Cardinals wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald (left) and Michael Floyd are among the strong core of players under contract in 2016.
The Cardinals' postseason exit may still sting, but nothing washes away the venom like a look ahead.
While the NFL season just recently wrapped up, free agency is only a few weeks away. It's easy to find the list of available players, and it's even easier to daydream about the type of production some could add for the Cardinals.
Those fantasies might be free, but the NFL salary cap is strict. The Cardinals have the great majority of their impact players from last year's 13-3 campaign under contract. Many of those guys are expensive, which limits the options in free agency.
"The Cardinals are in relatively average position," said Jason Fitzgerald, who runs the salary cap website OverTheCap.com. "They won't have to struggle to be salary cap compliant but probably are not in a position to be a massive spender, either."
Fitzgerald estimates that the Cardinals have about $17 million in salary cap room, but that is a fluid number. Cuts and restructures can add space, re-signings can take away, and extensions can have either effect. The Cardinals didn't have a ton of room last year, but came out aggressively and inked Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati to a 5-year, $40 million deal.
General Manager Steve Keim has said the pass rush is the team's top priority this offseason, so if the team does make a lucrative signing, that could be one possible area. However, Keim and coach Bruce Arians have both said it's more feasible to add pass-rushers through the draft, since they are so expensive in free agency.
Like in his past offseasons, Keim will likely formulate a plan and then adjust it depending on the market. The Cardinals would like to add pieces in several areas, but don't seem to have many glaring holes, which could allow them to be flexible and find the best bang for their buck.
The Cardinals have some key free agents of their own – running back Chris Johnson, linebacker Dwight Freeney, safety Rashad Johnson, cornerback Jerraud Powers and right tackle Bobby Massie among them – but none are stars. Fitzgerald believes Keim can be judicious in discussions with those players, either re-signing them to reasonable deals or finding suitable replacements.
"They are helped by the fact that they don't really have any free agents of note," Fitzgerald said. "Most of their free agents are all lower cost veterans so they can bring those players back or sign similar role players from other teams to fill those voids without walking into any cap problems."
The Cardinals are clearly in win-now mode based on last year's fantastic run and the advancing age of quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. However, there is still the future to think about. Safety Tyrann Mathieu, wide receiver Michael Floyd, defensive tackle Calais Campbell and Fitzgerald are among a large group of key players going into the final year of their contracts in 2016.
As Keim juggles his contract decisions, he won't keep a narrow view.
"I think when the Cardinals are doing anything contract related, their eye really needs to be on the 2017 season," Jason Fitzgerald said.
Free agency is always an exciting time, as a whirlwind of activity shifts players' locales in a matter of hours. Based on the team's current position, the Cardinals figure to tinker, not overhaul, in the 2016 free agency period.
"I think they are in a position where this is the roster they have, and any major impact will come from the draft," Fitzgerald said.
Images of Cardinals cheerleader Karlyn from throughout the year