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The speculation of free agency

Posted by Darren Urban on March 10, 2013 – 9:17 am

It doesn’t matter when free agency starts, whether it is a “soft” opening like the NFL has tried this year or the normal start of free agency (deals can be consummated starting at 1 p.m. Tuesday) — there will be rumors and speculation. It’s always tough to know exactly where it’s coming from. Is the agent just trying to drum up a market for the player? Is it serious interest? Sometimes, it feels like the recruiting process in high school for an athlete — a player could have “interest” from Alabama and Michigan and LSU and Oklahoma, but was it a form letter sent out to dozens of players or was it a phone call from Les Miles?

(And yes, obviously an NFL player isn’t getting a direct phone call from a team right now, because of the rules.)

So it’s within this context that the news must be viewed of the Cardinals looking at cornerback Sean Smith, or interest in Reggie Bush, or return man Josh Cribbs. Obviously, the Cardinals are going to have to be active in free agency to a point, because they will need to fill out a roster that has shrunk through recent cuts. This is the new NFL by the way — Rick Gosselin notes 11 players who started 16 games this season have been cut already, along with three others who started 15 games (including Adrian Wilson.) It will be very interesting to see what kind of contracts are reached with many of these players on the market. The Ravens are looking for Anquan Boldin to take a pay cut, which he doesn’t want to do. It’s a tough time to be an older veteran, regardless of performance.

As for what might happen with the Cards, well, they’d like to re-sign cornerback Greg Toler and safety Rashad Johnson. There hasn’t been much talk about free agent LaRod Stephens-Howling and the Bush news — if accurate — would not bode well for the Hyphen’s return. Neither would someone like Cribbs. (It does seem like interest in Bush contradicts Bruce Arians’ concept of a three-down back, but reports are Bush has become better all-around in Miami compared to his Saints years.)

This week will be fun to watch play out.


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Big week for Cards and any contract talks

Posted by Darren Urban on March 4, 2013 – 11:32 am

On Saturday, NFL teams will be allowed to start officially talking to free agents for other teams. They can’t officially sign anyone until next Tuesday afternoon, but the window opens Saturday. That means if a team is going to make a strong run at their own guys, this is the week to do so. So for the Cards, who I think would like to bring back cornerback Greg Toler and safety Rashad Johnson, talks would step up now, I’d think. Same with quarterback Kevin Kolb, assuming there will be talks.

(Although unlike Toler and Johnson and running back LaRod Stephens-Howling, Kolb can’t suddenly start talking to other teams Saturday. He is under contract unless the Cardinals cut him, and thus cannot shop himself around.)

Again, and I go back to what general manager Steve Keim said a couple of weeks ago. This close to free agency, some players just want to test the market, unless their own team will overpay for the honor of not doing so. The market will set the price. Does that mean you could lose a player? Of course. Once he is free, any control of the situation is over.

One final point: Sitting with a little more than $5 million of cap space even before anything is done with Kolb or anything else buys the Cardinals some time. Kolb, who has a $2 million roster bonus due in another week or so, will have to be dealt will soon. The Cardinals haven’t said anything to safety Adrian Wilson about his future (via Kent Somers) but again, because the team is under the cap and functioning with Wilson’s current contract, it’s hard to know if that means that Wilson is simply safe or that the Cards will talk to him later about a restructure or something else. I wouldn’t be surprised at an influx of youth this season (more on that later today in a post) and so transactions might start following that path.


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Catches from the backfield

Posted by Darren Urban on February 19, 2013 – 3:12 pm

Just in case anyone wasn’t sure about new coach Bruce Arians wanting to get the ball downfield if possible in the running game, Arians makes it pretty clear what he wants to see in his running backs.

He wants someone who can run, of course. And block. Beyond that? Let’s just say that fantasy football players in points-per-reception leagues aren’t going to look at the Cardinals first.

“They are back there because they are runners and pass protectors,” Arians said. “Will we throw to the backs? Yeah. But the receivers are the ones paid to catch it. (Running backs) are helping but it’s doubtful our running back leads the team in receiving.”

Last season, injuries crushed the Cards’ running backs, so reception totals don’t correspond perfectly in what the prior staff wanted to do in the passing game, but even Ken Whisenhunt’s pass game didn’t use the backs a ton as receivers (especially after Tim Hightower left.) William Powell had the most catches for a running back last year (19), and that was sixth on the team behind Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts, Michael Floyd, Rob Housler and Early Doucet. LaRod Stephens-Howling was tied for seventh with tight end Jeff King with his 17 catches. Ryan Williams had seven receptions, Anthony Sherman five and Beanie Wells only had one.

HyphenCatchUSE


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Waiting game for Cards’ own free agents

Posted by Darren Urban on February 18, 2013 – 3:49 pm

The Scouting combine is usually when the talk of free agency begins to start to pick up. Free agency doesn’t start until March 12, although teams can start negotiating (although not sign) potential UFAs from other teams on March 9. Until then, each team has the exclusive chance to talk with and re-sign their own impending free agents.

The Cardinals have a handful of their own free agents and there are some you’d think the Cards might want to bring back. Given the position and circumstances, I’d peg cornerback Greg Toler and running back LaRod Stephens-Howling would be at the top of the list. Toler began to play better in the second half of last season after missing all of 2011 with a torn ACL and would be a nice piece to keep around. Stephens-Howling has been a steady contributor over the years and the old regime wanted him back. It’s hard to know exactly where Toler, Stephens-Howling or any of the free agents fit in the new scheme of things.

Could the Cardinals get a deal or two done before free agency? Maybe. But general manager Steve Keim didn’t sound like anyone should be holding their breath, either.

“It’s always the plan,” Keim said. “We want to be pro-active and aggressive in our decisions but at the same time, you’ve got to understand a lot of the time, these guys are trying to see what the market is going to bring and their representatives have the mindset of, ‘Let’s see what is out there and then we will come back and talk.’ Not that they want to leave the Cardinals because I know a lot of our player’s agents have made overtures to me or Bruce (Arians) that they want to be here. At the same time they want to get market value as well.”

Other possible returnees among the UFAs would include quarterback Brian Hoyer, linebackers Paris Lenon and Quentin Groves and safety Rashad Johnson. (Although during a conference call Monday NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said this was a deep draft for safeties, so that could change some potential decisions.)

Unless a player is going to get a good chunk of money from his old team, it is understandable they test free agency by now. There is a reason extensions often come down in-season, because by the time we get to the end of the season — and the potential free agents can’t get hurt playing anymore — why wouldn’t you wait for free agency to arrive and shop your talents.

(Then again, if agents start poking around and find out their guys aren’t going to have big deals waiting for them when free agency starts, the player may be motivated to get something done sooner.)

The franchise tag isn’t going to come into play, either. Last year it made a ton of sense to do it for defensive end Calais Campbell. You aren’t going to do it for a Hyphen or a Toler. So when free agency begins in early March, the Cardinals will likely be working on contracts for their own guys as well as anyone else on the market they will try to bring in.

FAblogTolerUSE


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Williams was “scared” and running back questions

Posted by Darren Urban on February 13, 2013 – 10:40 am

When Bruce Arians was first hired, he talked about taking shots downfield, and people getting too hung up on how much a team runs the ball as opposed to how effective it was in the ground game, and how where a team stood on the scoreboard in the fourth quarter ultimately dictated how much a team was going to run.

But he also said “we will have an attack, and we will start with the run.”

Who will be running it? That’s a good question.

I expect Ryan Williams to have the chance to be one of them. As Williams said, he’s got the label of being “damaged goods,” and he has a lot to prove. Between a torn hamstring, ruptured patella tendon and fracture of his left shoulder, his last three years — one at Virginia Tech, two in the NFL — have been forgettable. But he’s feeling a ton better going into 2013 and thinks no one saw the real Williams last year in his brief time because his patella and knee weren’t ready, and he played like it.

“I won’t say I was rushed, but … people don’t even understand what was going through my head when I got that ball,” Williams said. “Say I was running to my left side, my whole right side is exposed. I’m ducking, I’m curling, I don’t want to get touched. The first thing as a running back, you can’t be scared, and those four games, I was scared. I’m not going to lie.”

Even if Williams returns and can do well, he can’t be the only option. Beanie Wells is here in the final year of his contract — he was rehabbing alongside Williams the other morning — and his status is also interesting. The relationship between he and former coach Ken Whisenhunt seemed strained by the end and perhaps Wells benefits from a fresh start. The Cards must decide what to offer unrestricted free agent LaRod Stephens-Howling, who seems likely to hit the open market at this point.

There has been speculation of a connect-the-dots variety that the Cards might go after unrestricted free agent Rashard Mendenhall, whose time with the Pittsburgh Steelers is coming to an end but who performed pretty well for Arians when Arians was offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh. Mendenhall has battled a lot of injuries the last two years, however. Then there is the real possibility the Cards use a draft pick at some point. Alfonso Smith and William Powell are still in the mix for now, but again, when you have a new staff and a new offense, it’s hard to know exactly the direction the roster might go.

(In a semi-related note, running back Javarris James, who spent the 2012 season on injured reserve after blowing out his knee in the preseason, has been suspended the first four games of the 2013 season, according to multiple reports. Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network said it was for substance abuse. James is an exclusive rights free agent. I’m not sure if the Cards were planning on bringing him back, but this news doesn’t help. James can take part in the offseason/training camp if needed.)

RyWillBlogUSEthis


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Breaking down the roster

Posted by Darren Urban on January 3, 2013 – 3:24 pm

The combination of a 5-11 record and change with both the general manager and head coach usually leads to one thing: Roster turnover. Of course, none of that happens until the new GM and head coach are in place, and that isn’t happening tomorrow.

(Reiterating from Michael Bidwill on Monday: “It’s not going to move at lightning speed. You don’t want it to, because you learn a lot during your due diligence period.” Remember that concept.)

In the meantime, there are things to speculate upon. With that, here is my annual overview of the roster and where players stand contract-wise heading into the offseason. Free agency begins at 2 p.m. Arizona time on March 12. Until then, the Cardinals have the ability to re-sign any of their own players set to hit the market. With the shift in giving all draft picks at least four-year contracts, the shrinking of the restricted free agent market continues; the only RFA the Cards have is linebacker Brandon Williams, who was so far off the radar after being waived-injured back after training camp that he didn’t appear on the roster.

There are some key decisions to make:

— In terms of unrestricted free agents, it seems probable that all of them would choose to at least reach the market. At this point, there is probably nothing to lose, and would want to see their market value. The Cardinals need to figure out whether they want to lock down these guys. Of the 13 unrestricted guys on the market, the most intriguing include safety Rashad Johnson (given the looming decision on Adrian Wilson), linebacker Quentin Groves, running back LaRod Stephens-Howling, linebacker Paris Lenon and cornerback Greg Toler. I would not be shocked, especially with roster change, to see any of them leave. Lenon’s age works against him. Johnson’s future may be tied to whomever is coach.

— Of the players under contract, money may dictate change. We’ve covered QB Kevin Kolb’s situation plenty, but that will have to be figured out. I think the Cardinals would like to extend safety Kerry Rhodes, who has one more season, but he’s also due a $4.5 million salary and a $1 million reporting bonus next year and that might be too pricey for the team. I’d think they’d want to extend Rhodes and restructure the deal. He may end up in a Wilson situation from camp. Speaking of Wilson, does the team bring him back for a 13th season? That too may depend on the new decision-makers. Wilson is due a roster bonus in March so we may know soon. Curious to know what the Cards do with running back Beanie Wells, if anything.

Lots of questions like that. Obviously I’ve barely touched on most of them. It’s difficult to get too much of a read on them until those making the choices are in place. I think there are going to be plenty of comings and goings, and it won’t just be relegated to the coaching and GM searches.

RashadBlogINBLOG


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Beanie and the future at running back

Posted by Darren Urban on December 26, 2012 – 9:45 am

When Beanie Wells said on Christmas Eve he thought it was “inevitable” he would be moving on from the Cardinals, it spotlighted what will be one of the positions that will see scrutiny this offseason.

Beanie could be brought back — his rookie contract runs through next season — but will the Cards want that? Beanie acknowledged “it’s a performance-based business and I don’t know if I’ve done things up to our organization’s standards here.” He’s had flashes, like his dominance against the Giants and the Rams last season, but those games came few and far between. Up until this season, he actually missed fewer games than many thought, but the constant storyline of his various aliments were what stuck in many fans’ minds. (It didn’t help that both Beanie and the team remained incredibly vague about some injuries, particularly his knee issues.)

Back in 2009, the top three running backs drafted were Knowshon Moreno by the Broncos (12th), Donald Brown by the Colts (27th) and Wells (31st). None have really sparkled, although Moreno, given a chance to return from the scrap heap of late after Willis McGahee’s injury, has done well. Beanie certainly showed — especially as a rookie — he could be special. He just didn’t do it often enough, and the problems at quarterback have not helped.

Bigger picture, the Cardinals will need to reassess where they are at the spot. Ryan Williams told me today he feels the best he has in two years with the Cards. His rehab has gone well with his shoulder — he is due a final surgery this week as a follow-up, he said — and the knee wrecked in 2011 is in great shape. He said he will be full-go in the offseason for the first time this spring. But again, Williams has to stay healthy for him to make an impact, and he hasn’t been in two seasons.

LaRod Stephens-Howling, who will be an unrestricted free agent in March, has not gotten a contract extension offer yet from the team. The Cardinals do want to bring him back, but it’s looking more and more like the Hyphen (below) will be allowed to test the market first. From there, anything can happen.

Guys like William Powell and Alfonso Smith will probably be kept around this offseason, but their future I’d guess will tie directly into what direction the team goes with the rest of the running back unit.

It’ll start with the decision on Beanie, however. When everyone is healthy, Beanie is the starter. Or at least he has been. We’ll see if the vibe Wells has is accurate.

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Bears aftermath

Posted by Darren Urban on December 23, 2012 – 8:25 pm

One more to go. No more at home. And as I write this the 49ers-Seahawks game is on in the background, and the Seahawks continue to look like the real deal –while the Niners are, one way or the other, going to need that game next week against the Cardinals. Once there was thought it could be about resting. Not anymore. That’s going to make it even more of a difficult finale for the Cards.

Who will coach Ken Whisenhunt go with at quarterback? My money is on Brian Hoyer but since it’s not really my money, who knows. I thought Hoyer looked decent and surprisingly comfortable out there, although he didn’t produce any points and still threw an interception. No one is sitting there saying he’s the answer and the likelihood he’s a long-term solution is small, but again, it’s about looking at every option because, well, why wouldn’t you?

— Seems like forever ago the Cards last blocked a field goal, and then Adrian Wilson got one that Justin Bethel turned into points (below). Fitting that it came at the end of Wilson’s game, which could be his final one at UoP? Well, Wilson wasn’t in the mood to go there. Not really.

Wilson was asked about that final game. “I haven’t thought about it one bit, until (the media) continuously bring it up,” Wilson said. “If they make a decision, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be pretty quick. If they don’t, OK. Either way I go, I’m a good player. We’ll see what happens.”

— Whisenhunt noted that the pick-6s are really hurting the Cards. After Sunday’s TD by the Bears’ Charles Tillman, the Cards have given up five of them this season – way too many. As for trying to find a QB, “it’s not fun, but we keep working at it,” Whisenhunt said.

— The relationship between Whiz and running back Beanie Wells probably wasn’t helped by Beanie’s fumble on his own 1-yard line, which was recovered by the Bears for a touchdown. Beanie slipped – that happens – but he dropped the ball as he slipped without being hit. He got a talking-to by Whisenhunt afterward.

Whiz said he couldn’t explain it. “From what I saw, obviously you can’t put the ball on the ground, especially not there,” Whisenhunt said. Beanie said he didn’t get hurt on the play, and as for what Whiz told him, “It is what it is,” Wells said. “Who knows how it’s going to turn out from here.”

— How it turned out Sunday was that Wells got exactly one more carry the rest of the game as the Cards instead used LaRod Stephens-Howling and William Powell at running back. Beanie noted that everyone on the Cards is “fighting for jobs, whether it’s going to be here or somewhere else.” Wells is under contract for 2013 and with a lot of uncertainty (Ryan Williams health, Stephens-Howling free agency) the Cards wouldn’t just let him go even if they wanted to make a change. But it’s fair to wonder about Wells’ future.

— Given the Cards’ offense, I really didn’t have an issue trying a fake punt. Not sure I’d be comfortable with Feely rolling left, but really, with that offense, you aren’t expecting many points. Field goals weren’t going to do it.

— I know ultimately it came too little too late, but it was nice to see Fitz get more than 100 yards, and it was nice to see some accurate passes thrown in his direction.

— Dave Zastudil, current NFL record holder. Can he hold on to his two-punts-downed-inside-the-20 lead over Kansas City’s Dustin Colquitt and keep that record? Who says there won’t be Week 17 suspense?

OK. A normal Monday coming up, even if it is Christmas Eve. We’ll be working it, and then enjoying the holiday. Hope you all do too. One more to go in the 2012 season.

BearsAfterUSE


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Considering a kickoff change

Posted by Darren Urban on December 7, 2012 – 8:01 am

Born out of the constant discussion to make the NFL safer and prevent some of the dreaded concussions that have obviously become one of the league’s top topics, there has been talk about changing the kickoff rule again — this time, taking kickoffs out of the game altogether.

Certainly, that would be a drastic measure. The idea this time comes from first-year Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano. Schiano, who watched one of his Rutgers players, Eric LeGrand, become paralyzed when he was hurt on a kickoff play, devised this idea: After Team A scores, instead of a kickoff, Team A would then have the ball on its own 30-yard line (just like a kickoff now) but would be handed, essentially, a 4th-and-15 play. The team could either punt from there or go for it (which replaces the possibility of an onside kick). Fail to gain a first down would give Team B the ball wherever it ended up, just as if it had been a normal fourth down situation.

Schiano first floated the idea back in 2011 when he was still at Rutgers. It has come up again, and now NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has taken notice. Rams coach Jeff Fisher, a member of the NFL’s competition committee (as is Ken Whisenhunt), said he thinks the kickoff situation will be addressed the next time the committee meets in the offseason.

There is a lot to consider with this, and changing the kickoff doesn’t necessarily mean going with Schiano’s drastic move. The league has talked often about how the most recent kickoff changes — moving the ball up, in particular, and other tweaks — have changed kickoff returns. Injuries are down, but so are electrifying returns. Touchbacks are way up.

Instituting the “Schiano rule” would impact the rosters. Punters would become more important. Kickers a little less so, now needed to just kick field goals and extra points (although some teams, who have punters kicking off, already have this situation). If you are a return man who can’t handle catching a punt in traffic, your chances of making it to the NFL decrease (you wonder what would have happened to a rookie seventh-round pick named LaRod Stephens-Howling if the current kickoff rules had been in place in 2009.) Patrick Peterson would get more chances to take one back, that’s for sure.

From a pure entertainment standpoint, such a new rule would certainly create an interesting wrinkle, not to mention making every post-scoring play look like a safety just happened. It seems a little too drastic to me. But at this point, given the way the league is trying to get safer, the game is clearly evolving, and that’s not going to stop.


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Seeing things on the run

Posted by Darren Urban on December 5, 2012 – 10:56 am

The Cardinals need better play at quarterback. Everyone gets that. But that hope they had for their running game before the season, taking some pressure off whomever would be playing QB, has dissolved.

There have been moments, for sure. LaRod Stephens-Howling, who got off to an awful start this season in limited time, has had a couple of 100-yard games. But the Hyphen also leads the team in rushing with 313 yards on 92 carries — both easily tops on the team — and considering what was expected for Ryan Williams and Beanie Wells before the year, that isn’t a good sign.

Even in the games Stephens-Howling shined, the Cardinals had trouble converting short-yardage downs for first downs. Beanie’s return was supposed to help that, but against the Jets, when Wells couldn’t grind out a couple of yards on back-to-back third- and fourth-downs early in the game, it was a deflating moment for an offense that didn’t need one. Williams wasn’t effective enough when he played prior to his season-ending shoulder injury (2.8 yards a carry) and Wells has struggled mightily this season. He is averaging just 2.4 yards a carry and while he acknowledged his knee was not healthy before he spent his eight-week stint on IR, he was back to being limited following his season re-debut against the Rams and still looked like he had some trouble against the Jets.

“I don’t know if I would say it was a setback,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “But you’re going to always have some reactions when you get back into playing (off a long-term injury). We said a couple weeks ago that we’re not under any illusion that he’s going to come back in and be perfect. I think that’s normal.”

The team’s top back has been William Powell, who has averaged 4.2 yards a carry over 32 totes (I could have said safety Rashad Johnson, who has pulled off a pair of beautiful fake punts for 24 and 40 yards.) Some of this falls on the offensive line issues, because the holes have not always been there. Some of it falls on the passing game/QB play, because defenses can afford to focus on stopping the run first since the passing game hasn’t been good enough. Some of it is on the backs, failing to maximize production when holes have been there. Some too can be attributed to the play calls too I am sure. As Whisenhunt has said many times, nothing has been good enough to leave out of the equation.

The Cardinals started the season by rushing for just 43 yards on 20 carries in a win against the Seahawks, the team they play this weekend, and that included a 15-yard end-around by wide receiver Andre Roberts. Whoever is installed at QB this weekend could use more production than that to give the Cards’ offense a chance.

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