'm sure he'll get interviews," Arians said. "I'd be shocked if he doesn't."

Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett's contract: Dockett is due to make a base salary of $5.5 million next season the second-to-last year of his deal), and his cap number is $8.75 due to various bonuses. But it carries $6 million in dead money, so the Cardinals would only save $2.75 million by releasing him, versus $6.8 million the following year. Earlier this season, Dockett expressed no real interest in restructuring his salary, but he also noted how little he wants to move to another team at his age (he'll be 33 when next season starts).

"I don't want to be one of those guys who has done so much for one organization and then goes to another and starts over," he said. "But whatever happens, happens. It's not the end of the world."

When an organization decides to cut ties with such a high-profile impact player, it normally has another waiting in the wings. The Cardinals do not have that player now, as they did in Calais Campbell when they let Antonio Smith walk away.

Dockett didn't elaborate, but when asked specifically about his chances of returning, he said this: "I don't think Bruce Arians will let me leave. I honestly don't."

Inside linebacker Daryl Washington's contract: Washington has a $10 million option bonus due in March. It's hard to envision the Cardinals cutting ties with one of their most dynamic players, but they might wait to see how his court proceedings play out in a domestic incident. Unless a pretrial settlement can be reached, Washington's trial is set to begin Jan. 30, 2014.

Washington could offer to split that bonus over two years, but when asked about it recently, he didn't sound inclined to do so. Washington knows that if he ever hit the free-agent market, he'd have plenty of big offers.

Cornerback Patrick Peterson's contract: Peterson is signed through the 2014 season, so the Cardinals don't have to do anything right now. They could even slap the franchise tag on him for two more years after that if they so desire, but given his skyrocketing ability as a cover corner, they would probably prefer to get Peterson signed sometime soon.  (They can't formally agree to a deal until after the 2013 season due to rules in the collective bargaining agreement.)

A franchise tag normally doesn't sit well with a player, and this is one relationship the Cards probably want to maintain.

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