Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim has to make moves with the salary cap in mind.
This time of year, the phrase "tough decisions to make" gets a workout from Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim.
That's what a salary cap forces of a team.
Roster moves and choices in the NFL aren't always dictated by money. Talent obviously plays a role. But marrying the two is the bulk of the front office business. As the Cardinals plan out their free agent strategy and plot their future roster, money has to come into play.
"We figure out players first," coach Bruce Arians said. "Who is the best fit for the team, then, what do we have to do to afford them. You have to rob Peter to pay Paul sometimes."
The first part of the sequence was Keim's balancing of the cap heading into the new league year. The "tough decisions" hit the two longest-tenured Cardinals, with both wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett asked to take pay reductions and re-do their contracts
heading into 2015.
Such moves had risk. Fitzgerald's new deal was done, creating nearly $13 million of salary cap space alone. Dockett and the team couldn't come to a new agreement immediately, leading to Dockett's release and creating another $6.8 million more of cap space. Dockett could still return, but he might not – such are the perils of March.
With the rise in the NFL salary cap to slightly more than $143 million this season, the $4.2 million of cap carryover the Cardinals have from 2014 and about $1 million more in other adjustments, Keim gets to work in free agency with an adjusted cap of about $148.5 million in 2015 to try and bulk up a team that won 11 games in 2015 and desperately wants to take another step further.
"(Judging) the player is always first, and then we try to figure out how we can make it fit," Keim said. "You are always weighing that. You sit back looking at your cap situation and you realize you have 'x' amount of dollars you can allocate to free agency and then all of a sudden you have to grade the players in free agency and stack the board correctly. Then the tough decisions are, because it's a piece of the pie, how do I want to spend this money?"
As of today, the Cardinals should have in the ballpark of $13 million to $15 million in cap space headed into free agency.
Last season, the Cardinals wanted to solidify their left tackle positon and went hard after Jared Veldheer. They got him, although he was expensive and ate up a bulk of cap room. The Cardinals could think about chasing a pass rusher this year, but with a premium position, do the Cards like someone destined to hit the market who will again chew up so much space?
That's where Mike Disner fits in with the front office, running the analytics of contracts and players and their subsequent values. Disner, the team's director of football administration and salary cap expert, breaks down the Cards' current players and the ones whom the team might chase. That helps in the budget process before the team even talks to a player.
The free-agent list is made well in advance of the free agent period, which starts Saturday with the "tampering period," when teams can begin officially talking to players. Tuesday, the ability to sign players – their 2014 contracts now expired – begins. Already, some veterans have been cut by their teams (like Dockett) and have been free to negotiate deals elsewhere.
There must be some patience, too. A target like a Veldheer must be approached quickly. Later comes the signing of an Antonio Cromartie, a Karlos Dansby, a John Abraham, a veteran who can be acquired for one year and a cheaper contract.
It may mean the Cardinals get that player only for that one year, but it's worth it to Keim as he balances the books.
"The problem is you can't get too emotionally attached to players," Keim said. "When the time comes to make another decision, you make a poor business decision and try to overpay for players that might not deserve it."
Dead money is always a concern. The idea is that the Cardinals can keep the dead money – leftover cap hits for players no longer on the roster – to a minimum. Take the newest Fitzgerald contract, which, if Fitzgerald is no longer on the roster after two years, still dings the Cardinals with a near-$10 million cap hit.
Keim has slowly been massaging such dead money off the books since he took over as GM. That will always be part of the equation as he continues to make "tough decisions."
"You always have to think about the long-term health of the organization and not putting us in a position where we have a lot of future dead money," Keim said. "After this year, just looking at the forecast, I think we'll be in a great position cap-wise."
Images of the Cardinals in individual showdowns