The Cardinals accomplished a major offseason goal by signing defensive end Calais Campbell to a five-year, $55 million contract that includes $31 million in guarantees.
It's a deal that helps the team on a couple fronts. First, Campbell is their best defensive lineman, although Darnell Dockett is a close second. Campbell is just 25 and had eight sacks last year as a right end in the 3-4. That's not easy to do. He also batted down 11 passes and blocked three field goals.
Without him, the Cardinals would have finished below .500. Signing him to a long-term contract also freed about $5.7 million of cap space. That gives the club flexibility to sign its draft class, as well as veterans such as defensive end Vonnie Holliday and outside linebacker Clark Haggans.
That hasn't happened yet, but probably will in the next week or two. Holliday and Haggans would provide experience and depth at two positions where the Cardinals could definitely use those qualities.
"I'm excited about the opportunity," Campbell said. "I really feel like this is a special team, and I feel like if we just continue to get better, we can definitely be a championship team."
The Cardinals had placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on Campbell, which guaranteed him $10.7 million if he had signed. He was occupying a huge amount of cap space, and the team had to make adjustments in contracts to sign other free agents.
Guard Daryn Colledge and center Lyle Sendlein did simple restructuring that freed cap space.
Now, the Cardinals are about $8 million under the cap, which should give them plenty of room to operate throughout the season.
Perhaps more important, re-signing Campbell reinforces a positive message both in the locker room and among the fan base: the Cardinals will pay to retain its young, core players.
Over the past three years, the team has re-signed safety Adrian Wilson, receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Dockett.
It spent heavily in the weeks prior to the 2011 season, acquiring quarterback Kevin Kolb and signing him to a contract that pays him $19 million in the first two years. It signed Colledge, linebacker Stewart Bradley and tight end Todd Heap, among others, in free agency.
Not all have paid dividends. Colledge had a solid 2011 season, but Bradley struggled converting from a 4-3 linebacker to the 3-4, and Heap was nagged by leg injuries.
Campbell's deal is another sign the team is willing to spend money. He received a $15 million signing bonus and is expected to be paid a $10 million option bonus in the spring of 2013.
The average per year ($11 million) puts him behind Fitzgerald ($16 million) and Kolb ($14) as the highest paid players on the team.
Campbell was a key to the defensive improvement over the latter half of 2011. In addition to the sacks, he had 73 tackles, an unusually high number for a 3-4.
Also important to the Cardinals is that Campbell is level headed and emotionally equipped to handle his new wealth. He's one of the hardest workers on the team, and no one expects that to change.
"I made a lot of mistakes last year, too," Campbell said. "Watching the film and breaking it down, I could have played a lot better. I just feel I'm understanding the game better and physically being stronger and more explosive. There's a lot of room for improvement. Hopefully, I can be a great player in this league for many years to come."
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