The first couple of days of free agency were a whirlwind for the Cardinals’ front office, but the Rubik’s Cube of the roster – and, in many ways, the equally important salary cap – was already well thought out.
By the second day of the new league year, the Cardinals had already signed five new veteran players and released five veteran players who had been under contract, each taking some kind of bite out of the team’s salary cap dynamics. How they fit into the cap was sorted out by director of football administration Mike Disner, the team’s salary cap guru.
Helping learn how they fit into the bigger picture of the Arizona Cardinals was part of Disner’s job as well.
The elevation of Steve Keim to general manager meant a shift in the front office. Keim wanted to incorporate statistics and analytics in the team’s scouting. Disner, who was already a cap expert after working for the NFL’s Management Council, was the ideal choice.
“Something that is cool about football is the statistical aspect, it’s really untapped,” Disner said. “The different analysis you can do,
“That’s what a general manager or front office is trying to do, take as much information as possible and make the best decision they can.”
That’s how the Cardinals ended up this year with a board for free agents similar to their draft Top 120 board. It’s why they attacked the free agent class with volume and short-term contracts. It’s why they cleared significant salary cap space in the seasons going forward by releasing certain veterans.
Much of Disner’s first two months on the job was spent crunching numbers and analyzing data on the potential free-agent class. That, along with the pro scouting the team was doing behind a group led by vice president of player personnel Jason Licht, helped shape the roster.
“It’s not ‘What happens if we cut this player’, or ‘What happens if we sign this player?’ ” Disner said. “It’s ‘If we sign this guy, what do the next five, six, seven moves look like?’ My job is to lay out as much information as possible regarding all these decisions.”
Disner, 28, is a former college baseball player from Williams College in Massachusetts who has always been fascinated with math and statistics. Through his school’s president, Disner met Williams alum Jonathan Kraft – president of the New England Patriots and son of that’s team’s owner – and earned at first internships and then a job in the scouting department with the team.
After that he worked with the NFL, reconciling the salary caps of each team every night and later helping analyze and produce proposals for the new collective bargaining agreement – including the new rookie compensation scale -- during the 2011 negotiations.
The combination of cap knowledge, analytics background and scouting know-how made Disner a priority for Keim in his reconfigured football operations.
“My knowledge of the cap, I try to keep it simple,” Keim said. “Mike is certainly the expert in that category and handles all the intimate details. I have learned enough where I know enough to just potentially be dangerous.
“When it comes to scouting, you’ll never replace the eye for talent or the judgment of ability but what you can do with numbers and analytics is back up and support your theories.”
Keim called the Cardinals’ cap situation “a work in progress,” but then again, it will never not be the way the team’s strategy lays it out. The constant meetings of the front office between some combination of Keim, Licht, Disner, Head Coach Bruce Arians, President Michael Bidwill and others include decisions with a long view attached.
“Anytime you are looking at the salary cap in a one-year view,” Disner said, “you’re going to be in trouble.”
The Cardinals, who are $7.8 million under the salary cap as of Tuesday according to the NFL Players Association, aren’t just taking money into account. Disner isn’t counting only dollars but using his background to adjust those price tags against ability and production before the team makes a choice to sign – or release – a player.
“We kind of look at it on a two-year and a three-year basis – here’s what we can spend from a cap standpoint, how we can manage it for sustained success and not have another year like this year where there was a bloodletting,” Disner said.
“We may be under the cap right now, but it’s not because we want to spend less money. We are under the cap so we can make moves in the future to build in the future.”