Top five Arizona Cardinals' offensive free agents to watch this offseason

With free agency fast approaching, here are the top five Cardinals' offensive 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 offensive 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.

Jermaine Gresham

Playing tight end under Bruce Arians is never going to be glorious, but Gresham has done an outstanding job in his two seasons with the Cardinals. Though his raw statistics don't begin to compare to the numbers Gresham put up with the Bengals, the Oklahoma product has done everything the Cardinals have asked of him and been as reliable as any tight end the team has had in recent years.

Last offseason, Gresham had a chance to leave Arizona, but elected to come back for a smaller salary because he felt the team was positioned to make a Super Bowl run. Now that the Cardinals are out of the playoffs, it will be interesting to see whether Gresham feels the same way about his current franchise. 

This year, the Cardinals may feel more inclined to ante up when it comes to Gresham's contract discussions, because neither Darren Fells or Troy Niklas have proven to be reliable options at tight end thus far in their careers.

A.Q. Shipley

If you said at the outset of the season that Shipley would be the only Cardinals' offensive lineman to start all 16 games this season, most experts would have called you a liar. In the end, though, Shipley became the team's most dependable offensive lineman, holding down the center position and earning a real shot at a starting job in 2017, which no one would have expected following the team's decision to draft Evan Boehm in the fourth round last season.

While centers don't command nearly the salaries premier tackles and offensive guards do, Shipley should be in line for a pay raise this offseason given the stability and strong play he brought to the Cardinals' offensive front this season. 

Ironically, after being an afterthought for much of last offseason, Shipley could become one of the Cardinals' high-priority players this offseason, as the team will need to load up on quality linemen following a down year in the trenches.

Chris Johnson

After suffering back-to-back season ending injuries, the Cardinals know it won't take much to re-sign Johnson, who simply wants to keep playing football and prove he still belongs in the NFL. The question remains whether the Cardinals still feel Johnson is worth a roster spot next season.

In all likelihood, Arizona will make a choice between Johnson and Andre Ellington, as Kerwynn Williams did an excellent job filling in down the stretch and probably did enough to carve out a roster spot for next season. In that case, the Cardinals need to consider whether it's worth paying Johnson the veteran minimum to return, or whether a player like Elijhaa Penny or an undrafted free agent from this year's draft class is a better option at this point in Johnson's career.

Andre Ellington

Entering the 2015 season, Ellington was poised to be the Cardinals' featured back before he suffered an injury in training camp that forced the team to sign Johnson as his replacement. Additionally, Arizona drafted David Johnson in the third round of the 2015 draft, and while Ellington and the other Cardinals' backs may not have known it at the time, that selection spelled the beginning of the end for their extended playing time within this offense.

It's hard to envision Ellington returning next season because the Cardinals allowed Williams to take snaps ahead of him at the end of the 2016 season, but if Ellington can't command interest on the open market, perhaps he does make a push to return to the familiarity of Arizona to play one more season under Bruce Arians. 

Larry Fitzgerald

No, Fitzgerald isn't a free agent, so he really shouldn't be on this list. Still, should Fitzgerald elect to retire this offseason, the Cardinals will need to treat his loss like they're losing a marquee free agent and will need to make contingency plans to help offset for all of the production they'll miss next season. 

If Fitzgerald's contract comes off the books, Arizona will have more cap space than it initially anticipated, which could allow the team to keep more pieces on the defense (e.g. Tony Jefferson, D.J. Swearinger) in the fold while also allowing the Cardinals some wiggle room to sign a receiver on the offensive side of the ball. 

While Fitzgerald is irreplaceable, his retirement would allow the Cardinals to begin rebuilding their offense around Johnson as the team ushers in a new era which could end up prioritizing the run game ahead of the pass. In that case, finding high quality offensive linemen will be of the utmost priority this offseason, which is a pivotal one for Arizona regardless of what Fitzgerald decides. 

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