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Cardinals’ ability to weather free agent losses will reveal strength

(AP Photo/John Froschauer, File)

TEMPE, Ariz. — The 2017 season will be a defining one for the Arizona Cardinals. We’re about to find out if that championship window we thought was wide open before a 7-8-1 performance was actually beginning to close.

We are about to find out if the Michael Bidwill-Steve Keim-Bruce Arians triumvirate was a flash in the pan like that brief Ken Whisenhunt dance, or if the tools, talent and minds are finally in place for the sustained success of a franchise with a mostly dismal history.

The Cardinals and their fans fully expected to lose two key members of the team’s second-ranked defense when NFL free agency began on Thursday. It was simple economics and the Cardinals can’t really be blamed for staring down the barrel of the same cap realities most teams face.

That knowledge doesn’t remove the sting of watching defensive lineman Calais Campbell and safety Tony Jefferson head for greener paydays in Jacksonville and Baltimore, along with safety D.J. Swearinger (Washington).

Last season, there was internal concern that the under-the-radar defections of players such as Rashad Johnson, Jerraud Powers and Lyle Sendlein might have impacted the locker room and the on-field performance more than expected in the team’s rush to upgrade its physical talent.

There is nothing under-the-radar about what Campbell and Jefferson brought to the table. Campbell is one of the best defensive linemen in franchise history, and he is tied for second in franchise history with 56.5 sacks. He was beloved and respected by teammates, tireless in the community and maintained an upbeat attitude despite Arians’ constant prodding and criticism, aimed at pushing him to even higher levels.

Jefferson was the NFL’s version of the American dream: an undrafted rookie free agent with a super-sized chip on his shoulder who first worked his way into the starting lineup, and then to elite safety status. Pro Football Focus rated Jefferson the third-best safety on the market this summer. Whether you agree with that site’s methodology or not, it was hard to talk team defensive MVP last season without putting Jefferson on the short list, after he led Arizona in solo tackles (78), registered two sacks and had two fumble recoveries.

The Cardinals moved to replace Jefferson by signing 12-year veteran Antoine Bethea to a three-year deal on Thursday, citing his Indianapolis history with Arians and his oft-mentioned leadership skills. Until we see the proof in the locker room and on the field, however, it’s just a promise.

Replacing Campbell won’t be as simple. The Cardinals have seven other defensive tackles on the roster, but none nearly as good as Campbell. Robert Nkemdiche will have to take a quantum leap after playing in just five games last season and finishing with three tackles.

The additions of familiar veteran linebacker Karlos Dansby, 35, Bethea, 33, and kicker Phil Dawson, 42, make the Cardinals older and more experienced, giving this season the feeling of an all-in campaign, but it is hard to embrace the feeling that the Cardinals are a better team today than they were when they left the field on New Year’s Day.

Great organizations weather these obstacles; others get washed away by the NFL’s endless tides of ebb and flow.

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