The Cardinals got effective play last season from free agents on one-year deals, like (from left) safety Yeremiah Bell, linebacker Karlos Dansby and linebacker Matt Shaughnessy.
Free agency is the place where NFL teams – where the Cardinals – add a piece or two so when they go into the draft, they can be flexible in their choices.
But the puzzle can be tricky to put together, given the variables of supply and demand and salary cap considerations.
"Free agency is not free," former NFL general manager and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian said. "It costs two things you never get back: Time and money. When you have a good team and a good personnel department that drafts well, it behooves you to be restrained in free agency.
"Fans want you to go out and play fantasy football, but that's the last thing you should be doing."
Cardinals GM Steve Keim has worked hard to make sure his team isn't in a fantasy world since taking over last year.
He was careful with his money a year ago with the Cards bumping up against the salary cap and made a lot of impressive signings on short-term contracts.
The Cards have similar plans this year, although with more cap space (they should have more than $20 million after the release of guard Daryn Colledge) and bigger plans on the front end. This year, the Cards are delving into the left tackle market in order to settle down a position that has been a focus for many years, which will not come cheaply.
Beyond that, it gets complicated again. Polian noted that "free agency equals dead money" and trying to get the right deals that won't handicap the Cards in the future is one of Keim's top priorities.
"Unless a guy is 22 or 23 and has a ton of potential, you start getting into contracts where they can be lengthy and have a lot of guaranteed money and you have 29 or 30-year-old players, it's a real concern," Keim said. "Because when the wheels come off, they come off quickly."
That's the major factor when it comes to someone like linebacker Karlos Dansby, who has reportedly been offered a two-year contract with his 33rd birthday coming during the season. Teams can still re-sign their own players before the free agent period starts Tuesday at 1 p.m. Arizona time and it wouldn't be a surprise to see that happen with the Cards.
Keim, who is nursing about $10 million of dead money this season (mostly from the Levi Brown and Adam Snyder deals), works free agency with the future in mind.
"We look at this as a three-year plan and the biggest issue is the fact last year and this year we are carrying a considerable amount of dead money," Keim said. "As a goal, I think every team needs to look into eliminating dead money and you do that by obviously not doing bad contracts. That's a challenge you are always going to have. You have the mindset of win now and doing whatever you can to improve your football team, but I think you have to be careful in free agency how you spend."
The Cardinals did it about as well as possible last year, waiting out veterans like Dansby, tackle Eric Winston and linebacker John Abraham while striking quickly on cheaper one-year deals with players like running back Rashard Mendenhall and linebacker Matt Shaughnessy (the latter of which the Cards would like to keep.)
Keim wants to draft well and put money back into those investments, the eventual extension for cornerback Patrick Peterson and previous ones for players like linebacker Daryl Washington and defensive end Calais Campbell prime examples. The trend in the NFL is to pay your own players as much as possible, since you know them the best.
And for the best players, it will probably cost you a little more than you'd like, but that's what happens in free agency much of the time, no matter how much you plan.
"Free agency, in and of itself, is an overpayment situation," Polian said.