Cards still shopping, cautiously, for free agents
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt told media members in January he didn’t expect the team to be a major player in the free-agent market. Then the Indianapolis Colts released a future Hall of Fame quarterback and Arizona joined a handful of wannabe high-rollers.
“It certainly changed our thinking,” general manager Rod Graves said Friday. “We felt we had a very strong opportunity to make something happen that would be special for our football team and special for our fans.”
Peyton Manning didn’t end up in Arizona, but the anticipation of his potential arrival may have blinded the fan base to Whisenhunt’s caution flag, creating unrealistic expectations for this offseason.
“Our interest level is still active with respect to free agents and that level will be maintained right up to the end of training camp,” Graves said. “One thing you can be certain of is we will have a stronger roster for 2012 than we ended up with last season, and that includes the offensive line.”
The Cards are about $1.6 million below the salary cap, giving them a little wiggle room. There is also the possibility that players will be released or contracts will be restructured to provide more flexibility, as happened recently with guard Daryn Colledge.
Arizona has already made several moves during the free-agency period. Here’s a recap of what they’ve done so far with new personnel and their own free agents, as well as a look ahead to possible moves.
The Cards have been most active on this front, making three moves thus far to shore up what was considered the team’s greatest need. Arizona released Levi Brown, then re-signed him at a lower rate that still earns him $19.5 million over the first three years of a five-year deal.
They also signed free-agent guard Adam Snyder (49ers) and all but anointed him the starter at right guard after releasing incumbent Rex Hadnot.
With backups Deuce Lutui and Floyd Womack both free agents and unlikely to return, Arizona still needs depth at guard. Starting right tackle Brandon Keith is also a free agent. Graves said he has had recent contact with Keith’s agent, David Butz, but nothing further to report. Butz did not return messages left for him.
Graves insisted the Cards are not finished addressing the line.
“I think you have to be open to addressing that group with opportunities through the draft and then again, if you see an opportunity with a veteran or two,” he said. “We’re still talking to a couple players.”
Even if the Cards bring back Keith, it’s hard to envision them passing over an opportunity to improve the unit with the 13th pick in the draft. Arizona hasn’t drafted a lineman higher than the fifth round since 2007 (Brown), and hasn’t drafted any since 2009 when it took Herman Johnson (fifth) and Trevor Canfield (seventh), neither of whom is with the team.
At last year's training camp, Whisenhunt expressed satisfaction with the team's group of receivers, but Graves said Friday that the team is interested in finding a speed receiver to stretch the field opposite Larry Fitzgerald.
"If we can locate a player like that we’ll certainly do it," Graves said, adding that it could come via free agency or the draft.
The team re-signed free-agent Early Doucet (and reserve Stephen Williams), so the core of last year’s unit returns even though Chansi Stuckey was released. A field-stretcher would seem the only area of significant need in this group.
With Manning out of the picture, the Cards will return to the field with the same three guys they had last season: Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and Rich Bartel.
Chester Taylor won’t be back, but dynamic second-year back Ryan Williams will be. Williams missed his entire rookie season with a torn patellar tendon. His return creates optimism at the running back position after starter Beanie Wells eclipsed the 1,000-yard barrier last season. The Cards also tendered an offer to restricted free agent LaRod Stephens-Howling, who also has a major role as the team’s kick returner.
The Cards appear set here. Jeff King provides a veteran presence, good blocking skills and underrated receiving skills. Jim Dray is a blocking tight end, and Rob Housler is a pass catcher from whom the Cards are expecting big things, given his unusual speed for the position. The only question is whether the Cards retain injury-prone Todd Heap, who is in the second year of a two-year, $5.5 million contract.
The Cards took care of the biggest order of business when they placed the franchise tag on defensive end Calais Campbell, locking him up for the season while they attempt to work out a long-term deal. Nick Eason and surprising 2011 rookie David Carter return to provide depth behind Campbell, nose tackle Dan Williams and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. The Cards are still talking with veteran Vonnie Holliday for additional depth. Holliday added a positive locker-room presence last season.
There is still a need for depth at outside linebacker since Joey Porter won’t be back. Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield showed promise late last season, but both are young. A veteran presence is needed. The Cards are still talking to 35-year-old free agent Clark Haggans, but money is a significant issue.
It’s also worth watching what the Cards do with 2011 offseason signing Stewart Bradley, who signed a five-year, $30 million deal then made little impact. If Arizona cuts ties with Bradley it could be in the market for depth inside, too, behind starters Paris Lenon and Daryl Washington. The Cards recently re-signed reserve Reggie Walker.
The Cards lost free agent Richard Marshall to Miami because his asking price was too high. To fill the void, they added free agent Williams Gay, who worked with Cards defensive coordinator Ray Horton in Pittsburgh and understands this defense. Greg Toler signed his tender offer and is expected to compete for a starting job opposite Patrick Peterson. The Cards also re-signed A.J. Jefferson. With Gay in the fold and Michael Adams providing depth, it’s unlikely the Cards will add anything more at this position.
Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes are set as the starters, and the team tendered an offer to restricted free agent Rashad Johnson. What remains to be seen is if the team will keep reserves Sean Considine or Hamza Abdullah. Both play a significant role on special teams.
The Cards re-signed kicker Jay Feely and long snapper Mike Leach but might be in the market for a new punter. Dave Zastudil is a free agent. Given his inconsistency last season, Arizona may be looking to upgrade.