Cardinals free-agency outlook

Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, an unrestricted free agent, is the Cardinals' top in-house priority.

The NFL’s free-agency period officially begins on Tuesday, when current contracts expire and players are free to sign with any team. But the pre-signing period began Saturday, allowing teams to negotiate and communicate with players’ agents but not agree to deals.

The Cardinals are expected to have about $18 million in salary-cap space and intend to follow last season’s aggressive early approach, as evidenced by Friday’s signing of tight end John Carlson, who had been cut by the Vikings two days earlier. As they do during the draft, the Cardinals compile a wish list of players, which is then prioritized. If one player proves too expensive or signs with another team, it’s on to Plan B or Plan C.

The Cards’ greatest in-house priority is linebacker Karlos Dansby. FOX Sports 910’s Mike Jurecki reported recently that the Cardinals have an offer on the table to Dansby.

Players such as Dansby will likely get a fair assessment of their value on the open market over the next three days. That information will be crucial in helping them decide whether or not to test the market rather than re-signing with the Cardinals.

In Dansby’s case, even if he gets a better monetary offer, he has to weigh that against the role he has in Arizona. He flourished in defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ system while playing alongside Daryl Washington.

As former NFL general manager and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian noted in a recent conference call, "System fit will determine the market, and people are getting better at realizing that."

Here’s a breakdown of the Cardinals’ own free agents, their top priorities and some of the top free agents available around the league.

Under contract: LG Jonathan Cooper; C Lyle Sendlein; RG Daryn Colledge; G Paul Fanaika; RT Bobby Massie; G Earl Watford; T Nate Potter; T Bradley Sowell; G Philip Blake; G Tommie Draheim; G Christian Johnson; C John Estes.

Left tackle Branden Albert has been mentioned in connection with the Cardinals.

Free agents: RT Eric Winston; C/G Mike Gibson.

The skinny: Left tackle is likely the Cardinals’ No. 1 remaining target in free agency, with Kansas City’s Branden Albert and Baltimore’s Eugene Monroe the names most often mentioned. An NFL source said the Cardinals are one of four teams on Albert’s radar; that list also includes the Chiefs. A decision on Winston will depend on his asking price, what the Cardinals spend elsewhere and whether they feel backup Bobby Massie is ready to assume a starting role. The Cardinals are expected to cut Colledge given his $4.55 million cap hit, as he tweeted a farewell on Saturday. That will create another need unless they decide that Fanaika is the answer or Watford, a project last season, is ready to play.

Some NFL free agents: T — Branden Albert; Eugene Monroe; Jared Veldheer; Breno Giacomini; Anthony Collins; Rodger Saffold; Zach Strief. G — Travelle Wharton; Jon Asamoah; Zane Beaders; Willie Colon; Chad Rinehart; Geoff Schwartz.

Under contract: Rob Housler; John Carlson; Andre Hardy; Darren Fells; Brett Brackett.

Free agents: Jake Ballard (restricted); Jim Dray; Jeff King; Kory Sperry.

The skinny: With the addition of Carlson, the Cardinals have satisfied their need for pass-caching tight ends. Dray seems to fit coach Bruce Arians’ desire for better blocking tight ends and likely will be given a chance to return. The Cardinals can match any offer for Ballard in free agency and liked what he did in limited duty last season. King and Sperry likely will become free agents.  

Some NFL free agents: Jermichael Finley; Brandon Pettigrew; Garrett Graham; Dustin Keller; Scott Chandler; Ed Dickson.

Under contract: Larry Fitzgerald; Michael Floyd; Teddy Williams; Jaron Brown; Javone Lawson; Brittan Golden; Dan Buckner.

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Free agents: Andre Roberts

The skinny: The free-agent market for receivers is deep this year, so it’s likely the Cardinals will pursue a cheaper option than Roberts, who is almost certain to test the market so he can find a bigger role. His role was reduced dramatically in Arians’ tight-end-heavy offense. The Cardinals also will be looking for a speed receiver to take the top off defenses.

Some NFL free agents: Hakeem Nicks; Eric Decker; Golden Tate; Julian Edelman; Lance Moore; Jacoby Jones; Doug Baldwin; Ted Ginn; James Jones; Emmanuel Sanders; Brandon LaFell.

Under contract: Ryan Williams; Stepfan Taylor; Andre Ellington.

Free agents: Rashard Mendenhall; Alfonso Smith (restricted)

The skinny: Mendenhall was not considered to be a priority before he announced his retirement Sunday, as the Cards seemed ready to move forward with younger and cheaper options Ellington, Taylor and Williams in the fold. Smith plummeted on the depth chart as the season progressed and likely will become a free agent.

Some free agents: Darren McFadden; Maurice Jones-Drew; Knowshon Moreno; Darren Sproles; Donald Brown; LeGarrette Blount; Ben Tate; Joique Bell (restricted); James Starks; Toby Gerhart.

Under contract: Carson Palmer; Drew Stanton; Ryan Lindley.

Free agents: None

The skinny: The Cardinals may seek their long-term answer in the draft, but it is unlikely they will pursue a free-agent QB with three under contract. Arians has already made it clear that Palmer is his starter next season, and he has confidence in Stanton as a backup given their history together.

Some NFL free agents: Michael Vick; Josh McCown; Josh Freeman; Matt Flynn.

Given Darnell Dockett’s age and salary, the Cardinals could seek a long-term replacement in free agency or the draft.

Under contract: DE Calais Campbell; DT Darnell Dockett; DT Dan Williams; DT Anthony McCloud; DT Alameda Ta’amu.

Free agents: DE Frostee Rucker, DE Ronald Talley (restricted); DT Everette Thompson (exclusive rights).

The skinny: With all three starters under contract and Ta’amu re-signed, the Cardinals will turn their attention to bringing back Rucker, a valuable reserve and locker room voice they have already said they want to keep.

Dockett’s age and big contract put his future beyond this season in doubt, so the Cards could try to find his replacement in the draft.

Some NFL free agents: DE — Jared Allen; Michael Johnson; Anthony Spencer; Antonio Smith; Red Bryant; Everson Griffen; Tyson Jackson; Justin Tuck; Brett Kiesel. DT –€“ B.J. Raji; Henry Melton; Randy Starks; Jason Hatcher; Tony McDaniel; Arthur Jones.

Under contract: Daryl Washington; John Abraham; Sam Acho; Lorenzo Alexander; Kevin Minter; Alex Okafor; Dontay Moch; Dan Giordano; Adrian Tracy; Kenny Demens; Kenny Rowe.

Free agents: Karlos Dansby; Matt Shaughnessy; Marcus Benard (restricted).

The skinny: Dansby is clearly the priority, as he was one of the team’s top two defensive players last season along with Calais Campbell. Unless he doesn’t like what he hears from other teams this weekend, he likely will test the market.

Shaughnessy’s situation will be interesting to watch. He helped the team’s top-ranked run defense, but Arians wants more speed off the edge, and Abraham isn’t getting any younger. The Cards could also address this need in the draft.

Some NFL free agents: Anthony Spencer; Daryl Smith; Akeem Jordan; Brandon Spikes; Jonathan Vilma; Desmond Bishop; Vincent Rey; Keith Rivers; Joe Mays.

Under contract: Patrick Peterson; Jerraud Powers; Justin Bethel; Tyrann Mathieu.

Free agents: Antoine Cason; Javier Arenas; Bryan McCann.

The skinny: While Peterson is a lock at one starting spot, Powers was just OK last season and could be replaced either through free agency or from a long-term standpoint through the draft. If the Cardinals go that route, they’d likely have to cut Powers, who has two years left on a three-year, $10.5 million deal. Cason played well once he had to step in for Mathieu due to injury. He adds value, but he’s a veteran who may cost too much. Arenas and McCann will only return on cheap deals. The Cards could replace them with relative ease.

Some NFL free agents: Alterraun Verner; Vontae Davis; Aqib Talib; Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie; Charles Tillman; Sam Shields; Walter Thurmond; Champ Bailey; Captain Munnerlyn; Tarell Brown.

Under contract: Rashad Johnson; Tyrann Mathieu; Tony Jefferson; Ohrian Johnson.

Free agents: Yeremiah Bell.

The skinny: The Cardinals need an upgrade at strong safety, ideally a big, physical player who can still cover tight ends. Bell struggled in that area, which was a major weakness of an otherwise-elite defense. Mathieu and Johnson form a strong tandem at the free safety spot. The Cards will probably be looking for a top-end strong safety in the draft, but Jefferson showed signs of being able to fill a depth role.

Some NFL free agents: Jairus Byrd; T.J. Ward; Donte Whitner; Malcolm Jenkins; Mike Mitchell; Louis Delmas; Stevie Brown; Antoine Bethea; Kendrick Lewis; Roman Harper.

Under contract: P Dave Zastudil; LS Mike Leach; PR Patrick Peterson.

Free agents: K Jay Feely; KR Javier Arenas.

The skinny: Feely’s status is uncertain, as he’s 37 and made just 30 of 36 field goals last year (83.3 percent), which ranked 21st in the NFL. More concerning to Arians are Feely’s kickoffs. Only 37.8 percent of them went for touchbacks, one of the worst rates in the NFL. Arians voiced displeasure with that facet of Feely’s game on more than one occasion during the season. Feely has been a consistent kicker for most of his Arizona career and is regarded as a good teammate. It’s certainly possible he’ll return, but it could depend on who else is available on the market.

Arenas finished with a 21.4-yard kickoff-return average (22nd n the NFL) and no TDs. Those stats were an accurate reflection of his ineffectiveness, and there were also his boneheaded decisions on returns that cost the team field position. The Cardinals were dangerous in the return games when Kevin Spencer was the special-teams coach, but with Patrick Peterson also falling off in the punt-return game, they lacked that element last season.

Some NFL free agents: K — Steven Hauschka; Adam Vinatieri; Phil Dawson; Rian Lindell; Lawrence Tynes; Billy Cundiff. PR/KR –€“ Trindon Holliday; Ted Ginn; Devin Hester; Josh Cribbs; Dexter McCluster; Kyle Williams.

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