Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu (left) and cornerback Patrick Peterson will help bridge the gap when the team loses its star veterans.
When the horse has Super Bowl aspirations, it seems silly to talk about the cart, but the press conference announcing safety Tyrann Mathieu's five-year contract extension on Wednesday brought the Cardinals' future into the present.
The team is a contender heading into 2016, with quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald integral to how it unfolds. However, Mathieu's long-term deal is a reminder that, as he and cornerback Patrick Peterson settle into their prime years, Palmer and Fitzgerald wrestle with how much time they have left.
It's impossible to know when this championship window will end, as Palmer is playing the best football of his career and doesn't seem ready to retire any time soon, while Fitzgerald enjoyed a renaissance 2015 season and is ambiguous about calling it quits. But that day will come at some point, and the departure of the star quarterback and the famous No. 11 will shake up the franchise.
While there will certainly be an adjustment, it may not be debilitating if General Manager Steve Keim continues to add pieces that help bridge the gap from this championship push to the next wave. Two years ago, he locked up Peterson in training camp. This time it was Mathieu.
"Early in the process we tried to identify our young, core talent that we want to continue to have under contract," Keim said. "Moving forward, we have some tough decisions to make. When you have to look at a model and realize, where are we going with our roster? To have certainty with Ty was huge."
Mathieu's deal keeps him under team control through 2021. Injuries, ineffectiveness and other factors can end a stint prematurely in the world of non-guaranteed NFL contracts, but it's clear the Cardinals see Mathieu as a cornerstone for years to come.
He is arguably the best safety in the NFL, and will continue to team with Peterson, under contract through 2020, as a dynamic secondary pairing. When it comes to a post-Palmer world – and the uncertainty of finding his replacement -- there are worse places to start than that duo.
"With me and Tyrann being so young and doing so many great things at a young age, I believe we're definitely trending in the right direction (as a franchise)," Peterson said. "Those deals that me and him signed, I believe it's definitely going to be a springboard. Not only for us, but it's going to show the gratitude that ownership has toward its players, and it's going to make other guys want to play for this organization."
While Peterson and Mathieu highlight the list of young stars, the Cardinals have a stable of other key pieces that can make an impact for years to come. Running back David Johnson is on the verge of a breakout season and is under contract through 2018, as are outside linebacker Markus Golden and wide receiver J.J. Nelson. As a former first-round pick with a fifth-year team option, money linebacker Deone Bucannon is also under control through 2018.
It's too early to anoint rookie defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and cornerback Brandon Williams as building blocks, but the potential is there, and they will be on rookie contracts for several seasons. Then there are veterans like left tackle Jared Veldheer and guard Mike Iupati, who will be older as the seasons pile up but will still aim to anchor the offensive line.
And even though young impact pieces like outside linebacker Chandler Jones, wide receiver Michael Floyd and wide receiver John Brown aren't signed long-term, Keim could look into re-upping them.
Every year teams go through their share of turnover, and it's uncertain how free agency and the draft will affect the Cardinals, but Keim seems to have built a base of players that can help keep the ship afloat whenever Palmer and Fitzgerald depart.
The Cardinals just hope the retooling begins after a championship parade or two.
"Me and Tyrann's goal is to obviously bring a championship to the Arizona community, but to also give (Palmer and Fitzgerald) an opportunity to walk out on top," Peterson said. "Carson's been in the game for a very long time and has been on some very good teams, but wasn't able to capture that moment. Larry, he's been to the Super Bowl, and we all know what happened on that last drive. At the end of the day, our goal is to put a ring on those guys' fingers. We know how much it means to them."
Images from Tuesday's training camp practice