Not even 24 hours had passed since the Cardinals had lost the NFC Championship, and Steve Keim made clear his offseason priority.
"Create a pass rush," the Cardinals GM said.
Easier said than done. There were a few pass rushers on the free agent market, although none were coming off eye-popping seasons. That didn't stop the money from flowing, however, and the Cardinals tried to get into it, making a push for Jason Pierre-Paul that ultimately came up short. It didn't look all that promising going forward, unless the Cardinals could grab someone with the 29th overall pick in the draft. Free agency overall was quiet for the Cards.
And then suddenly, the news broke Tuesday. A trade, and Keim had his pass rusher. Chandler Jones, who made the Pro Bowl with his 12.5 sacks in New England, was coming to Arizona (pending physicals, of course) in exchange for guard Jonathan Cooper and the Cards' second-round draft pick in April. It's hard not to see this as a huge win for the Cards. The reality was Cooper had never really developed into what the Cardinals wanted, and flipping a second-round pick for a proven pass rusher was simply a good move. This trade won't be evaluated fully for a while, but on the day it happened, it is a Keim win.
Some other thoughts:
-- Jones is going into the last year of his contract (making $7.8 million this season). That's reportedly one of the reasons the Patriots were willing to deal him, because they have others who can do his job and they have so many players who need to be extended. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are in the same boat. The laundry list of scheduled free agents after this season is, right now, frighteningly long: Jones, Fitz, Floyd, Mathieu, Campbell, Rucker, Gresham, Minter, Ellington, Jefferson, Catanzaro and Fells, for starters. But I am guessing there will be an extension or two the Cardinals will be trying to get done.
-- Jones was hospitalized in the postseason, reportedly after a bad reaction to synthetic marijuana (which, apparently, has no actual marijuana in it and is not illegal). It was a mistake, but one source in New England said it was not reflective of who Jones is and shouldn't be an issue going forward.
-- The addition of Jones shouldn't rule out further pass rush help if the Cards find some in the draft or elsewhere. It will be interesting to see if Dwight Freeney will remain in play, and what this could mean for Alex Okafor, who had been starting along with Markus Golden.
-- Cooper's departure leaves a lot of unknowns on the offensive line. Center is still a mystery. With the possibility Ted Larsen could leave as a free agent, so is right guard. The assumption is D.J. Humphries can play right tackle, but that is no lock, especially with the news Andre Smith could still sign. Earl Watford could have a big chance to win a starting job, and the Cards have been intrigued by Antoine McClain on the practice squad. But there is still work to do to fill out the group next to Jared Veldheer and Mike Iupati.
UPDATE: This could change some things. Ian Rapoport reports veteran guard Evan Mathis visited the Cardinals and he was offered a contract. Rapoport also said veteran guard Geoff Schwartz is also supposed to visit the Cardinals.
-- The saga of Cooper is over. He will not be playing center (I'm not sure that was ever really a serious option, to be honest). He will not be the guard, he will not be getting back to his pre-broken leg level, at least not with the Cardinals. Three years into his career, questions still swirled around Coop. He admitted after the season he struggled with criticism -- including from coaches -- which is tough in this business.
"I will work on that because that is a major key to me improving is me being able to have my headspace correct," Cooper said. "Letting one or two mistakes snowball and keep me down, I can't let that happen anymore. Even hearing negatively from outsiders, I can't let than bring me down."