Arizona Cardinals' cap space update

The Arizona Cardinals have over 20 free agents to negotiate with this offseason, and likely don't have enough cap space to keep all of their players from the 2016 roster.

What do Calais Campbell, Chandler Jones and Tony Jefferson have in common?

They're all Arizona Cardinals' free agents, and all three defensive starters are about to get paid.

With free agency looming, more than half of the Cardinals' starting defense from the 2016 season still isn't under contract, which will likely lead to many difficult decisions for general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians.

Who should the Cardinals prioritize in free agency? What's the team's breaking point with certain players in negotiations?

Arizona still has plenty of time to determine a number of answers to these key questions, but eventually, the free agency window will open and the team must put its plan into action.

According to Spotrac, the Cardinals enter the offseason with $35.4 million in cap space and with 17 unrestricted free agents. Arizona also has a small handful of restricted free agents, but the Cardinals will have a better opportunity of securing contracts with those players than they will with the 17 players set to hit the market come March.

The headliner of Arizona's free agent class is pass rusher Chandler Jones, who team president Michael Bidwill said on Tuesday morning will return to the organization in 2017. Bidwill said the Cardinals are not afraid to use the franchise tag to pay Jones, which will nearly double his salary from the nearly $8 million Jones earned in 2016, but Arizona feels that strongly about Jones as an asset to its defense. 

The question is, however, if the Cardinals are forced to use the franchise tag on Jones and can't secure a long-term deal with a smaller average salary that would give the team more cap space in 2017, who is the first casualty of the cap?

In all likelihood, a massive one-year contract for Jones on the franchise tag would likely prevent Arizona from re-signing both Calais Campbell and Tony Jefferson, a pair of starters who graded out as top-10 players at their respective positions by Pro Football Focus in 2016.

While Campbell likely won't earn close to the salary he commanded in 2016, he could still expect to make upward of $8 million next season as one of the league's most productive veteran tackles. 

On the flip side, Jefferson signed a one-year deal last offseason to return to Arizona for under $2 million, and there's no chance he will come to the Cardinals at such a bargain this offseason. According to Spotrac, Jefferson's market value is set at upward of $5 million for an annual salary, which represents a significant raise for the former undrafted free agent. 

Imagine this scenario: The Cardinals pay Jones the amount he's due on the franchise tag and then pay Jefferson and Campbell their market value. At that point, Arizona would be out about $29-$30 million, leaving the organization with just $4 million left over to pay the rest of its free agents.

That's a nightmare scenario for Arizona, so the Cardinals will likely look to do whatever they can to secure a multi-year deal with Jones that guarantees him a significant amount of money while backloading some of his annual salary, because that would give the organization more flexibility in the interim.

If the Cardinals can't negotiate a multi-year extension with Jones, though, Arizona has acknowledged it will slap the franchise tag on him, leaving the team in a challenging position as it would attempt to fill out the rest of its roster with just $18-$19 million left to dole out to as many as 20 free agent players. 

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