Top five Cardinals defensive free agents to watch this offseason

With free agency fast approaching, here are the top five Cardinals' defensive players to keep track of in the coming weeks.

Just over two months remain until NFL franchises are free to negotiate contracts with unrestricted free agents, but until that time, teams are able to strike deals with players whose contracts are expiring.

With that in mind, CardinalsSource will keep close tabs on all of Arizona's pending free agents this offseason. To kick off the offseason, CardinalsSource is detailing five pending free agents on the defensive side of the ball to keep track of in the coming weeks, as it's likely Arizona management will attempt to secure contracts with a handful of these players before free agency begins.

Chandler Jones

Jones is the top free agent to watch in the coming weeks, as head coach Bruce Arians indicated the Cardinals will do everything possible to sign him to a long-term extension in the near future. If the Cardinals are unable to reach an agreement with Jones, Arians said the team will use the franchise tag to keep him under contract and in the fold for the 2017 season.

Jones finished the year second on the team in sacks, as his 11.0 sacks trailed only fellow edge-rusher Markus Golden for the team lead. With Jones on board this season, the Cardinals finished the year first in the NFL in team sacks, a season after finishing just 20th in the same category. 

While Jones may not be a strong enough run-stopper to merit consideration as a top five edge-rusher in the league, using the franchise tag on him suggests the Cardinals feel he's one of the most pivotal pieces in the team's defensive puzzle moving forward. A successful long-term deal for Arizona would likely pay Jones an annual salary in the range of the six-to-10 best 3-4 edge rushers in the league, but knowing the Cardinals may opt to use the franchise tag, Jones could bet on himself and earn a better one-year salary in 2017 than he would if he signed a longer extension.

Calais Campbell

A nine-year NFL veteran who has spent the entirety of his career in Arizona, it's unlikely Campbell will return to the Cardinals next season unless he fails to generate much interest on the open market. 

The Cardinals' first round selection of Robert Nkemdiche in the 2016 draft suggested the team was preparing to part ways with Campbell and his massive contract, and with so many other priorities to take care of this offseason, it seems unlikely Arizona would be willing to pay the salary necessary to bring Campbell back to the team next year.

Campbell was a highly productive player for Arizona, but he failed to help the Cardinals maximize an over-sized contract the team gave him in free agency that paid him upward of $15 million this year and made him one of the highest-paid defensive linemen in the NFL over the last few seasons. 

With younger talent like Nkemdiche and Rodney Gunter developing, the Cardinals may make a late push at Campbell in free agency if they feel they can secure a new contract under market value, but it's highly unlikely the franchise makes the first offer this offseason.

Tony Jefferson

Is the safety a part of Arizona's core or not? That's the question general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians will have to answer this offseason. 

After keeping Jefferson in the fold for under $2 million last year on a one-year contract, it's likely the former undrafted safety out of Oklahoma will command much greater interest on the open market this offseason. Will Arizona be willing to pay $4-$5 million annually to keep Jefferson in the fold, say over a three-to-four year period? Or are the Cardinals content finding a replacement level player through free agency that allows the team to prioritize free agent signings at other positions, such as linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver.

Jefferson has publicly stated his desire to play for the Cardinals next season, but it wouldn't come as a surprise if he initially refused a Cardinals' offer in order to play the field in free agency for the second straight year. Even though Jefferson recorded 96 tackles and graded out as one of the top five safeties in the league, he's unlikely to command a significant multi-year contract from a team based on one outstanding season.

Kevin Minter

Are the Cardinals ready to move on from playing Minter at the heart of the team's defense? Inside linebacker certainly feels like a position Arizona could opt to use an early round draft choice on, simply because the team might want to move in a new direction now that Minter's contract is up. 

Minter is a solid linebacker, but he's not outstanding with any particular skill, and he often allows himself to be blocked too easily against opposing rushing attacks. It's unlikely Minter would cost the Cardinals much in free agency, and he's the type of player the team might be able to sign on a one-year extension, much as it did with Jefferson and fellow safety D.J. Swearinger last offseason. 

At this point, it's unlikely Minter is a high priority for the Cardinals this offseason, especially considering the way linebacker Sio Moore filled in for Deone Bucannon down the stretch. If that's the type of play Arizona can receive from a midseason free agent acquisition, why would the team feel compelled to shell out a significant sum of money for Minter in free agency? 

D.J. Swearinger

Swearinger didn't join the Cardinals until late in the 2015 season, but since his arrival in Arizona, Swearinger has been invaluable as a member of the team's defensive backfield. Though he wasn't slated to start this season, Swearinger found himself in the starting lineup for much of the year thanks to injuries to Tyrann Mathieu and Tyvon Branch that allowed him to earn a considerable amount of playing time and showcase his talents in a contract year.

Prior to joining the Cardinals, Swearinger labored through an up-and-down career with few highlights, but after a strong 2016 season in which he graded out as a top-ten safety in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, he will likely earn an opportunity to win a starting job somewhere next season.

Because of the success of both Jefferson and Swearinger and the limitations on the salary cap, Arizona may be forced to choose one or the other. While Jefferson was the more productive player this year, Swearinger will likely be the cheaper option in free agency, and could find himself back in the red and white next season if the Cardinals can secure him for a reasonable annual sum.

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