Arizona seems to be one of the few teams in the league that follows the unwritten rule that you shouldn't negotiate with players before they officially hit free agency. Oh, wait. It is a written rule. It's just that no one abides by it. That's right.
They're also one of a few teams that have their key players locked up for the foreseeable future (as Rod Graves would refer to them, the "centerstone" of the organization). They're one of four teams that has more than $30 million in cap space.
Would it be tempting to use all that space to sign a couple marquee free agents? Sure it would. Would it be wise? History says: Not really. There have been a few big contracts that have worked out for the signing team (Deion Sanders and Reggie White come to mind - the jury's still out on Edgerrin James). For the most part, though, most teams that have gambled with big money free agents have lost.
Word on the street is that Nate Clements might count as a $20 million cap hit in his first year with his new team. Eric Steinbach is asking for Steve Hutchinson money. Adalius Thomas was too expensive to franchise.
The only difference between this off-season and most other off-seasons in history is that more than half the league has $15 million or more of breathing room under the cap. Remember when baseball players finally got their freedom? The first $3 million player was big news. Now, players are signing $250 million contracts. I think we'll see a similar phenomenon this year.
Steinbach may not be as good as Hutchinson, but he is the best player available at his position - just like Hutchinson last year. He walked away with a $49 million poison pill. Steinbach should get that this off-season, if not more. The market has been set before free agency has even begun.
The mitigating factor that will determine whether or not salaries start climbing to the stratosphere is this: Will teams throw money at these players just because they have it to spend, or will they be as cheap as the Cardinals? I guess you can assume why I'm not optimistic about Arizona signing some of the big names in this year's free agent crop.
As soon as the clock strikes midnight and it's officially March 2nd on the east coast, the deals will start pouring in. However, I have a feeling that a few guys (most notably Steinbach, Clements, and probably Kris Dielman) have priced themselves out of the market. Either their price will need to go down, or owners around the league will need to cave into their demands. We've seen long free agent hold-outs in the past and most of them don't end pretty.
Most of the top 30 free agent lists I've seen don't mention the Cardinals as viable suitors until you get around the 15-25 range.
The Cardinals are better off waiting, letting the market set the price of talent, and deciding whether or not they want to enter the fray. I'd be as delighted as anyone for Arizona to make another "splash" by signing one of these heavy hitters. I wrote as much yesterday. But, since that's a) not going to happen with the current ownership and b) probably not the right move if history is anything to shout about, it's time to accept things as they are and move on.
There are, however, a number of talented players out there that would fit well with the Cardinals, can be had for a reasonable price, and can bolster competition at several key positions, ultimately helping the team win games. A championship might be as optimistic as the hope of signing Thomas or Clements, but a competitive football team is not out of the question.
When the smoke clears, there will still be a lot of guys available who can help this team. And we'll be here to help you identify who those guys are.