Arizona Looks to Lock Up its Own

Ken Whisenhunt developed a lot of young talent in his first year coaching in Arizona. Now, his primary objective is to make sure those young Cardinals don't fly away in free agency. The Cardinals have three key players whose contracts are up, and two more in line for lucrative extensions.

Former first-round pick Calvin Pace comes off a career season in which he more than tripled his previous career-high in tackles (98) and chipped in 6.5 sacks -- as many as he posted the three seasons prior.

The Cardinals want to bring him back but will struggle to assess his value. Is he the breakthrough player of 2007? Or the first-round bust he appeared to be during his first four seasons?

Another young defender set for unrestricted free agency is Karlos Dansby. The fourth-year linebacker set career-highs in 2007 in tackles (97) and pass breakups (eight). He also contributed four forced fumbles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions.

"We've identified Karlos and Calvin as two of our free agents that were big-time players for us in our scheme and we want as many of those big-time players as we can get on this roster," Whisenhunt said.

"In the past, this organization has been very active in free agency. This year, our focus has to be on getting some of our players who've shown they can play in our scheme done."

A trickier situation is that of wide receiver Bryant Johnson. The fifth-year pro comes off the best two-year stretch of his career (86 catches for 1,268 yards and six scores) but is stuck behind Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin on the depth chart.

Johnson started eight games this season as Fitzgerald and Boldin battled an assortment of injuries.

"I'd like to have Bryant back just based on the way he played this year. With injuries at times to both Larry and Anquan, Bryant stepped in at times and really did a good job for us and was very productive," Whisenhunt said.

If Johnson leaves via free agency, it will provide leverage for Fitzgerald, who will likely have to renegotiate his contract before next season. After hitting several incentives in his rookie contract, Fitzgerald is scheduled to earn $14,592,500 in 2008 and $17,355,000 in 2009.

The Cardinals cannot afford to release their only Pro Bowl player, so they will have to offer Fitzgerald a long-term contract with guaranteed money upwards of $20 million to persuade him to renegotiate. That's a lot of bank to tie up in any one player, but Whisenhunt believes the Bidwill family will find a way to get it done.

"Until you have those contracts signed, yeah, it's always a concern," Whisenhunt said. "Michael and Mr. (William) Bidwell have shown they are very good about taking care of their players, especially ones that have performed well."

Looking to join Fitzgerald in the ranks of the NFL's highest-paid players is Adrian Wilson. Like Fitzgerald, Wilson has two years left on his deal. However, Wilson is scheduled to earn a more palatable $4 million in 2008 and $4.75 million in 2009.

Wilson is considered by many to be the top safety in the NFL. He is seeking a contract similar to the five-year, $37.5-million deal recently signed by Indianapolis Colts safety Bob Sanders.

It appears unlikely that the Cardinals will be able to satiate all of their young players in line for new deals. However, Whisenhunt is confident that, when his team lines up in 2008, he will have enough talent to go win the division and earn the franchise's first trip to the playoffs since 1998.

"Rod Graves has done an outstanding job signing some of our core players like Darnell Dockett and certainly Gerald Hayes. If you base it on what you've seen in history, we're going to work as hard as we can to get that done," Whisenhunt said.

Free agency opens in the end of February…the clock is ticking.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the network.

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