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Cardinals Now A Destination Franchise

Posted Mar 18, 2016

Between off-field upgrades and on-field success, Arizona an intriguing place for free agents

Tight end Jermaine Gresham (left), guard Evan Mathis (middle) and running back Chris Johnson have signed as the Cardinals chase a title.

Chandler Jones is a 26-year-old whose formative years were spent in rural New York.

He likely knows little to nothing about the Cardinals days of yore: the metal bleachers, blazing afternoons and subpar seasons at Sun Devil Stadium.

The Pro Bowl outside linebacker has a different perception of his new team.

“I watch a lot of TV,” Jones said Wednesday during his introductory press conference. “I watch a lot of ESPN. I watch a lot of sports. The Cardinals were always on, always winning.”

It was hard to miss the ever-present smile on Jones’ face after the trade for him was finalized, and it’s indicative of the new school of thought about the Cardinals. The team has won 10, 11, and 13 games in the three seasons since pairing Bruce Arians as coach and Steve Keim as general manager.

As the 2016 season inches closer, the Cardinals will be an unquestioned Super Bowl contender, and the ability to attract free agents to join the cause has been made easier by all the success. Keim said “there’s no question” the Cardinals are now a destination franchise when players have their choice of teams.

“The culture has really shifted,” Keim said. “Just going back three years ago in my first year as a GM versus now, the amount of calls that I get from agents that are recruiting us to talk to their players. That was the goal in mind three years ago when we set this thing in place.”

Keim was with the team through the down times, and when he was elevated to general manager, he saw much of the infrastructure in place to be a model organization. Team president Michael Bidwill pushed it further forward by expanding the coaching and front office staffs while also pumping millions of dollars into the team’s training facility in Tempe.

“It was, ‘Why not Phoenix?’” Keim said. “We have the weather. We have the facilities now that Michael put the resources into this building. And we have a really good team playing in one of the top-five stadiums, in my opinion, in the NFL. When you bundle all that with the cost of living, the community, the fanbase, I feel good about our ability to recruit with the best of them.”

Evan Mathis is the most recent example. The Pro Bowl guard contemplated retirement after winning the Super Bowl with the Broncos, but was drawn to the opportunity in Arizona. He only wanted to join a contender, and after a little coaxing from longtime friend and current Cardinals scout Adrian Wilson, he signed a one-year deal.

“(Wilson) just truly believes in this organization and where it’s headed,” Mathis said. “He made me a believer in that, but I had already seen what this team had been doing. Then seeing somebody from behind the scenes, who had that same mentality, that they’re just all in and they’re ready to win, it was kind of exciting.”

Mathis was only the second outside free agent added – safety Tyvon Branch preceded him – but the Cardinals have also re-signed several of their own players who drew interest from other teams, including quarterback Drew Stanton, tight end Jermaine Gresham and running back Chris Johnson.

Johnson and Gresham reportedly had more lucrative contract offers elsewhere, but after he agreed to terms, Johnson tweeted that there was “unfinished business” in Arizona and he returned to “get this ring.” Gresham had the worst statistical season of his career in 2015 but he speaks glowingly of the Cardinals.

“Being here last year and what we did, and how we carried ourselves, I’d say we are (a top organization),” Gresham said. “With B.A.’s direction, playing for a coach like that, you have a lot of respect for him. The sky’s the limit. I think we were just a few plays away last year from where we wanted to be, ultimately. Hopefully we can piece it together. It’s pretty exciting going forward.”

Mathis has lived in Scottsdale during the offseason for the past 11 years. He doesn’t watch much football during the season, but he has a pulse on the Cardinals because of his locale. Mathis has seen the transformation of the franchise through the years, and is now a key piece in its ultimate quest – to cap the growth with a Super Bowl title.

“They’ve been doing a good job of acquiring the right talent and continuing to evolve in so many phases, on the field, off the field, in everything they do,” Mathis said. “It seems like that’s what they’re doing. They’re putting a lot of work in behind the scenes to become a better team, and that definitely is showing.”

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