10 questions as Cardinals enter offseason

The immediate futures of quarterback Carson Palmer (from left), defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and franchise receiver Larry Fitzgerald will dramatically shape the 2015 Cardinals.

Photo by Christian Petersen/Gett/Getty Images

TEMPE, Ariz. — Tight end Rob Housler brought his big suitcase to Cardinals headquarters on Sunday, the one that can hold everything.

It was moving day for the Cardinals after their season ended in a 27-16 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Saturday in an NFC wild-card playoff game in Charlotte, N.C. Some of the Cardinals were packing up until OTAs begin in late spring; others packed up for good.

"Change is inevitable in the NFL now," coach Bruce Arians said. "We won’t be the 2015 Cardinals until the week of the first game. We’ll get 90 guys in here that will start fighting for positions and as I tell them, ‘It’s not we, it’s you. It’s me. Get a job.’

"We’ll become ‘we’ when we cut everybody down and we become the Cardinals."

The Cardinals have 14 unrestricted free agents about whom they must make decisions soon with the negotiation period beginning March 7 and free agency beginning March 10. They also have a couple of franchise icons in receiver Larry Fitzgerald and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, whose cap numbers become nearly prohibitive next season.

The team that overcame so much this season will look a whole lot different when the 2015 season dawns. Here’s a look at 10 questions facing the Cardinals as they enter the offseason.

The Cardinals like to get Ellington in space, but he was never fully healthy this season so he never produced the way the team hoped he would when it made him the focal point of the offense. A foot injury limited him all season and a sports hernia injury shelved him after the Chiefs game on Dec. 7.

The Cardinals probably won’t chalk Ellington’s injuries up to excessive workload, but it would be surprising if they don’t bring in a bigger back to fill the role Jonathan Dwyer was supposed to fill — the one Rashard Mendenhall filled the season before.

If Daryl Washington doesn’t return, the inside position becomes a priority. With Dan Williams a free agent and Darnell Dockett’s future in doubt, the Cardinals could also add to their defensive line. Then there’s the need for a big running back, a role Jonathan Dwyer was supposed to fill and a role the Cardinals sorely missed this season. 

Washington was suspended twice under the NFL’s policy on substance abuse and in March pleaded guilty to assaulting the mother of his child. The Cardinals said the circumstances surrounding Washington’s incident are different, which is true.

But that guilty plea is clearly condemning and it won’t look good in the court of public opinion if Washington returns.   

Arians admitted 2015 is a crucial year for Cooper to prove his worth. The same could be said of Minter, who was touted as run stuffer and a big hitter, but has seen his snaps dwindle due to an altered defense in which rookie safety Deone Bucannon played some linebacker. Mathieu had a great rookie season, but a catastrophic knee injury late last year limited him early this season, then he broke his thumb, further limiting his impact.

Of the three, only Mathieu has proven he can play at a high level. The Cardinals would also like to see fourth-round pick Alex Okafor improve his run defense after showing dynamic ability in the pass rush (eight sacks).

5. Which free agents will be back and which won’t?

It’s a safe bet linebacker John Abraham, troubled running back Jonathan Dwyer and quarterback Ryan Lindley won’t be back. Tight end Rob Housler and defensive tackle and Alameda Ta’amu also seem doubtful.

Impossible not to wonder, 'What if?'

But what about starting linebacker Larry Foote, starting right guard Paul Fanaika, starting cornerback Antonio Cromartie, linebacker Sam Acho and starting nose tackle Dan Williams? Neither GM Steve Keim nor the players confirmed any substantive talks at this point, but all said they would like to return.

In an interview with FOX Sports Arizona two weeks ago, Keim addressed the situation for Williams, the team’s top pick in 2010. "I’m sure he’ll want to see what the market has to say but we’ll make an attempt to keep him."

Cromartie had a pretty good season after signing a one-year deal, but the Cardinals may also look to extend cornerback Justin Bethel’s contract (he’s a free agent after 2015) and that could eliminate a spot for Cromartie, who will be 31 next season.

Fanaika was a critical piece this year with Jonathan Cooper injured and then unable to claim a starting spot once his health returned. At the right price, there is still a place for Fanaika on this team. "I feel like I did a pretty good job of taking the opportunity I was given and making the best of it," Fanaika said. "We’ll see what happens but I’d like to be back."

Foote, 34, provided outstanding leadership and a much higher level of play than expected. His fate could be tied to what the Cardinals do with suspended inside linebacker Daryl Washington and the team’s opinion of 2013 second-round pick Kevin Minter, but coach Bruce Arians would like to have Foote in the locker room.

Acho’s character and work ethic are above reproach, but his play was inconsistent in his fourth NFL season. The Cards could look to upgrade there.

The team’s other free agents are linebackers Marcus Benard, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, tackle Bradley Sowell and long snapper Mike Leach.

Dockett will be 34 in May and some analysts have wondered if he’s slowed a step — a suggestion he vehemently counters.

Here’s what GM Steve Keim said about him in an interview with FOX Sports Arizona two weeks ago: "We’d love to have him retire a Cardinal. We’ll see how the rehab process plays out. You know Dock and the energy he brings to the defense. He’s the heart and soul of our team, but certainly the cap is a consideration. We have to sit down and talk."

Fitzgerald’s cap number rises to $23.6 million next season, representing about 17 percent of the projected salary cap. It’s also no secret Fitzgerald still believes he can be a No. 1 receiving threat — an opinion the Cardinals may not share and seldom employ anyway, given Arians’ penchant for spreading the ball around.

GM Steve Keim told Arizona Sports 98.7 FM late in the season that Fitzgerald’s number is "baked" into the Cardinals’ projections, but he also noted the team has to make smart decisions for the future. The stance clearly put the onus on Fitzgerald to take a pay cut so that the team can improve in free agency, but Fitzgerald may not be willing to do that again after making contract concessions last season.

He may force the team’s hand so that he can go to a team where he can still be the top threat. It’s hard to discern how much of the current chatter is posturing. It’s also hard to imagine this franchise moving forward without a guy who has defined it for the past 11 seasons, but as Arians noted, it’s a cold business.

It makes sense. The Rooney Rule, implemented in 2003, requires every team to interview at least one minority candidate every time there is a coaching or general manager opening, but Bowles also has an impressive track record in his two seasons in Arizona.

He has the luxury, however, of being selective since the Cardinals signed him a to a three-year extension this year. Bowles will be a head coach at some point, but there are too many variables to predict whether that will happen this season.

"I’ve got my fingers crossed both ways," Arians said. "I’m pulling for him to get the job, and the right one, not just any one. Obviously, I’d desperately like to have him back."

1. Will Carson Palmer return to form after ACL surgery?

Palmer on Sunday said everything is on schedule with his rehab and everything feels great so far.

"It’s baby steps from here but I actually get to start up-tempo walking/jogging on Monday so I’m excited about that," he said.

Arians said Sunday he thinks knee injuries are easy to come back from and he expects Palmer to be the same guy he was before the surgery. But Palmer is 35 and he also dealt with a lingering nerve issue in his throwing shoulder early in the season that shut him down for four weeks.

If Palmer returns to form, and that seems reasonable to expect, the Cardinals should be a team to reckon with again next season. If not, they could be in the same boat as a lot of other teams, searching for a QB.

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