DAN BICKLEY

Cardinals’ net haul in free agency will say much about current place in NFL

Mar 15, 2021, 4:49 PM
The Arizona Cardinals introduce their new head coach Kliff Kingsbury, middle, flanked by owner Mich...
The Arizona Cardinals introduce their new head coach Kliff Kingsbury, middle, flanked by owner Michael Bidwell, left, and general manager Steve Keim, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Free agency is a mirror into the health of an NFL franchise. It’s a heat check in Arizona.

Are the Cardinals truly a coveted destination in the NFL, even with their collapse in 2020, even without a winning record in five consecutive seasons?

They hit on J.J. Watt, paying above market price for a legitimate NFL superstar. Except you rarely overpay for transcendent players. That kind of bet generally pays off. It’s the high price of mediocrity that can doom a franchise.

On Monday, the Cardinals missed on center Corey Linsley, a coveted offensive lineman who signed with the Chargers. That would’ve been another grand slam.

The Cardinals have money to spend. They have needs to fill. Their net haul in free agency will say much about their current place in the game.

They have a user-friendly owner known to shuttle players across the country on his private aircraft, especially in times of strife. The weather is an obvious perk. So is the chill head coach who doesn’t scream or sweat you too much, who isn’t afraid to treat players like stars, allowing them to miss practice on principle — if that’s what you’re all about.

They have DeAndre Hopkins, who is almost universally revered between the lines for his talent and his conviction in standing up to the bosses. They have Kyler Murray, who generates a lot of attention and raw energy. They have a dynamic duo of pass rushers in Watt and Chandler Jones, which almost carries a superhero feel, like Thor teaming up with the Hulk.

When asked what team he preferred to play for in the NFL, Clemson’s star running back Travis Etienne emphatically referenced the Cardinals. So did former Cowboys star Dez Bryant, a wide receiver looking for a new home at age 32. Their enthusiasm was striking, and in stark contrast to what most of us witnessed over the back half of the 2020 season.

If the Cardinals take a quantum leap next season, it will likely be due to the maturation of Murray, a quarterback with a lot of rough edges left to polish. It will also happen because they seize upon the right group of free agents during a tenuous time in the NFL, where you’re about to see a deluge of one-year contracts.

The Cardinals should be obsessively focused on forging a great offensive line around Murray, creating the comfort zone he so often lacks in the pocket and in his body language. They also need to put the right weapons around Murray, like the Patriots just did for quarterback Cam Newton.

The Cardinals could shine during free agency because, for all his perceived flaws, Kingsbury has an image that resonates in the NFL. He’s Coach Bro, a guy with more fame than accomplishment, among the new breed of lenient head coaches who are smart enough to recognize what’s happening on the ground level.

In an era of athlete empowerment, sweeping changes are coming to the NFL, just like the tsunami washing over the NBA. Attitudes are shifting. Football players will no longer tolerate unchecked dictatorships or verbal abuse from head coaches. They won’t agree to unnecessary practices or illogical risks to their health. The Cardinals are ahead of the curve in this arena, a game where Kingsbury’s reputation as a head coach likely means more to the men in uniform than his winning percentage does for fans watching from the couch.

That’s likely why so many Cardinals players remain so supportive of Kingsbury despite all the blunders and all the public criticism. They know the alternative can be much worse on the body and a lot harder on the ears.

During free agency, chances are good that Kingsbury is still a selling point in Arizona. If only among outsiders.

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