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Cardinals hope they are prepared for what free agency could bring

Arizona Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell reacts after a sack against the Seattle Seahawks in the first half of an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

Steve Keim does not have an easy job.

In the coming weeks, he will have to help navigate the Cardinals through the treacherous time that is free agency, trying to make sure his team keeps the right players while making impactful additions.

It’s the life of an NFL general manager with a team that could be a move or two away from getting back to the playoffs and making a deep run, or a defection or two away from slipping even further down the standings.

In February, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said retaining their own free agents was the biggest key for the offseason. But with limited cap space and many players set to hit the open market, that will likely prove to be difficult.

The prospect of losing players who have been with the team for many years, such as free agent-to-be Calais Campbell, is tough to think about.

“That’s the hard part of the business,” Keim said at the NFL Scouting Combine Wednesday in Indianapolis. “You get so emotionally attached to these guys when they’ve been on your roster for x amount of years, whether you’ve drafted them, signed them as a college free agent.

“To have a situation where you could potentially lose some players, it’s a tough part of the business. We all understand the salary cap and the situation that we’re in, it’s a big piece of the pie and there’s only so many slices to go around.”

Keim, who is entering his fifth offseason as the Cardinals’ GM, said it’s important to view each player within the reality of what the team needs now and in the future, adding it’s important to draft well and develop talent in order to withstand losing key players.

Because lose key players, they will.

Arizona’s decision to place the franchise tag on linebacker Chandler Jones, which was expected, means defensive lineman Campbell, safety Tony Jefferson, linebacker Kevin Minter, cornerback Marcus Cooper, lineman A.Q. Shipley, and safety D.J. Swearinger, among others, will soon be free to sign with any team they like.

That could be the Cardinals, of course, but it’s more likely that some — if not most — will be playing elsewhere in 2017.

On Wednesday Arians said Jefferson, who tallied 92 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in 2016, played fantastic after changing his body coming into the season.

“He’s always had that chip on his shoulder,” the coach said. “Hopefully when he gets paid he doesn’t lose it.”

Jefferson is seen as one of the top safeties on the market, and at just 25 years old is in line for a big-time contract with whomever he signs. That did not initially seem to be the case for Cooper, who was acquired for a conditional seventh-round pick just before the season and emerged as a starter by Week 3.

“I’d like to get Coop back,” Arians said. “Looks like Coop’s going to get a hell of a lot of money.”

Cooper was fourth on the team in tackles with 65, and his four interceptions led the Cardinals. He also had 11 passes defensed in a season that saw him named as a Pro Bowl alternate. The price to keep the 27-year-old, according to Arians, seems to be rising.

If Cooper leaves, Arians said he has confidence that a now-healthy Justin Bethel could take over, and if not him, then 2016 third-round pick Brandon Williams.

Similarly, if Campbell leaves, 2016 first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche will be among those asked to step up.

With those players or any the Cardinals may want but ultimately lose, Arians said the hope is they are prepared to move on. It’s next man up, offseason style.

“We knew it could be coming and I still like our roster — I don’t think we’ll lose a lot of guys — but we could lose two or three guys,” he said. “I feel like we have young players ready to go, and some guys injured that are coming back, and then we’ll fill in our own.”

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