"Making the Cut"
As the Arizona Cardinals begin their quest to cut the team's roster size from 90 to 53 by the end of the preseason, we're taking a look at the key players at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Age: Butler: 27, Fua: 24
Experience: Butler: 6th NFL season, Fua: 2nd NFL season
Contract status: Butler: 2016-$800,000, Fua: 2016-$530,666, 2017-$620,668
2015 season quick review: After signing a seven-year, $51 million contract extension with the San Diego Chargers in 2014, Butler expected to continue his ways as one of the integral pieces on the team's defense. Instead, after back-to-back disappointing seasons, including a 2015 campaign in which Butler made just nine starts and registered 43 tackles, the Chargers elected to cut Butler in March. Fua, meanwhile, made the Cardinals' active roster last season as an undrafted rookie out of BYU. Though Fua made just seven tackles last year, Arizona appears bullish on the young linebacker's future after he gave the organization a lift on special teams and provided depth behind Kevin Minter.
Projected roster status: While there's no guarantees for a young, unproven player like Fua, the Cardinals opened camp with Fua, not Gabe Martin or Butler, playing behind Minter at inside linebacker. Running with the second team should give Fua plenty of confidence, as the Cardinals will likely keep four inside linebackers on the final roster. As long as Fua maintains his position on the depth chart during camp, he should be able to snag a roster spot for the second consecutive season. As for Butler, his roster status hinges on whether he still has the ability to produce at a high level. Butler won't start, but the Cardinals lack meaningful depth at inside linebacker and used safety Chris Clemons as the second team Money linebacker behind Deone Bucannon on the first day of camp. If Butler ultimately proves he's superior to a player like Clemons and can beat out Martin, he should make the team. But right now, that's easier said than done and Butler is starting from behind.
Projected depth chart status: Neither Butler or Fua will beat out Minter or Bucannon for the top spot on the depth chart during camp, so they'll each be battling players like Martin and Clemons for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart at their respective spots. Fua is more of a true inside linebacker who projects to back up Minter, whereas Butler should slot in behind Bucannon as a Money linebacker who can be used in coverage more often if he makes the team. Because the Cardinals will likely carry just four inside backers, Fua and Butler are both battling for the secondary slots at inside linebacker on the team's depth chart.
Position group analysis: General manager Steve Keim's decision to add Butler to the fold this week isn't a vote of confidence in the team's depth at inside linebacker. It took Butler nearly five full months to catch on with a team, but he signed with the Cardinals for the veteran minimum so it's a low-risk, high-reward situation for Arizona. Aside from adding Butler, the team appears committed to moving Clemons down into the box on a permanent basis from his old spot at safety, and the 6-foot-1, 214-pounder is slightly undersized, even at a position Bucannon has excelled at while being undersized. Inside linebacker isn't going to be the team's strength by any means, but Keim is clearly committed to tinkering with the roster and personnel to give the team the best opportunity to succeed at this position. If Butler does end up providing value as a backup and Minter performs well in a contract year, Arizona will have a chance to outpeform our expectations for this unit.
Moving forward: We know from comments head coach Bruce Arians has made in the past the Cardinals are high on Fua and think he has the potential to contribute, but the question is how much? Is an undrafted free agent really a meaningful part of the team's future at inside linebacker? These situations work out from time to time, and the Cardinals have examples on their own roster like Tony Jefferson and Darren Fells who overcame the odds, but it's hard to imagine a team with Super Bowl hopes believes a player like Fua will transition into a very critical part of the Cardinals' roster within the next few seasons. In all likelihood, as long as Fua continues to make the roster and provide value as a backup, Arizona will be satisfied with that role and will evaluate him on an annual basis, as opposed to the long-term considerations the team affords starters like Minter and Bucannon. As for Butler, there are no long-term visions for players signed to veteran minimums. He has a "prove yourself" type of contract and a great opportunity to rebuild and reshape his career with the Cardinals, but as far as the organization is concerned, a one-year deal means it's up to Butler to navigate his way into the team's future. It can be done, and defensive tackle Red Bryant is a great example of it happening, but it's up to Butler to make that happen during camp and during the regular season.
Overall value: Butler and Fua have the ability to provide the Cardinals with excellent value during the 2016 season because each player has a team-friendly contract. Because Fua was an undrafted free agent, he's making close to the minimum salary for a second-year player, which means the only cheaper option for the Cardinals would be to keep an undrafted rookie ahead of Fua. We don't know the specifics of Butler's contract beyond the base salary of $800,000, but there are likely performance incentives because he has enjoyed his fair share of success in the NFL. If Butler performs well and earns his incentives, the Cardinals will be happy to pay up as they were when Dwight Freeney recorded 8.5 sacks last year. If Butler doesn't pan out, nothing venture, nothing gained for Arizona.