In his seven weeks as Cardinals coach, Steve Wilks has frequently described the job of addressing the team’s needs as retooling, not rebuilding.
Parse those words however you want, but the Cardinals enter this offseason with an offense that’s stripped down to the studs. They have no quarterback, one proven receiver, at least three openings on the offensive line and one healthy tight end.
One of the few positives is that most of the demo work has been completed, and the Cardinals can start renovations on Monday. That’s the first day teams are allowed to negotiate with agents for players from other teams. On Wednesday, the first day of the league year, free agents can sign contracts and trades can officially be consummated.
“You look at the things that happened last year, with all the injuries we had, and still going 8-8, I think (that) is a positive,” Wilks said. “We’re going to be aggressive in our approach in getting a quarterback, and most importantly, trying to improve in certain areas, particularly the offensive line.”
The Cardinals are about $23 million under the salary cap, although that number could quickly increase with just a few moves. The Cardinals have asked safety Tyrann Mathieu to take a pay cut. They could make similar requests of guard Mike Iupati and tackle Jared Veldheer. They also could release all three, and they are expected to part ways with running back Adrian Peterson.
The priority is finding a quarterback, and the Cardinals are interested in Kirk Cousins, formerly of Washington. He’s going to cost about $30 million a year, so the Cardinals would have to clear additional space to sign him.
But they have other options, too. Wilks and General Manager Steve Keim haven’t revealed their plans for free agency, but they do include various scenarios.
“There are so many moving parts,” Keim said of the quarterback market. “There are a number of guys you feel like you can have success with. There are a number of different things that can happen. We just have to be ready.”
To prepare, the Cardinals built a computer model that allows them to experiment with different options in free agency and the draft and immediately identify the impact those moves would have on the roster and the budget.
“It starts with the money side of it,” Keim said. “You plug that in and see how it plays out.”
The Cardinals have “tinkered” with the model for the past few years and it’s developed into “something we really rely on,” Keim said.
“It adjusts to every player once you plug him in that model. You can sit back and identify, ‘OK, here are the four additions we’re going to make and here is where we are from a cap standpoint.’ Or, ‘Let’s play this scenario with these two additions and these two subtractions. Which one makes us better?'”
Names and salaries are changed to reflect the myriad scenarios that can play out during the offseason.
Say the Cardinals sign Cousins. The computer model would immediately tell them what they might be able to afford to pay in free agency for a guard, a receiver and a cornerback, also positions of need.
Were they to find their next quarterback in the draft, the computer model lets the Cardinals see how a cheaper quarterback might allow them to be a bigger player in free agency.
“It’s a great tool because of the visual side of it,” Keim said.
Eighteen Cardinals on last year’s roster are unrestricted free agents, and Keim said recently he would like to re-sign four to five of them.
He didn’t mention names, but guard Alex Boone, cornerback Tramon Williams, linebacker Josh Bynes, safety Tyvon Branch and outside linebacker Kareem Martin played well last season.
It would behoove the Cardinals to sign or trade for a quarterback as quickly as possible because it will have an impact on what else they are able to do in free agency.
“It’s a blank canvas,” Keim said of the quarterback position. “We all have our opportunity to put a stamp on what we do at that position. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
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Cardinals’ restricted free agents
TE Ifeanyi Momah
OT Vinston Painter
DT Xavier Williams
Cardinals’ unrestricted free agents
QB Matt Barkley
OL Khalif Barnes
CB Justin Bethel
G Alex Boone
S Tyvon Branch
WR Jaron Brown
WR John Brown
ILB Josh Bynes
ILB Karlos Dansby
QB Blaine Gabbert
WR Brittan Golden
OLB Kareem Martin
TE Troy Niklas
DL Frostee Rucker
QB Drew Stanton
G Earl Watford
RB Kerwynn Williams
CB Tramon Williams