Bruce Arians began his press conference on Jan. 2, the day after the Cardinals’ season officially came to an end, by acknowledging a simple truth: things will be different for the team next season.
“This is always a tough day, because when it comes to an end it comes to an end, and when you’re not putting a ring on your finger, saying goodbye to some players is hard,” he said. “Obviously you never have the same team back.”
The Cardinals are set to have more than 20 players — many of whom played key roles for them — enter free agency, and it would be naive to assume all will be back. Some, the team will probably decide to move on from, while others will likely receive a more lucrative offer to play elsewhere.
“It’s so many guys,” one of those free agents, linebacker Kevin Minter, said. “To be honest, I haven’t seen this many key guys up for contracts on a team, like, to be honest, ever.”
The trick, of course, is for GM Steve Keim and his staff to figure out which players should be kept and which are not worth the money they will be asking for, all in an effort to rebuild a roster that underachieved to a 7-8-1 record this season.
With that in mind, here is a look at some of the team’s more notable free agents:
Signed to a two-year contract before the 2015 season, Shipley started all 16 games at center for the Cardinals in 2016, making him the only offensive lineman on the team to do so. The 30-year-old believes he did enough this season to prove he is a capable starting center in the NFL, though the Cardinals chose Evan Boehm in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft likely with the idea of him being the team’s center of the future.
Head coach Bruce Arians on Jan. 2: “Oh yeah. I would love to have A.Q. back because he brings that mental toughness and physicality that you want. He comes back, he’s going to fight with Evan, and Evan could be our starting right guard. We’ll wait and see how that all plays out.”
Shipley on Jan. 2: “I’d love to be back. Hopefully upstairs liked what they saw this year enough to bring me back. We’ll see what happens.”
An undrafted rookie free agent signing in 2013 out of Oklahoma, Jefferson has steadily risen up the depth chart and improved his game to the point where he was an impact player in 2016. Though he missed essentially the final two full games with a sprained MCL, he still led the Cardinals with 96 total tackles to go along with two sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and five passes defensed. The 24-year-old was with the Cardinals on a one-year contract after being given a low-level tender as a restricted free agent last season, and is no doubt looking to make up for that with his next deal.
Defensive coordinator James Bettcher on Dec. 29: “Disruptive; a guy that made a bunch of plays for us. One of the most consistent guys that we had defensively. Week in and week out, you could count on Tony. He was going to make plays that are going to change the game. He’s going to cover tight ends, and I thought he did a really great job when we put him in one-on-ones with tight ends this year. I think he had a really, really good year. I was disappointed for him from a Pro Bowl standpoint that he didn’t get voted. I thought this is a guy that is one of the top players at his position in this league.”
Jefferson on Jan. 2: “Of course I want to be here. They know that.”
The second-longest tenured Cardinal behind Larry Fitzgerald, Campbell has been a mainstay along the defensive line since 2009, his second season in the league. An at times dominant player who has moved from defensive end to defensive tackle, Campbell finished the season with 63 tackles, eight sacks, 18 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, one interception and a team-leading 26 QB pressures. The 30-year-old just wrapped up a 5-year contract signed in 2012, and may see this as his final chance to cash in with another big contract.
General manager Steve Keim on Dec. 19: “The one thing the public does not generally know is we have spoken to many agents regarding players whose contracts expire after the season, some whose contracts do not expire after the season that we would just like to try to extend. So it takes two sides, but those are conversations that I’ll keep to myself and we don’t generally talk about through the media. But there are several players that we’d like to have back, and it takes two sides.”
Campbell on Dec. 7: “I feel like I’m wanted around here, so I wouldn’t say I made it harder. Maybe I feel like we have a good relationship with the guys. We’ll see what happens, but honestly, I think they know who they have as a player, as a guy in the locker room, I go out there, I give it my all every time I’m on the football field.”
Gresham has been a Cardinal for just two seasons, and his impact is somewhat difficult to determine. Statistically speaking, this season the tight end caught 37 passes for 391 yards and two touchdowns, though he has been lauded for being an excellent blocker and motivating personality for a team that needed as much of each of those traits as it could muster. The 28-year-old made a habit of running over and through defenders, and after taking less money to return to Arizona on a one-year contract, may decide it’s time to cash in a bit.
Carson Palmer on Dec. 28: “Just starting in the run game and with the intensity he plays with, the passion he plays with. He’s a physical specimen; he can block defensive ends, he can catch the ball, and you’ve seen him run people over and stiff-arm people. He just brings a fire and a passion. He loves the game, he loves practice, he loves being out there, and it’s contagious.”
Gresham on Dec. 28: “Most definitely (would come back). I still have faith in this team. More than anything, just a couple situational things this year that didn’t go our way. We didn’t play our best football but that doesn’t have anything to do about how we play.”
Jones was acquired in March for guard Jonathan Cooper and second-round draft pick with the idea that he would improve Arizona’s lackluster pass rush, and he did exactly that. The former New England Patriot finished second on the team with 11 sacks, to go along with 49 tackles and four forced fumbles. Jones started fast with four sacks in the first four games, but then notched just four over the next 10. He finished strong, though, with three sacks in the final two games. The 26-year-old figures to be one of the most sought after and highly paid players in this year’s free agent crop.
Bruce Arians on Jan. 2: “That’s exactly what we set out to do was create a pass rush from the edge. Chandler’s not going anywhere because if we have to, we will franchise him. Hopefully we will get it all done and be able to move on.”
Chandler Jones on Dec. 30: “I would love to be here, for sure.”
The Cardinals brought Cooper into the fold the week before the season opener, and he stepped into the lineup Week 2 against Tampa Bay with a pair of interceptions — one of which he returned for a touchdown — and was a starting cornerback the rest of the way. The 26-year-old led the Cardinals with four interceptions while adding a team-best 11 passes defensed. While he was burned at times, he proved to be a sure tackler who did well enough to be named a Pro Bowl alternate.
Bruce Arians on Jan. 2: ““The guys we have – Coop is great. I think Coop’s a hell of a player. I think Brandon’s (Williams) going to be. Those guys will fight it out if we get Coop signed.”
The 2013 draft class
Some fruit from Arians and GM Steve Keim’s initial draft class is still around, and one member of the haul — third-round pick Tyrann Mathieu — has already received a new contract. Second-round pick Kevin Minter, fourth-round pick Alex Okafor, fifth-round picks Earl Watford and Stepfan Taylor as well as sixth-round pick Andre Ellington are all free agents, however, and there are legitimate questions if any will be back.
Minter was solid in 2016, posting 81 tackles along with a career-high 3.5 sacks; Watford appeared in 15 games, seeing time at right guard and right tackle; Taylor contributed on special teams while adding four runs for 12 yards; Ellington saw his role diminish as the season went on, finishing with a career-low 34 carries for 96 yards and 12 catches for 85 yards.
Minter, on Jan. 7: “I love the community, I love the team, I love the guys upstairs — the organization as a whole. They took a chance on me, they drafted me in the second round. They groomed me. I would love to finish my career here, but that’s obviously wishful thinking; I know they’ve got some decisions to make this offseason, so regardless of which way they go, I can’t fault them for either. But I would love to be here. Phoenix has been home for the past four years and I would like to continue that.”
Watford, in a tweet, on Jan. 2: “Most love to the guys I came through those doors with in ’13 as rookies. No matter what is next its all been fun & Ill have yall back always”
D.J. Swearinger: The safety who signed with the Cardinals late in 2015 was an integral part of the defense in 2016, finishing with 63 tackles, two sacks, three interceptions and eight passes defensed. As hard a hitter as you will find in the NFL, the 27-year-old former second-round pick’s career was reborn in Arizona.
Frostee Rucker: A veteran defensive lineman, Rucker did not make the kind of on-field impact in 2016 as he has in the past, as he posted just 25 tackles with no sacks, one forced fumble, four QB pressures and five QB hits. The 33-year-old provides valuable leadership, however, and if Campbell walks, may be brought back to help with stability.
Chris Johnson: Johnson was a late pickup in 2015 training camp and went on to lead the team in rushing before a leg injury landed him on IR. He came back on a one-year contract in 2016 only to see his role fluctuate early on before a sports hernia ended his season. The 31-year-old is not likely to find a guaranteed starting role elsewhere, but may look for another fresh start that could conceivably offer him more reps.
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