General manager Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians turned the franchise around, but missed the postseason thanks to toiling in football’s toughest division. If things break perfectly this offseason, the Cardinals will bring back the same talent on defense while upgrading the offensive line and rushing attack. Eyeing a long-awaited return to the playoffs, Larry Fitzgerald has already restructured his contract to help the front office build a stronger roster.
» LB Karlos Dansby: A bargain signing late in free agency, Dansby was a big-play machine, leading the team in tackles, passes defensed and interceptions while producing 6.5 sacks from the inside linebacker spot. Cardinals fans believed he was a legitimate candidate for Defensive Player of the Year honors. Does this franchise want to splurge on a 32-year-old linebacker coming off a career year?
» RB Rashard Mendenhall: The Cardinals don’t envision playmaker Andre Ellington as an inside runner, which means Mendenhall might be brought back despite his paltry 3.2 yards-per-carry average. Arians should be aiming higher for his early-down horse.
» WR Andre Roberts: Relegated to the third receiver role as Michael Floyd ascended, Roberts’ numbers dropped off across the board in 2013. A fine role player with strong run-after-catch skills, Roberts has value to the Cardinals because they have little depth behind the two starters.
What they need
The Cardinals‘ offensive line has finished dead last in Pro Football Focus’ pass-blocking rankings for two consecutive seasons. Even with 2013 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper returning to solidify right guard, this team desperately needs an upgrade at both tackle spots. Although Ellington is a dangerous passing-down back, there’s a need for an early-down hammer between the tackles. Re-signing Dansby and getting Tyrann Mathieu back to full health are also key to the Cardinals‘ playoff hopes.
On the way out?
» G Daryn Colledge: Colledge has been Arizona’s most consistent offensive lineman since signing three years ago, but he’s due to count more than $7 million against the cap in 2014. The Cardinals are reportedly high on 2013 fourth-rounder Earl Watford at right guard.
» RB Ryan Williams: After dealing with a lingering knee injury in training camp, the 2011 second-round pick was inactive in all 16 games last season. The Cardinals can save over a $1 million by dumping Williams.
» LB Jasper Brinkley: Signed away from Minnesota, Brinkley played well as an early-down run thumper in the first month of the 2013 season. Once Daryl Washington returned from suspension, though, Brinkley was remaindered to the bench. He counts more than $2 million against the cap in 2014.
Offseason crystal ball
Fitzgerald highlighted the offseason priorities when he restructured his contract: a lucrative extension for All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson and new deals for Dansby and Rucker. The Cardinals might have to weather Peterson’s absence from offseason practices, but he’s the ideal candidate for a long-term commitment as a uniquely talented ascendant nucleus player.
Arizona has already been bandied about as a potential landing spot for free-agent left tackle Branden Albert. Right tackle can be filled via the draft. Maurice Jones-Drew would make for an interesting flier as Mendenhall’s replacement on early downs. With just a few tweaks, Arians’ squad could push for a third playoff spot out of the NFC West next season.
In the latest “Around The League Podcast,” the guys ponder the future in both Seattle and Denver and break down the teams who intrigue them most this offseason.