Tanner Vallejo was a wanted man last week. While the 2017 sixth-round pick out of Boise State may not be a well-known name to casual fans, six different teams reportedly put a claim on the linebacker when he was cut by the Browns.
The Cardinals were one of them, and because of their top positioning on the waiver wire, were awarded that claim.
Will the addition of Vallejo result in a massive turnaround for the Cardinals? Of course not. But the waiver priority’s inverse relation to the 2018 standings is one of many ways the NFL skews its rules to promote league-wide parity.
The Cardinals went 3-13 last season, finishing with the worst record in the NFL, and with that comes opportunity.
They have the top priority on every player who goes through waivers through the first month of the 2019 season – they have already used it to claim safety D.J. Swearinger, receiver Pharoh Cooper and Vallejo -- and the first pick in every round of the draft.
The Cardinals also have money to spend in free agency, and General Manager Steve Keim has already been busy. He inked cornerback Robert Alford to a three-year deal and outside linebacker Brooks Reed to a one-year contract to boost the defense. As the Cardinals beef up, the presence of a hard salary cap means many of the teams they are chasing do not have the same luxury.
Unlike in Major League Baseball or the NBA, NFL teams cannot pass a salary threshold in exchange for paying a tax. The NFL makes every team get below the figure – projected to be between $187 and $191.1 million in 2019 – by the start of the league year on March 13, which leads to plenty of cuts before free agency.
When the season begins, the Cardinals will also have the benefit of a fourth-place schedule, in which they play two teams – the Lions and Giants – that also finished last in their division.
The NFL is known for its quick turnarounds. The Bears and Texans finished in last place in their divisions in 2017 before winning them last year. In 15 of the past 16 seasons, at least one team has made that worst-to-first jump.
Keim has to acquire the right players this offseason for improvement to commence, but a system designed to favor the worst teams should help him toward that goal.