General manager Steve Keim talks to punter Dave Zastudil and long snapper Mike Leach before a game in Tennessee last season.
Rarely a day goes by without Cardinals general manager Steve Keim having some sort of discussion with director of football administration Mike Disner about the health of the team's salary cap.
Those "big picture" talks are often done with a three-year window in mind, meaning nothing is ever really completely put to the side – for instance, now that Larry Fitzgerald's contract has been restructured and settled for 2014, that doesn't mean his contract going forward isn't considered in how the Cardinals operate going forward.
"We have to constantly look at it with a three-year view," Keim said Wednesday. "How certain things affect what we can do with (cornerback) Patrick (Peterson), how some of the other young players fit, and (that) we might have to make some tough decisions. Not this year, but we have talked about where we will have to make tough decisions after 2014 and 2015. If you look at the big picture and you look at it with a three-year view, you have a chance to
sustain success instead of having so many peaks and valleys."
Keim didn't specifically address any particular player, other than the reference to the lucrative extension Peterson stands to receive at some point. But it was an answer to a question regarding Fitzgerald, who even after reworking his 2014 language has an $8 million roster bonus, an $8 million salary and a cap number of more than $23M looming in 2015.
The Cardinals have constantly held they want Fitzgerald to remain a Cardinal. But Keim hasn't wavered on his plan to clean the Cards' salary cap situation the best he can, all while competing in the rugged NFC West.
Thus far, that has meant difficult choices like releasing veteran safety Adrian Wilson, chasing multiple free agents last season armed with only short-term deals, and a willingness to wait out contractually players who turned out to be key pieces like linebackers Karlos Dansby and John Abraham.
The plan isn't changing now, not after it worked for a 10-win season.
"When you have tough decisions, bottom line, you have to draft well," Keim said. "With tough decisions, you have to have replacements and a lot of times they can't be high-cost replacements. You have to have a lot of success with guys like Tyrann (Mathieu) and Andre (Ellington) who are on manageable salaries.
"It's almost, when you look at the big picture and the way a lot of teams' caps are structured, you are either getting paid a significant amount of money or you're not making a lot of money. The middle class are kind of falling by the wayside."
Keim and his staff, with the Scouting combine coming up next week, are in the middle of free agent meetings. Like last year, the Cardinals are building a free-agent board similar to the top 100 board built later on for the draft. It allows the Cards to assess free-agent targets and potential contracts for those players, and also makes it easier for the Cards to move on to the next free agent if an initial target drags his feet or turns down an Arizona offer.
Like last year, Keim said, the Cardinals will "be aggressive with offers" once free agency begins. As of right now, the Cards have about $10 million in cap space after the Fitzgerald restructure.
That could change if the team re-signs any of its own free agents before March 11, when the free agent period begins. The team did re-up punter Dave Zastudil, but Keim said it was hard to tell if more would sign extensions prior to March 11.
"Sometimes the players and their agents want to get to the market and see where the numbers go," Keim said. "At the same time we have aggressively pursued some of our own free agents and we have deals on the table that we feel pretty good about."
In the meantime, the discussions continue.
"That's the fun part of the job," Keim said. "Trying to put the pieces together."