"Happy Birthday, Chandler Jones."
That's essentially the message the Arizona Cardinals gave the outside linebacker on his 27th birthday Monday, announcing that they had elected to use the non-exclusive franchise tag on Jones for the 2017 season.
Though Jones has never made more than $8 million in a single year during his first five NFL seasons, the Cardinals committed to paying Jones upward of $15 million for his services in 2017 alone.
Arizona's decision to use the franchise tag on Jones doesn't come as a surprise, but it does help shape the team's outlook for free agency and the NFL Draft moving forward.
Prior to Arizona's decision to use the franchise tag, the organization was likely hoping it could negotiate a long-term deal at a cheaper annual salary that would allow the team to keep Jones and give it more wiggle room in negotiations with other free agents. And while the Cardinals are still free to negotiate a long-term offer with Jones until July 15, the likelihood of the two sides reaching an agreement went down with Monday's news.
With Jones set to earn somewhere between $14.6 and $16.5 million for the 2017 season, the Cardinals have a much clearer picture of what their cap space is like moving forward and what type of contracts they can extend to free agents this March.
Heading into the month of March, Arizona now has roughly $17 million worth of cap space with about 20 members of its 2016 roster not under contract for the upcoming season. That means the Cardinals don't have a lot of room to work with, and will likely need to be selective with the free agents the team is actively attempting to re-sign.
Once Arizona decided to move on Jones, the Cardinals essentially entered a pick your poison scenario with defensive lineman Calais Campbell and free safety Tony Jefferson. Though Campbell is projected to earn slightly more than Jefferson on the free agent market (likely close to $8 million annually), the Cardinals will now likely say goodbye to Jefferson while attempting to get a deal done with Campbell.
Because the Cardinals already have Tyrann Mathieu and Tyvon Branch under contract, Arizona can't afford another high-profile free agent in the secondary, and must dedicate its resources to other parts of the roster.
Along the defensive line, the Cardinals still need help, and would obviously prefer to have Campbell back. The challenging part of negotiating with Campbell is going to come if another team offers Campbell upward of $8 million annually, because then the Cardinals would need to commit nearly half of their remaining cap space to keep him in the fold for 2017. If that's the case, then the Cardinals likely have to allow both Campbell and Jefferson to walk.
With Jones under contract and Jefferson likely out of the equation, Arizona still must find a No. 2 option at wide receiver, a starter-caliber player at safety, a starting inside linebacker, a No. 2 running back, a starting right guard, a starting tight end, and a depth option at cornerback. Can Arizona do that for $17 million? Yes. Can Arizona do that if it signs Campbell and has $9 million left to spend? That's much more challenging.
One advantage Arizona has working in its favor is it that the Cardinals select relatively early in the first and second round of the NFL Draft in April. With the 13th overall pick, Arizona could presumably find a No. 2 wide receiver or a starting inside linebacker, and by doing so, the Cardinals would be in much better shape. Can the team afford to use its second round pick on a quarterback? Or will Arizona need to focus on finding a starter-caliber option at safety?
Essentially, the Cardinals are now in a mode where they have to juggle their priorities. How important is re-signing D.J. Swearinger to be that third safety? Will a veteran running back want to play behind David Johnson? Can Jermaine Gresham be signed for under $3 million a year? These are all questions the Cardinals will attempt to answer in the coming weeks.
Though keeping the team under the salary cap is going to be difficult, Arizona will have a much better chance of filling out its roster needs with quality options if it allows Campbell and Jefferson to walk in the coming weeks.