INDIANAPOLIS – Though most of all the sights and sounds at the start of the NFL scouting combine are about the upcoming draft in late April and what the Arizona Cardinals plan to do with the No. 3 overall pick, there’s something a bit more pressing at stake for the team and its new general manager and new head coach.
It’s called free agency and the start of the league’s new year, and both will be upon the rebuilding and retooling Cardinals before they know it. The legal tampering phase to begin negotiations with outside free agents begins March 13, followed by the first day of the official signing period two days later.
Arizona has nearly 30 players set to hit free agency, including eight to 10 starters, and the team has multiple positions in need of an upgrade, including both sides of the line of scrimmage and help at edge rusher and cornerback. Because Kyler Murray is on a slow, but steady rehab process in his recovery from ACL surgery, the Cardinals will also be targeting a quarterback or two.
“We’ll look at all positions on the team, whether it’s quarterback or any other, and if there’s a chance to add competition, add depth, we’ll certainly look at that as well,” General Manager Monti Ossenfort said Tuesday while meeting with NFL writers at the Indianapolis Convention Center. “I think adding competition to everywhere on the roster always makes sense.
“So, whether we’re talking about the quarterback position or any other, we’re going to always look to improve the depth the competition on our team because that’s just going to push all the players on our team to get better. That’s something we’re going to look at with every position.”
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Ossenfort said he and the team’s pro personnel staff have already had multiple meetings on the free agency front, which included evaluations of both those players whose contracts are set to expire and players from other teams the Cardinals may have interest in signing. Those conversations, he said, will be ongoing right up to the start of the free agency signing period.
According to overthecap.com, the Cardinals presently have the 12th most salary cap room in the league with $13,804,185 in available funds. The team can create more space by cutting players, especially with post-June 1 designations, and Arizona could be creative with a potential trade package or two, which is something to monitor.
The biggest name on the roster linked to a possible trade, of course, has been star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. He’s one of the best playmakers in the league, but he also turns 31 in June and the speculation has been he wants to win now and may not be happy with waiting for Murray to fully recover before getting a shot to make a run in the postseason with the Cardinals.
He’s under contract for two more years with guaranteed base salaries of $19.4 million this season and $14.9 million in 2024, but Arizona could significantly lower his dead cap hit of $30 million this year by facilitating a trade to another club with hopes of getting some precious draft capital back in return.
“I’ve had a conversation with DeAndre and DeAndre’s representative,” Ossenfort said Tuesday. “Those have been very productive conversations. I’ve watched from afar the last 10 years or whatever it’s been with DeAndre having been on teams that have had to compete against him. I’ve seen the player that DeAndre is and what he can do on a field, and I know he is tough to defend.
“I’m glad he’s on the team. As it goes with him or any player, those are situations we’ll address as they come up, but I’m glad DeAndre is on the team right now and I’m happy to be on the same team with him.”
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Head coach Jonatan Gannon, who also met with reporters in Indianapolis on Tuesday, was asked if he expected Hopkins to still be on the roster when the Cardinals begin offseason workouts.
“Yeah, I’m not sure,” he said. “We’re looking to evaluate everybody. I know this, he’s a premier receiver that you have to have a plan for and he severely limits you with how you have to play defense when you defend a team that he’s on. I’m looking forward to getting to know Hop a little bit. I’ve went against him a lot of times and he’s a valuable asset for us.”
Though the Cardinals have multiple players set to hit free agency, the two biggest are defensive end Zach Allen and cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. They aren’t candidates for the franchise tag as they each are expected to be available at a far more affordable cost, but they could test the market and leave Arizona in a hole by signing elsewhere.
“Zach and Byron are both good players. We’d love to keep them,” Ossenfort said. “There’s obviously going to be a financial component, a business component that comes into that. Those discussions will continue to take place over the next couple weeks as we approach the start of the league year.
“We’d love to keep everybody. We’d love to pay everybody. Unfortunately, the way the league is set up that’s not always possible, but those discussions are certainly going to continue to take place.”
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Another decision, though less tricky, includes a formal decision on whether to pick up the fifth-year option of linebacker Isaiah Simmons’ rookie contract. The Cardinals certainly are expected to, but they also must figure out how and when to sign him to an extension in addition to figuring out where exactly he’s going to play in their new defense.
“We’re working through that,” Ossenfort said. “The defensive staff is in their process of evaluating the roster and where guys fit and positionally, where guys are going to play so we have until May to make that decision and we’ll make that decision when it’s appropriate. We still have some time on Isaiah, but I know Isiah is an extremely talented player. He’s big, he’s long, he’s fast and I think we’ll be able to find a good way to use him this year.”
In other developments, Ossenfort said the team is almost done filling out the coaching staff under Gannon, the former Eagles’ defensive coordinator.
“We are very close, almost completely done and we’ll be able to announce that here shortly,” he said. “It’s been great. We’ve got a lot of new faces in this building, and we’ve had a chance to get everybody together as a staff last week for the first time.”
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Ossenfort also touched on the departure of Adrian Wilson, who on Monday left his role as vice president of pro personnel with the Cardinals to become VP of player personnel for the Panthers.
“Adrian was around for a few weeks when I first started, and he was able to go through some UFA meetings with us, but this is a great opportunity for him,” Ossenfort said. “I know what he’s meant to this organization as a player and a personnel executive, so I’m sad to see him go but I’m also excited for him and this new chapter and this opportunity for him to go back to his home state and the Panthers’ organization. So, excited for him, but disappointed that he won’t be with us.”
As for the third overall pick in the draft, Ossenfort reiterated on Tuesday that the Cardinals will be ready to select the best player available and also be willing to trade out of the spot if the right deal is made between now and then.
“Our phone will always be open and I’m open to hearing any conversation about anybody that’s willing to come up (to No.3),” he said. “I think with that No.3 pick it’s an opportunity to add a player, it’s an opportunity to potentially get some calls on that pick and ultimately, we’ll make the best decision for us at the time.”
Asked if he’s had any calls yet from teams inquiring about pick No.3, Ossenfort smiled and shook his head.
“It’s still pretty early in that process,” he said. “Those calls typically don’t start until further down the road.”
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