General Manager Steve Keim (right) shakes the hand of vice president of player personnel Jason Licht near the end of one of the Cardinals' victories this season.
As Steve Keim maneuvered his way through his first offseason a year ago, there was no handbook he was given to work as general manager.
There were specific things he and his staff – including vice president of football operations Jason Licht and director of football operations Mike Disner – wanted to implement. There was the structure of a three-year plan. There was a free agency target board, similar to the one the Cardinals had long used for the draft.
Those details helped in an offseason of change that eventually led to a five-game improvement in 2013. Yet even Keim has some tweaks he'll address as the Cardinals address their offseason of 2014.
"I felt like the structure and philosophy we put in place is the right way to go," Keim said. "There are little things with (contract)
negotiations you need to learn and improve on and we will obviously make those adjustments.
"We don't want to get married to the free agency business, even though we had some success with it. We want to make sure the lifeblood of this team is building through the draft."
The challenges of his second offseason are a little different for Keim. There are more of the Cardinals' own free agents Keim wants to bring back. There are fewer players that might need to be released because of salary situations. There will not be as much "dead" money weighing on the team's salary cap.
But Keim always looked at cleaning up the roster as a two-year process, and that concept has not changed.
"We are right now still looking into 2015 and trying to see where we are at from a cap standpoint," Keim said. "Making sure as we move along this thing never gets high or low and we stay steady. Keep a healthy cap, do some things in free agency we see as necessary, but at the same time we want to stay consistent."
Keim said the expectation is the free-agent market will be similar to what the NFL had last year, with veterans who have already reached the age of 30 finding lucrative deals hard to find.
Keim did not talk about any specific players. But the most significant name on the Cardinals' free-agent list is linebacker Karlos Dansby, who had a fantastic season but will be 33 this year and who found his pickings slim last offseason when he was on the free agent market.
Free agency begins March 11, so teams have until then to try and lock up their own impending free agents before then. The Cardinals would like to do that with some players, although the market figures to come into play in some circumstances. Keim will also have to account for the rehab process of returning players, like guard Jonathan Cooper (whose return will be like getting a second first-round pick, Keim said) and safety Tyrann Mathieu. Keim said Mathieu's timetable to return is six-to-nine months, but that he wouldn't bet against Mathieu being back for the season.
The coaches are finishing their postseason vacation this week. The Cardinals will send coaches and scouts to next week's Senior Bowl in Alabama, with the Scouting combine coming in a month in Indianapolis. The draft this year is May 8-10.
The process should run smoother than last year just because everyone involved has been together for an offseason. Keim reiterated how well he works with coach Bruce Arians, noting that they have similar views on how to build the team.
"Bottom line, we stay in our lanes," Keim said. "He coaches football and I oversee personnel. In the NFL those lines can get blurred at times. I think if you stay in your lanes and respect the people you work with, ultimately you have a really good chance."
Keim and Arians also had a similar way they saw the just completed season – which also will impact how they approach roster retooling in the coming months.
"So many people were excited about the 10 wins, when Bruce and I were struggling with, 'Let's talk about the six losses,' " Keim said. "Why did we lose those games? What can we do to improve? When you play against Seattle and San Francisco, and the St. Louis Rams have improved, it's a litmus test. It shows you where your limitations are. That helps us in the offseason going forward."