The futures of defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu, Jerraud Powers and Rashad Johnson are among the decisions at the forefront of the Cardinals' offseason.
The new league year for the NFL doesn't officially begin until March 9 – that's when contracts are up and free agency begins – but the truth is every team has already in some capacity been working on the 2016 season.
The Scouting combine starts in two weeks. Some teams, including the Cardinals, are already beginning draft meetings. There is work to do. Said one Cardinals coach who is still hanging around this relatively quiet time at the Cards' Tempe complex, "This is the season of unfinished business."
With that in mind, here are, in no particular order, my thoughts on the top five decisions facing the Cardinals heading into the offseason:
How do you find a pass rush?
It's a popular topic, and a constant one with this team. Steve Keim said the day after the season ended it was the top priority for the team, and that was emphasized watching the way the Broncos' pass rush dismantled a Carolina offense that had just dismantled the Cardinals.
It's very easy to say "We want a better pass rush." It's different than actually doing so. Picking 29th in the first round doesn't really help, nor does the dearth of good pass rushers that will actually hit the open market in free agency (No, Von Miller will not be available.) There are choices the Cardinals have to make with their own roster before even looking around. What to do with Alex Okafor? Do you bring back a soon-to-be 36-year-old Dwight Freeney? Can 2015 fifth-round pick Shaq Riddick, who didn't play a down as a rookie, actually become something? What about injured undrafted rookie Zack Wagenmann, who had 17 sacks as a senior in college?
There are always pass rushers that emerge from into the second and third rounds in the draft, too. The question is whether the Cardinals can find them.
Do you re-sign Rashad Johnson and Jerraud Powers?
They are two key components of the "No Fly Zone." They are unquestioned leaders. Johnson especially has established himself as a coach on the field. And both very much want to be Cardinals. But as Powers said a couple of times after the season was over, this is the business side of the NFL, and everyone understands that. The Cardinals want to get more athletic at safety, and Johnson may not be that choice. The Cards would like to find a younger cornerback, likely in the draft, to play a part. With Justin Bethel getting an extension and Tyrann Mathieu in line for one, it leaves less money for vets like Johnson and Powers.
Both may be able to find more money on the open market. Again, it's the business side of the NFL. Both players – and the team – will make business decisions.
Are Cooper and Humphries the right side of the offensive line?
Steve Keim spent his 2013 and 2015 number one draft picks on offensive linemen. Neither was starting by the end of the season. Jonathan Cooper was the starter at right guard until he was hurt and couldn't get the job back from Ted Larsen once he was healthy. D.J. Humphries wasn't active for a game all season.
Humphries seems to be the best bet to start. For one, starter Bobby Massie should hit it big on the free-agent market. Everyone also seemed to be praising Humphries' progress by the end of the season, from coach Bruce Arians to players like Pro Bowl defensive tackle Calais Campbell. Humphries insisted he was maturing. He's an important piece.
Cooper's situation is more complicated. He's already played three seasons, unable to keep the job. His lost rookie season from his broken leg is far in the rear view, and now, both he and coaches have talked about his need to be stronger mentally and not take personally mistakes or criticism. If that's who Cooper is, it may be hard to overcome such things. Humphries, just getting into the league, still would probably have some leeway. This season is likely Cooper's final chance to grab hold of the job everyone assumed he would be entrenched in by now.
Who needs the next contract extension: Mathieu, Campbell or Floyd?
It is the extension of safety Tyrann Mathieu that everyone is hoping for and expecting this offseason, with Mathieu set to be a free agent after the 2016 season and having an All-Pro season in 2015. Yes, he'll be coming back from another ACL tear but Mathieu already showed he can effectively do such a thing. And the Cardinals want Mathieu around long-term, for what he means to the team on the field and also in the locker room.
But there are other players for which you can make the argument are more pressing for Keim on the extension front. Defensive tackle Calais Campbell has a salary cap number of $15.25 million this season and a salary of $9.5M. He'd be a prime candidate for a possible restructure – except that Campbell is going into the final year of his contract. An extension is the only way to lower that number, and besides, you figure the Cards want the two-time Pro Bowler around past 2016. The question is, at what cost? Campbell was good in 2015 but he didn't play to the level the team was hoping, and there might be some number crunching to be done to figure out what the soon-to-be-30-year-old is worth going forward.
Age isn't a factor with Floyd, but he too is going into the last year of his contract, after the Cardinals picked up his $7.32M option for 2016. Floyd was tremendous the second half of the season, and with both he and Larry Fitzgerald without contracts past 2016, it would seem the Cards would want to solidify their wide receiver corps on some level.
Who is your backup QB?
Assuming Carson Palmer stays healthy, this really doesn't impact 2016. But it could impact down the road. Drew Stanton is a free agent. He wants to stay, but he'll have to give up the chance of playing. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are still on their quest to find a long-term replacement for Palmer whenever their Pro Bowl QB decides he is done. That's hard to do picking later in the draft. The Cards will look at Matt Barkley this offseason too – they really didn't get a true chance to evaluate him after his trade right before the regular season – but if someone falls into their lap at some point in the draft, the Cardinals have to seriously consider such a pick. And if that happens, is he a No. 3? Do you install him as a No. 2 if Stanton leaves as a free agent? The tough part about being a No. 3 – very little practice work once training camp ends.