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Cardinals will be knee-deep in wave of free-agent frenzy approaching

Howard Balzer Avatar
March 10, 2023

Fasten your seat belts.

We are now less than 72 hours away from the beginning of the negotiating period (9 am Arizona time Monday) for NFL potential free agents in advance of the start of the 2023 league year at 1 pm (Arizona time) Wednesday.

It’s obviously not “legal tampering” because since it’s allowed, it can’t be tampering. Having said that we all know there won’t be any tampering prior to Monday. Right.

The bottom line is that numerous agreements will be leaked by agents prior to 1 pm Wednesday, but contracts can’t be signed and become official until then.

Aside from trying to re-sign some of their own free agents, the Cardinals should be busy simply because they have only 53 players under contract and that includes wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, center Rodney Hudson and defensive end J.J. Watt. The off-season roster limit is 90 players, so it only makes sense that the Cardinals have to add significant numbers to the roster beginning next week because overloading on undrafted free agents isn’t wise.

Currently, they have about $32.5 million in salary-cap space after restructuring the contract of left tackle D.J. Humphries and saving $5.33 million of cap space. The Cardinals converted an $8 million roster bonus to a signing bonus so it can be prorated over the next three seasons. The base salary this year is $5.5 million.

His current cap charge is $12.537 million, but it increases to $22.9 million in 2024 and 2025 when there is no guaranteed money. The base salaries in those years are $15.735 and $15.745 million respectively.

DeAndre Hopkins

Hopkins has been the subject of rampant trade speculation over the last two months and he counts $30.75 million against the Cardinals cap. That includes a base salary of $19.45 million plus $11.3 million in signing bonus proration. The 2024 season is the final one on his contract and he has a $14.915 base salary. There is no guaranteed money in the final two seasons of the contract Hopkins negotiated without an agent after being acquired in a trade with the Texans in 2020.

He wisely hired agent Eddie Edwards, who he refers to as his lawyer, this time around to help navigate potential trades and a likely restructured contract that would lower his base salary in exchange for a signing bonus while adding years (possibly voidable) that spread out the cap charge.

If he is traded on or before June 1, the Cardinals would incur a cap hit of $22.6 million in dead money, but that would still be a savings of about $8 million.

Always remember that when a player goes off the roster or is added, the net cap decrease or increase is affected by a player either entering or exiting the top 51 players. Only the top 51 cap figures count in the offseason. Currently, the Cardinals have eight signed players that count $750,000 against the cap.

One reality of NFL trades is that draft-choice compensation is linked to the players’ contract. Those that lament the fact that Hopkins might not command a first-round pick have to remember that the Cardinals didn’t spend a No. 1 choice to acquire him three years ago. A large part of that was because every interested team knew he was demanding a new contract. And while then-Texans coach and general manager Bill O’Brien was lampooned for making that deal, it’s clear no other team offered anything better.

Now, Hopkins will turn 31 in June and has played only 19 of a possible 35 games during the last two seasons. Ten of the 16 missed games were because of hamstring and knee injuries.

We’ll soon see the reality of the supposed teams that are interested, while always understanding there is an agenda when that “information” is leaked.

As Watt tweeted Thursday, “NFL Free Agency/Draft Reminder: If you’re hearing a ‘rumor’ it’s because someone wants you to hear that rumor for one reason or another, or someone is purely guessing. If people want to keep something quiet, they absolutely can. It’s 100% possible to do deals without any leaks.”

He should know after signing with the Cardinals two years ago when Arizona was never mentioned as a possible landing spot.

Rodney Hudson

When Hudson’s base salary was lowered from $8.25 million to $2.05 million for 2023, the assumption was that he would officially retire or be released after June 1 so the Cardinals could split his remaining signing bonus proration ($5.28 million) over this season and 2024.

However, Hudson is due a $1 million roster bonus on March 19. After being paid $10.85 million for four games last season, there should be no motivation for giving him a “going-away” present especially because there’s little difference in how it affects the cap.

Hudson’s current cap charge is $4.81 million: $2.05 million salary, $1 million roster bonus and $1.76 million bonus proration.

Waiting until after June 1 for him to be removed from the roster would mean paying the bonus and having that $4.81 million cap charge for two and a half months. The cap hit after June 1 would be $2.76 million for 2023 and $3.52 money in 2024.

Shedding him prior to March 19 would result in $5.28 million against the cap in dead money.

J.J. Watt

After his decision to retire, Watt’s 2023 base salary was lowered to $1.165 million, creating a current cap charge of $3.565 million that includes $2.4 million of the remaining signing bonus proration of $7.2 million.

If his retirement doesn’t become official until after June 1, the $3.565 will be on the cap until then and subsequently reduced to $2.4 million of dead money in 2023 with $4.8 million in 2024.

With the cap space they have, it’s certainly possible for Watt to officially retire at any time on or before June 1 with the Cardinals taking the entire $7.2 million charge this year.

Restricted and exclusive-rights free agent tenders

By Wednesday, we will know if the Cardinals decided to tender two potential restricted free agents (quarterback David Blough and wide receiver Antoine Wesley) and two potential exclusive-rights free agents  defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter and cornerback Jace Whittaker).

All tenders count immediately against the cap even before the players officially sign.

Wide receiver Greg Dortch, who had been tendered at $1.01 million, signed it Friday.

Restricted free agents are players with three accrued seasons. If tendered, players can seek an offer sheet from another team, which the original team can match. There can be draft-choice compensation.

A tender of $6.005 million has a first-round pick as compensation and a $4.304 million tender has a second-round pick. The lowest tender is $2.627 million, with compensation based on the round in which the player was originally drafted. Undrafted players have no compensation unless they receive a first- or second-round tender.

It seems unlikely the Cardinals would tender Blough or Wesley. The minimum salary for a player with three accrued seasons is $1.01 million, so players not tendered often sign for less than the lowest tender.

Exclusive-rights players have fewer than three accrued seasons and if tendered can’t negotiate with other teams. The tender is equal to the minimum salary for a player’s number of credited seasons.

For 2023, the minimum salaries are:

0: $750,000

1: $870,000

2: $940,000

3: $1.01 million

4-6: $1.08 million

7+: $1.165 million

For Ledbetter, the tender would be $940,000, while it would be $870,000 for Dortch and Whittaker.

Special teams commitment

While virtually all of the free-agent frenzy revolves around the to-level players, inside a team’s building depth and special teams are also important.

Cardinals fans wonder whether defensive lineman Zach Allen and cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. will return and while that is critical, there will also be numerous decisions about many other players.

Of the Cardinals seven leading tacklers on special teams in 2023, only one – linebacker Dennis Gardeck – is under contract. Gardeck was the team leader with nine tackles and one assist.

The other six are tight end Stephen Anderson (6/4), linebacker Ezekiel Turner (6/3), safety Chris Banjo (4/4), linebacker Tanner Vallejo (4/4), cornerback Antonio Hamilton (6/0) and linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill (4/1).

Banjo was hired as the Broncos assistant special-teams coach. Hamilton and Grugier-Hill compiled their numbers playing only 10 and nine games, respectively.

Other free agents that also contributed were linebacker Ben Niemann and safety Charles Washington.

It would make sense to bring many of them back considering they will likely command only 1-year minimum contracts.

Returning assistant head coach/special-team coordinator Jeff Rodgers said, “We have a lot of really good people that were on this roster last year who are maybe up free-agent wise and those are some of the conversations that I’ve had (with general manager Monti Ossenfort and coach Jonathan Gannon). Thankfully, I’ve been able to speak on those guys very positively. A lot of those guys we hope to have back.”

Then, there is the entire trio of kicker Matt Prater, punter Andy Lee and long snapper Aaron Brewer all of whom are unrestricted free agents. Lee entered the NFL in 2004, Prater in 2006 and Brewer in 2012.

Noting that he’d love to have them all back, especially because of the continuity, Rodgers said, “All those guys are good enough to continue playing. I like that crew of guys.”

Gannon acknowledged that concentrating on special teams will be a “huge focus” in free agency. He added, “We’re always looking to improve our roster in any way that we can. Talking with Jeff, there are some things that he wants to do and some pieces that he needs and some pieces that we have here already.

“I’m extremely excited about it and know that we have work to do as well. Throughout the 365 calendar, there’s times where you’re continually looking to improve your roster and add competition. I like a lot of competition.”

The quote

Matt Burke spent only one season with the Cardinals as defensive line coach and is now the defensive coordinator for the Texans. He became front and center on Hard Knocks after a video he prepared for the retiring Watt was shown on the show.

Asked by the Houston media about the video surprise, Burke said, “I got close to him in the short time I was with him in the year I was there. I felt responsible for shepherding him out the right way and wanted to do something special for him. Just getting to know J over that time; he’s got all of the accolades, you guys know as well as I do all the stuff that he’s accomplished and what he’s been through. Getting to know J, it was about the people for him and the connections he made through his time, the people that covered him, some of you had the opportunity to do that, and played with and played against and competed against.

“I just thought that would be a cool message for him to send him out to. I hope he’s thankful for that. It sounds like he is. It was a cool opportunity. I’ve been in the league for 20 years now, and you don’t get a lot of opportunities to work with guys like that, that level of player at that time frame of his career. It was a cool experience for me.”

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com

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