If the Cardinals have any opportunity to keep Patrick Peterson, or Haason Reddick, or Kenyan Drake, they will soon have a clear view of where they stand.
Monday marks the beginning of the NFL's "legal tampering" period, where teams can begin talking to free agents of other teams at 9 a.m. Arizona time. No one can sign or even agree to a contract yet – that can't happen before Wednesday at 1 p.m. Arizona time – but the direction the bigger deals and the bigger names are going often start leaking during this early window.
For the Cards, who have around $20 million in cap space (according to overthecap.com) and multiple needs, the reality always has been that some of their key guys will have richer offers elsewhere.
"It wears on you because you do realize there are some tough decisions you are going to have to make," General Manager Steve Keim said. "It's no secret we will most likely have to move on from a number of players that have been solid veterans for us. That's not fun. That's a part of the business I've always been clear. You get emotionally attached to these guys."
Reddick is expected to have a good market, as most 26-year-old pass rushers with a 10-plus sack season under their belt will generate. There is more unknown about Peterson, who turns 31 in July and enters a market with a glut of veteran cornerbacks, and Drake, who plays a position at running back that often does not get expensive attention in free agency.
Oh, and Larry Fitzgerald, who is technically a free agent but is down to picking whether to play another year in Arizona or retiring, still has yet to make a decision.
The salary cap was set at $182.5 million. Given rollover cap money and other adjustments, the Cardinals' actual cap this year is about $192M.
Of course, any team can make any contract fit if they are willing to make the effort – the Cards' one free-agent signee so far, J.J. Watt, will make $14.5 million this year but his cap number is less than $5M. But there are decisions to be made, and the sheer volume of players available as teams make cuts across the league should make for some bargains, if only for one season.
"There are a number of players that I feel will hit the market that'll make money and get long-term contracts, but at the same time, there is going to be, to me, a number of players that traditionally would have gotten long-term deals that are probably going to have to settle for one-year, prove-it-type situations," Keim said. "For us, the way we are and the way you want to construct your roster with a lower cap, you'd like to think you can be in position to play a number of young guys who are on rookie contracts just to be able to manage things in a healthy respect moving forward."
Keim's usual goal in free agency is to plug every hole as possible, so the draft can be used to seek the best player available at the time. Last season, the Cards were able to land Isaiah Simmons in the draft, but had signed De'Vondre Campbell earlier to make sure there wasn't a gaping divot going into April.
This year, finding at least one significant cornerback, a wide receiver, an interior offensive lineman and perhaps a running back are all positions of possibility in free agency.
The Cardinals can still make some moves to clear more cap space (they released cornerback Robert Alford last week) and that can be a difficult conversation to have, Keim acknowledged. Regardless, the Cards want to keep the cap as "clean" as possible, avoiding too much in future dead money hits while trying to build a contender around QB Kyler Murray.
"It's making sure we can get through this thing in a healthy manner, you just don't want to do anything that is going to put you in a tough position for future years, especially when you have a quarterback on a rookie contract," Keim said. "We know this is a time we can capitalize."
A look at defensive end J.J. Watt's new Cardinals jersey being created