“Fluid” has become a buzzword in NFL circles during the pandemic because practices, players and games aren’t guaranteed. It’s also an easy crutch for NFL executives and head coaches to keep their cards close to the vest.
With that said, who really can guess what will happen when the 2021 league year begins on March 17?
Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, however, is confident his team is not constrained financially despite adding veteran defensive end J.J. Watt during this uncertain down period, regardless of where the NFL’s undecided salary cap ultimately falls.
“I don’t feel like we’re drastically limited. I think we have some flexibility moving forward and that’s why we structured the contract in the way we did,” he said Wednesday. “And that’s some of the benefits you have … about having a rookie quarterback (Kyler Murray) on the first contract.
“We have a window in time we can do some different things and be flexible. At the same time, we have to be smart with it.”
Watt’s contract reportedly will not eat heavily into the Cardinals’ cap space in 2021. His $12 million signing bonus evaporates a huge chunk of a cap hit in the first year of the deal, and according to reports, he could count less than $10 million against the cap.
Still, the Cardinals have more production entering free agency relative to any other team.
It means they have more work to do in order to bring key players back or to replace them entirely. Keim suggested he will try to get some of those players locked up before the 2021 season officially begins.
“Then there will be some players that will probably have to test the market,” Keim said. “Again, it’s a sliding scale. We’ll be aggressive. We want these guys back here, but there’s no doubt that finances come into play. Being able to sign J.J. … that really does really put things into perspective in terms of your budget, sort of where you’re headed, how things are structured and where things are moving forward.”
Cornerback Patrick Peterson, linebacker Haason Reddick, receiver Larry Fitzgerald and running back Kenyan Drake lead the list of Arizona’s impending free agents. Keim said Fitzgerald’s decision of whether he will retire will not need to be made before the new league year.
“Knowing him, he’s probably just trying to make me sweat,” Keim joked. “It’s a private thing for a player. He’s taking his time … there’s nobody that deserves that more than him.”
Guard Justin Pugh, cornerback Robert Alford and linebacker Devon Kennard are among the players under contracts through 2021 who could be at risk of being released. That would happen if Arizona determines it needs multiples millions more in space.
Still, Keim said he does not, at this point, feel that Arizona would need to make surprise cuts of veterans on larger deals.
“Not necessarily. That’s something that we’re still talking through and, again, (it depends) on how the market sort of plays out the next couple weeks,” Keim said.
Keim said $4-5 million swings in the cap ceiling can alter free agent negotiations and make a big difference in how this plays out.
Just how much the cap has dropped isn’t known at the moment. The league has only said the floor won’t be lower than $180 million.
So that leaves the Cardinals, like every other team, waiting to see what the NFL does. From there, how the market organically develops is anyone’s guess.
For Arizona, with more players to consider in free agency than most, it’ll be a delicate push and pull of acting aggressively in the window of Murray’s rookie contract while avoiding future cap overload.
“Sometimes it’s smart to be patient,” Keim said. “We know that in past years … when you look at things analytically and see which guys have had success, sometimes it’s the second- and third-tier players that are the best signings.”
— Keim said that comedian Frank Caliendo and singer Blake Shelton were part of the recruiting pitch to land Watt. But the intimate knowledge of those who know Watt from stints in Houston — defensive coordinator Vance Joseph and receiver DeAndre Hopkins — were critical in helping the team land the defensive lineman.
— Keim, on watching Watt’s film upon learning he would be released by the Houston Texans: “The first thing I did is take a look at the tape and quickly realized that J.J. Watt still looked like J.J. Watt, in my opinion. For a number of years I haven’t had to look at him for a number of reasons. … The guy still, again, not only has that great get-off and first step, but his repertoire of pass-rush moves, his hand speed and the ability to play with leverage is second-to-none. The guy is so instinctive and the way he keys and diagnoses blocking schemes is phenomenal.”
— Asked about the 2021 NFL Draft’s receiver crop, Keim said he sees “four to five game-changers.” The Cardinals hold the 16th overall pick and could have some of those game-changers on the board for them to select.