Kliff Kingsbury has only been an NFL coach for two years, but knows a prime opportunity when he sees one.
As the start of free agency beckons next week, the Cardinals hold a crucial domino to team success -- a standout quarterback at a bargain price.
Kyler Murray is set to make less than $10 million in 2021 because of the rookie wage scale, when the market rate for a player with his ability is closer to the $35-to-$40 million range.
In the modern-day NFL, myriad teams have used excess cap space from such a scenario to flank a talented quarterback with enough weapons to make a serious title run. Since 2014, the Seahawks, Chiefs and Eagles have won Super Bowls with a starting quarterback on a rookie deal, while the Rams, Ravens and Bills have been among the strong contenders.
The Cardinals went 8-8 last season, and between Murray's continued progression and his affordability, Kingsbury believes this is a good time for the team to put its foot on the gas pedal.
"I think that's the common theme around the league – if you get an ascending quarterback on his third year, where you can spend more money on the players around him, then that has an opportunity to be a really good year," Kingsbury said. "We hope that's the case here."
The Bills and Browns are both one year ahead of the Cardinals in the team-building phase, which makes their moves last offseason a noteworthy guide. Buffalo traded multiple draft picks for Stefon Diggs, and the standout wide receiver helped quarterback Josh Allen reach a career peak in 2020.
The Browns loaded up their roster in free agency to aid the growth of Baker Mayfield.
Watt's two-year contract costs an average of $14 million per year, but he has a cap hit of only $4.9 million in 2021, which allows for an aggressive push when the new league year begins on Wednesday. The Cardinals have about $20 million in salary cap room, per OverTheCap.com, and can use player cuts, restructures, extensions or paycuts to add to that number.
This is a good offseason to be in win-now mode, because the decreasing salary cap is going to mean a flood of talented players hitting the market.
"I think there is going to be a seismic shift in talent across the NFL," Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill told SiriusXM NFL Radio on March 3. "You've got teams that are projected to be well over the cap; you've got teams that are projected to be well under. I know every potential free agent is thinking they're not going to get released, but there are going to be a bunch of surprises for people here in a few weeks, when everybody has to get under the cap and free agency starts. I see a big shift, a seismic shift, in terms of the talent moving around."
Even so, the Cardinals' general manager knows he is in a good spot.
"It's something you think about a lot," Keim said. "Whether it is Seattle or teams like the Chiefs with Mahomes, or other teams that have had success with (quarterbacks) early in their career, you do have a chance to spend in other areas."
This scenario won't last long. Murray is eligible for a contract extension after the season, and while the structure could allow for a low cap hit in 2022, the price would balloon soon after.
Paying a star quarterback at market value can still be a path to success in the NFL, as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees can attest, but a talented signal-caller on a rookie deal has been the sweet spot in the NFL of late.
The Cardinals and Murray would love to be the latest example of that in 2021.
"He has the potential to be one of the top guys in the league," Kingsbury said. "We all know that. We have to continue to build around him, coach at a high level around him, and see if we can help maximize him as a player."
A look at defensive end J.J. Watt's new Cardinals jersey being created