Cardinals' free agency priorities

With Calais Campbell and Tony Jefferson reportedly on their way out of Arizona, which players will become the team's top free agent priorities?

Following the Arizona Cardinals' decision to slap the franchise tag on pass rushing specialist Chandler Jones, the writing was on the wall for defensive end Calais Campbell and safety Tony Jefferson.

Though both players would probably like to return to Arizona, and Arizona would surely love to keep both players, Jones' contract made it highly unlikely that the Cardinals will be able to keep either player in free agency this offseason.

Multiple reports from around the league have suggested that Campbell and Jefferson will end up in new destinations this offseason, and over the weekend, The Arizona Republic's Kent Somers reported that contract demands are likely going to be too high to keep either defensive starter in the fold for 2017.

So what does that mean moving forward? What's the free agent end game for Arizona?

With roughly $18 million left in cap space, 16 unrestricted free agents and seven other restricted free agents to deal with, the end game is still complicated for general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians. 

However, with Campbell and Jefferson likely out of the picture, Arizona should have the cap space to keep most if not all of the other players the organization wants back.

The two priciest unrestricted free agents Arizona wants to keep are tight end Jermaine Gresham and safety D.J. Swearinger, a pair of starters who didn't necessarily steal the spotlight during the 2016 season, but did perform well and should still be able to be re-signed at a reasonable cost. 

After making $3.5 million in 2016, Gresham should command a salary somewhere in that range, and likely slightly north of that figure for the upcoming season. 

As for Swearinger, the Cardinals' safety made under $2 million in 2016, and could see his salary double next year if the Cardinals plan on using him as the starting strong safety for the second straight year. 

If the Cardinals can ink Swearinger and Gresham for a combined salary of somewhere between $5-$6 million, the next priority becomes free agent center A.Q. Shipley, the anchor of Arizona's offensive line from a year ago.

Even though the Cardinals drafted Evan Boehm in the fourth round of the 2016 Draft and the team is confident in Boehm's abilities, Arians is high on Shipley because of the stability and work ethic he brought to the team's offensive line last season. Furthermore, Shipley made under $1 million in 2016, and likely won't cost the franchise more than $1.5 or $2 million if he re-signs for the 2017 campaign.

Keeping Shipley in the fold is an obvious priority for Arizona, especially because the team lost one of its starting linemen, Evan Mathis, to retirement this offseason. The fact that Arizona should be able to re-sign him for a relatively cheap sum is a bonus as well.

After Shipley, a pair of starters from the Cardinals' 2017 defense are likely next in line for Arizona, but it's uncertain how much the Cardinals are willing to commit to keep inside linebacker Kevin Minter and cornerback Marcus Cooper.

Arians has indicated in recent interviews that he believes Cooper will command a higher salary than the Cardinals are willing to work with on the free agent market. However, if the team can re-sign him, Arians has indicated he's willing to have him back.

As for Minter, with other key defensive pieces like Jefferson and Campbell likely heading out the door, Arizona should have the cap room to keep him in a Cardinals' uniform next season. The question is, how badly does Arizona want Minter back? 

After linebacker Sio Moore filled in admirably for an injured Deone Bucannon late in the season, Moore may have opened the Cardinals eyes and convinced the organization it doesn't necessarily have to settle for Minter, whose play has been solid but unspectacular during four seasons in Arizona. 

Perhaps Moore, a late-season acquisition and unrestricted free agent, will squeeze his way onto Arizona's list of offseason priorities if Minter finds a more lucrative opportunity elsewhere. However, because Arizona is likely going to lose multiple starters anyway, the team may not want to experience such significant defensive turnover by allowing him to walk.

Further down the list, players like Darren Fells and Stepfan Taylor, backups but important special teams contributors, are likely to receive offers early in free agency from Arizona, but it will be difficult for the Cardinals to begin sorting out their lower-priority free agents until the team determines exactly how much cap room it has to work with.

Arians has said his top priority is bringing all of the key members of the team's 2016 roster back this offseason, but he knows that the salary cap makes that goal unrealistic. Will the Cardinals allow a small number of select players to walk and focus on re-signing the bulk of their free agents, or will the team attempt to make a splash by landing a high-profile contributor on the open market who forces the team to re-consider all of its priorities? Only time will tell, but that clock is ticking and the hour free agency begins is fast approaching. 


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