ESPN’s Clayton: Cardinals have four of NFL’s top 50 free agents

Jan 17, 2017, 11:00 AM | Updated: 3:22 pm

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It’s doubtful too many people envy Steve Keim these days.

The Arizona Cardinals’ GM is tasked with rebuilding a team that slipped from 13 wins in 2015 to seven in 2016, with the task potentially being made more difficult due to the volume of free agents the team will have to make decisions on.

Naturally, not all will be retained, which is a fact head coach Bruce Arians acknowledged the day after Arizona’s season ended in Los Angeles.

“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,” Arians said. “Obviously you never have the same team back.”

With more than 20 players set to hit the open market, Keim has his work cut out for him, especially when you consider how valuable at least  a handful of them are.

Last week, NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal listed three Cardinals among the top 25 free agents, while now, ESPN’s John Clayton has them with four in the top 50.

The highest ranked Cardinal, according to Clayton in the piece for ESPN Insider, is linebacker Chandler Jones, who is at No. 4.

Coach Bruce Arians has already stated the Cardinals’ intentions. Arians said Jones, who had 11 sacks this season, will be franchised if he doesn’t get a long-term deal.

Indeed, Arians has said the team will use the franchise tag on Jones if a long-term deal is not agreed to, though Jones — who posted his second consecutive double-digit sack season in 2016 — noted he would like to continue his career in Arizona.

The next player on Clayton’s list is defensive lineman Calais Campbell, who is at No. 10.

Franchising Jones could force the Cardinals to part ways with Campbell, one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in football. He turns 31 this year.

Campbell finished this past season third on the Cardinals with eight sacks, though he led the team with 26 QB pressures and 27 QB hits. One of the veteran leaders, it was at one point assumed he would move on after the season, though his strong play coupled with the inconsistency of first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche has led to speculation that Campbell may not be done in Arizona just yet. Whenever asked about his future, Campbell has consistently said he understands it may lie with a different organization but hopes that is not the case.

The next Cardinal on Clayton’s list is safety Tony Jefferson, who he put at No. 28.

It seems like every safety who plays for the Cardinals becomes a solid player. Jefferson had a great year.

Jefferson was a full-time starter for the first time in 2016, and he responded by tallying 92 tackles, two sacks, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He was playing under a one-year contract signed as a restricted free agent, and is, like Jones and Campbell, hopeful his career in Arizona is not finished.

The final player to land on Clayton’s list is linebacker Kevin Minter, who was placed at No. 41.

Minter is a good inside linebacker whom the Cardinals need to re-sign.

Minter finished second on the Cardinals in 2016 with 95 total tackles, while also posting a career-high 3.5 sacks with eight QB pressures and eight QB hits. A three-year starter (though he was limited in 2014 due to injury), Minter said he has never seen a team with so many free agents before but would like to find a way to remain in Arizona.

The Cardinals, with four players in Clayton’s top 50, are tied with the New England Patriots for having the most players on the list.

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ESPN’s Clayton: Cardinals have four of NFL’s top 50 free agents