Cardinals mulling trade of Fitzgerald? It’s complicated

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Before the Cardinals took the field against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, another story stole the spotlight when ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeted Sunday morning that Larry Fitzgerald’s tenure in Arizona might be nearing an end.

There is obviously some vagueness built into those tweets –“somewhere between possible and inevitable” covers a wide range — but that’s to be expected given that exploring the trade market is never a guarantee of anything. Still, the possibility that the Cardinals would trade the best player in the history of the franchise, one who’s still only 30 and is widely considered one of the game’s great ambassadors, warrants a look at what that would mean and, perhaps more relevant, whether it’s realistic.

Regardless of all other factors, a deal being culminated before Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline is highly unlikely. In-season trades are uncommon enough in the NFL, mostly due to the difficulty with players learning and being integrated into a team’s unique scheme/system, and the Cardinals have little reason to trade Fitzgerald now when they’re still right in the mix for one of the wild-card spots in the top-heavy NFC.

As for the offseason, particularly leading up the draft, a trade would become more likely but would also become more challenging due to the contract extension Fitzgerald signed a little over a year ago. When that deal kicks in after the season, Fitzgerald’s salary for 2014 will go up to $12.75 million, and his cap hit will be a whopping $18 million. In addition, Fitzgerald has an $8 million roster bonus due before the 2015 season, so any team acquiring him would be making a huge financial commitment to a player who is most likely near the end of his prime. A rebuilding team likely wouldn’t want to take on a big-money receiver, and Fitzgerald wouldn’t likely want to join any such team, anyway, so would a contender be able to swing it?

Even if they did, there are challenges on the other side of the equation. If they did trade Fitzgerald, the Cardinals, would be hit with a $10 million cap charge for next year, a hefty sum for a player not on the roster. Would saving $8 million be worth paying $10 million for nothing and easing the cap situation down the road? Hard to say. It assumes that the team decides it’s in complete rebuild mode, which might be a tough sell to the fan base (not to mention coach Bruce Arians), particularly with a team that doesn’t appear to be that many pieces from contending. On the flip side, GM Steve Keim has talked about a three-year plan for reworking the team’s salary-cap structure.

Beyond that, the return wouldn’t be as significant as some like to think. Considering the contract obligations and the fact that Fitzgerald is already 10 years into his career, a trade wouldn’t resuscitate the franchise via a plethora of first-round picks. The Cardinals might be able to get a first-rounder, but coming from a contender, it’d be a late one that would be unlikely to produce a player anywhere near the caliber of Fitzgerald, even a few years down the road.

The potentially complicating factor: What does Fitzgerald want? When he re-upped with the Cardinals, it was clear that he did so with the expectation of improved quarterback play, something that really hasn’t come to fruition. His numbers have diminished a bit this year in an offense in which he’s been asked to line up in a variety of spots, something he’s admitted has been a challenge.

With that in mind, it’s not unreasonable to think that he’d request a trade and make known his willingness to rework his contract to make one more feasible. It’s hard to imagine the Cardinals not acquiescing to that request if it were to happen; the fan base likely wouldn’t hold it against him (just as they didn’t hold it against Steve Nash).
Or the Cards could simply attempt to rework his deal to make him more palatable for their cap structure going forward. If the two sides can’t come to an agreement, maybe Keim explores trades.
Of course, this is all speculation on the assumption that a trade is actually in play. Whether that’s really the case is something the Cardinals won’t directly answer, but the possibility alone will be heavily discussed until either a deal occurs or someone in an official capacity makes it clear that one won’t.
Fitzgerald caught four passes in Sunday’s 27-13 win over Atlanta at University of Phoenix Stadium, helping him reach 800 receptions at a younger age than any player in NFL history.
“Did you hear them chanting, “Larry! Larry! Larry!” Keim told FOX Sports 910’s Mike Jurecki and The Arizona Republic’s Dan Bickley. “Yeah, like I’m going to trade him. The fans would kill me. They’d be waiting for me in the trees of my neighborhood.”
When asked about the rumors after Sunday’s win over the Falcons, here’s what Fitzgerald said: “I don’t know. I come to work every day and just focus on how I can help the Arizona Cardinals and help my team win.

“If they decide to move me, that happens. I have no control over any of that. I just focus on what I can do to improve and help my team.”