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Cardinals Must Balance Progress With Change

Ten wins leaves team optimistic for 2014, but some pieces will be different


Cardinals tight end Jake Ballard (86) celebrates his touchdown Sunday with running back Rashard Mendenhall (28), tackle Eric Winston (left) and tight end Rob Housler (84) - and Ballard, Mendenhall and Winston were all new to the team in 2013.

The footballs and jerseys were signed, the huge garbage bags were filled with gear and plans were discussed a final time, and then that was that – the 2013 Cardinals' season was over.

"It's like, 'That's it,' " center Lyle Sendlein said. "You kind of hang around the locker room expecting a walkthrough and practice but there is nothing there."

Football not only has ended, but so too has this version of the team. The cliché was rampant Monday as the players went through their final paces because it was true. The only constant in the NFL is change. The Cardinals absorbed that even after a season with 10 wins, a sixth-ranked defense (and No. 1 against the run) and an improving offense.

"I'm very proud of the 2013 Cardinals," coach Bruce Arians said. "The shame is that a lot of them won't be back to be the 2014

Cardinals. That's just the NFL. We'll do everything we can as an organization to keep the pieces we think are extremely important."

There are a significant number of pieces that must be accounted for, starting with a lengthy free agent list. General Manager Steve Keim did a magnificent job retooling the roster so quickly last season under salary cap constraints, in large part by bringing in many veterans on one-year contracts. The downside of that, especially after such a successful season, is now dealing with all those players who could walk away.

The biggest name is linebacker Karlos Dansby, who has had his best season and has touted himself as a defensive player of the year candidate. But he is not the only one. Offensive starters scheduled to be unrestricted free agents are wide receiver Andre Roberts, tight end Jim Dray, right tackle Eric Winston and running back Rashard Mendenhall.

Joining Dansby on the defensive side of the ball are safety Yeremiah Bell and linebacker Matt Shaughnessy. And that doesn't include contributors like defensive backs Javier Arenas and Antoine Cason, defensive end Frostee Rucker and both kicker Jay Feely and Dave Zastudil.

Keim won't want to bring all of them back most likely, but finding contract offers that work for the ones he does want will be the! interesting dance of the offseason.

"I don't know what the situation is like financially, I don't know what they are looking for and I don't know what they are trying to do," Winston said. "I don't know if they are looking for stopgap guys or long term. We'll see. Anytime you think you know in this league, you don't."

Juggling the cap going forward – Keim said earlier this season it will take until 2015 before the Cardinals are fully comfortable with their cap situation after he took over a year ago – is crucial while keeping a competitive team active. It's why the current contracts of players like Larry Fitzgerald, Daryn Colledge or Darnell Dockett could also be addressed in some manner.

"I know it's the business," Dockett said. "They will keep the guys they need to keep to keep moving forward. That means some sacrifices.

"You can't replace certain people. I'm not going to mention no names. (But) you cannot replace certain people, certain things they bring to the game. Certain things are priceless."

The Cardinals have shown they have a foundation on which to build. Arians talked about getting better on both lines as key in the physical NFC West, and Keim recently said upgrading the offensive line would be his top offseason priority.

Arians also said turnovers had to be reduced and will be a focal point, after quarterback Carson Palmer threw a career-high 22 interceptions this season (with 24 touchdown passes). Arians believes that can be accomplished and there is satisfaction with Palmer's progress in the Arians offense.

The Cardinals go into the first offseason since 2009 not desperately wondering who their starting signal-caller would be for the next season. Keim may look at drafting one, but it's no sure thing with Palmer atop the depth chart.

"We have a lot of key pieces in place," Palmer said. "I know the scope of every team changes this time of year and the offseason brings a lot of change, but in the short time this was put together shows you the guys upstairs know what they are doing."

Momentum is a dangerous catch phrase in the NFL when it comes to going from season to season. The change on a roster is the biggest reason why. The Cardinals began their tenure under Arians headed in the right direction, and there is belief the team is up for the battle of the NFC West.

But the Cardinals have to find out what players they have going forward, and then they have to show they can do it all over again.

"I believe you have to put your work in," linebacker John Abraham said. "I know we have possibilities. I believe we can do it but we have to have the same mentality. Can't start smelling ourselves, you know what I mean?

"We've got to do it like we are always on the bottom. Everyone keeps saying, 'Oh, we're the underdog.' I like that."

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