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Free Agency Threatens Cardinals' Defense

Posted Mar 1, 2017

Team talking to multiple starters as new league year approaches

Safety Tony Jefferson (22), cornerback Marcus Cooper (41) and defensive lineman Calais Campbell (93) all are scheduled to be free agents next week.

INDIANAPOLIS – With free agency approaching, the Cardinals understand big contracts could cost them key players … like Marcus Cooper.

Defensive lineman Calais Campbell and safety Tony Jefferson have been the starters who are expected to garner significant interest as unrestricted free agents, players the Cards want back. Cooper, the cornerback who started opposite Patrick Peterson, is also wanted back, coach Bruce Arians said Wednesday at the NFL Scouting combine.

It might not be possible, Arians added, underscoring just what kind of hit the Cardinals’ second-ranked defense could absorb over the next few weeks.

“It looks like Coop is going to get a helluva lot of money,” Arians said. “Y’all keep saying Coop’s no good; he was a Pro Bowl alternate, had four interceptions. It looks like the price is going up pretty high for him, so we’ll wait and see.”

It isn’t so much Cooper’s opportunity as the confluence of events that threatens a chunk of the Cards’ defense. With the Chiefs’ Eric Berry getting a contract extension, Jefferson creeps closer to the top of the available talent at the position. Campbell was already seen as such. Cooper, safety D.J. Swearinger and linebacker Kevin Minter, who all played an important role for the Cards this season, will also be unrestricted in a week.

Contract talks are ongoing to re-sign free agents, and the trip to Indianapolis gives General Manager Steve Keim a chance to meet up with agents and potentially get a deal or two done.

But not everyone is returning, and the defense will have to be restructured.

“To have a situation where you could potentially lose some players, it’s a tough part of the business,” Keim said. “We all understand the salary cap, and the situation we are in, it’s a big piece of the pie. There are only so many slices to go around.”

Campbell has owned the biggest piece for a while, and his play in 2016 was well-timed heading into free agency. The Cardinals, knowing Campbell will be 31 at the outset of the season, want to be cautious about a new deal. With so much cap space in the NFL – reports have the 2017 salary cap at $167 million, and with the Cards’ rollover from 2016, that’ll put them around $171 million – there’s a good chance a team or two could swoop in with big offers.

Arians acknowledged Wednesday the Cards have prepped for the potential of a Campbell departure.

“We hope we’ve done that in the draft the last two years, with Rodney (Gunter) and Robert (Nkemdiche), knowing that their time is coming,” Arians said. “We feel like we’re a deep group. We had eight defensive linemen on our roster last year for a reason.”

(Arians, by the way, said he thinks Nkemdiche can make the same jump in 2017 that the Cards saw from tackle D.J. Humphries last year.)

Wednesday morning, Jefferson tweeted out “March is here.” It wasn’t because of his love for the NCAA college basketball tournament. This is the month where he and several teammates will find out their future – and the Cardinals will find out what direction they have to take their defense.

“Hopefully, we’re prepared for it,” Arians said. “We knew it could be coming and I still like our roster. I don’t think we’ll lose a lot of guys. We could lose two or three guys. We feel like we’ve got young players ready to go and some guys injured who are coming back and then we’ll fill in.”

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