Cardinals Continue Talks with Fitz

Larry Fitzgerald (Otto Greulle)

The key to the Cardinals' plans this off-season is restructuring the contract of receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The present deal is so burdensome financially that it will severely restrict the team's options in free agency

INSIDE SLANT

Larry Fitzgerald is four years into his rookie contract, which is due to expire after the 2009 season. The deal was laden with incentives, most of which Fitzgerald has hit. The escalators have increased his salary in 2008 to $14.6 million and more than $17 million in the final year.

The original contract was designed to get the two sides back to the bargaining table if Fitzgerald developed into a great player. He's done that, making two Pro Bowls in four seasons.

Now, the problem is restructuring and extending Fitzgerald's contract to lower his salaries and cap figures the next two years.

Fitzgerald seems to have most of the leverage. He's due $32 million in salary the next two years. He's only 24, healthy and one of the best receivers in the NFL. The club can't afford to let him go just as he hits his prime.

But re-signing Fitzgerald is going to take a huge chunk of money. Neither Fitzgerald's agent, Eugene Parker, nor the Cardinals are publicly disclosing much about their negotiations.

There seems little reason Fitzgerald would accept a deal for less than what Calvin Johnson received in his rookie deal last year with Detroit. That contract included $27 million of guarantees.

The Cardinals need to lower Fitzgerald's cap figures, which will exceed $16 million this year. If they can't, the Cardinals will do little in free agency, even though they need help at several positions, including cornerback, defensive line, linebacker and running back.

Failing to reach a new contract also will complicate the team's efforts to keep its core group of young players together. Over the next year or two, strong safety Adrian Wilson and receiver Anquan Boldin will be up for extensions, but the club might be limited in being able to address their situations.

--The Cardinals don't have much financial leverage in their efforts to restructure the contract of receiver Larry Fitzgerald. He's due to make $32 million in salary over the next two years, so it's going to take a huge amount of guaranteed money to prompt Fitzgerald and his agent, Eugene Parker, to the bargaining table.

The Cardinals do have a little bit of leverage, however, if they can appeal to Fitzgerald's desire to win and his willingness to be a good teammate.

Fitzgerald's current contract likely will leave the team few options in free agency over the next two years. Even though they finished 8-8 last season, the Cardinals have yet to turn the corner.

They have numerous needs and they won't begin to fill them all with Fitzgerald's contract consuming more than $17 million of cap space this year and around $19 million in 2009.

General manager Rod Graves has said that the success of negotiations with Fitzgerald holds the key to the team's level of activity in free agency this year and next. But it goes deeper than that.

Graves has hinted that the lack of deal will impact the current roster, too. He didn't go into details but then he didn't have to. It's clear what he meant: some present players will face taking pay cuts, or possible release, in order to create the cap room needed.

In addition, the lack of a restructuring will have an impact on management's efforts to keep its core of young players together. Over the next couple of years, receiver Anquan Boldin and strong safety Adrian Wilson, for instance, are going to be due contract extensions.

If Fitzgerald is taking up an inordinate amount of room, the team will face having to let one of its key players go.

While details of the club's negotiations with Fitzgerald aren't known, it's likely Graves is appealing to Fitzgerald's desire to win and be a good teammate. If Fitzgerald refuses to restructure, he might face a difficult time in the locker room for the next two years.

At least that's the case the Cardinals might be making in negotiations.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The club likely will try to negotiate a new contract with DE Bertrand Berry, who is entering the last year of a five-year contract. Berry is due to make $4 million in salary in 2008, but he's finished the last three seasons on injured reserve. The Cardinals are short on pass rushers, so it would be foolish just to let Berry go without trying to get him for a cheaper price.

--The NFL, through the Cardinals, donated the turf used at Super Bowl XLII to a local high school in need. Moon Valley High in Phoenix received the new field, which was installed in recent weeks. Moon Valley had been playing on a field that was worn down to dirt.

--While many of his teammates and other NFL players cashed in by making appearance during the week of Super Bowl XLII, receiver Anquan Boldin got out of the country. Boldin went to Brazil for Carnival.

--SS Adrian Wilson is working out at Athletes Performance Institute in Tempe and he expects to be ready for the start of training camp this summer. Wilson missed the last month of the season after undergoing surgery to repair a problem with a tendon near his heel and Achilles. He likely won't participate in minicamps or voluntary practice, but that's not a big deal for a veteran such as Wilson.

--DE Bertrand Berry agreed to restructure the last year of his contract and will take a huge pay cut in 2008. Berry was due to make $4 million in the final year of a five-year, $25 million deal. He finished the last three years on injured reserve, missing 21 games. The club wasn't going to retain him at the $4 million price, and Berry agreed to the cut. Details aren't yet available. Berry has a chance to recoup most of the money through incentives.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "This just puts the icing on the cake. Everybody knew I had a great year. Everybody knows what I can do." -- Defensive lineman Darnell Dockett on making the Pro Bowl for the first time.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

TEAM NEEDS/OFFSEASON STRATEGY

Most of the Cardinals' efforts now are focused on re-signing Larry Fitzgerald and linebackers Karlos Dansby and Calvin Pace.

Fitzgerald is the lynchpin to the team's off-season plans. If they are able to lower his cap figures the next two years ($16.5 million in '08 and $19.25 in 2009), the club will be able to sign some help in free agency.

If Fitzgerald's deal is delayed, however, the club will have a hard time even shopping the bargain bin in free agency.

1. Pass rusher -- Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor are coming off injuries and the club needs someone to help Darnell Dockett.

2. Cornerback -- Antrel Rolle's move to free safety makes an already thing position thinner.

3. Offensive line -- The club needs an infusion of young talent at guard and tackle. MEDICAL WATCH: SS Adrian Wilson, who missed the second half of last season with a heel/Achilles injury, is recovering nicely from surgery. He is expected to be 100 percent by training camp.

--DE/OLB Bertrand Berry is progressing well from a torn triceps tendon that caused him to miss the last half of the season.

DE/OLB Chike Okeafor has recovered from a torn biceps tendon that caused him to miss the 2007 season. Okeafor should be 100 percent healthy for the start of training camp.

FRANCHISE PLAYER:LB Karlos Dansby (tendered at $8.065M).

TRANSITION PLAYER: None.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

--QB Tim Rattay is a solid backup but likely will seek a No. 2 job elsewhere.

--QB Tim Hasselbeck could stay as the No. 3 QB, depending if the team drafts a quarterback.

--WR Bryant Johnson is liked by the coaches, but the club likely won't have the money to re-sign.

--OL Keydrick Vincent is a decent backup who could re-sign.

--ILB Karlos Dansby is likely to be franchised. A big-time playmaker.

--OLB Calvin Pace is coming off his best NFL season, and the team needs to re-sign him.

--S Matt Ware is just an average guy.

--S Bhawoh Jue could provide depth.

--S Oliver Celestin is a good special teamer.

--CB Ralph Brown is a decent No. 4 corner who is always prepared.

--DE Joe Tafoya is a good special teamer who shouldn't play much on defense.

--DE Bo Schobel was a late-season addition who didn't get much of a chance.

--DL Rodney Bailey has the ability to play inside and out adds to his value.

--DT Ross Kolodziej was banged up last year, and he probably won't return.

--LS Nathan Hodel is a solid player, but the club might want to look at TE Troy Bienemann to save a roster spot.

--P Mitch Berger didn't secure the job in the final weeks of '07.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

--TE Tim Euhus is average at best and could return as a camp body.

--WR Jerheme Urban looks good in practice but had too many drops in the regular season.

--WR Ahmad Merritt looked good before getting hurt and he can return kicks and punts.

--CB Eric Green is a solid player who should get a second-round tender.

--OLB Darryl Blackstock still hasn't proven to be an every-down player.

--OT Elton Brown is a good backup who is showing improvement.

--DE Antonio Smith is a starter who should only improve.

PLAYERS RELEASED

--DT Chris Cooper (released).

--S Terrence Holt (released).

--OT Oliver Ross (released).

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