The Cardinals accomplished one of their major offseason goals last week 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 probably their best defensive lineman, with Darnell Dockett 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-goal attempts. 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 backup defensive end Vonnie Holliday and outside linebacker Clark Haggans.
Those moves haven'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 his offer. 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 some simple restructuring that freed a little 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 their young, core players. Over the past three years, the team has re-signed Dockett, safety Adrian Wilson and franchise receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
The Cards also 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. In addition, they 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 to convert from a 4-3 linebacker to the 3-4, and Heap was nagged by leg injuries.
But 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 only Fitzgerald (16 million) and Kolb (14) among the highest-paid players on the team.
Campbell was a key to the team's defensive improvement over the latter half of 2011. In addition to his career-high sack total, he had 73 tackles, an unusually high number for a 3-4 defensive end.
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."
-- Cornerback Jamell Fleming made a positive impression during the recent rookie minicamp. He is one of two drafted defensive players, and the other, safety Justin Bethel, has a much steeper learning curve, as Fleming played at Oklahoma while Bethel played at tiny Presbyterian.
"It looks like one is from a big school and one is from a small school, it really does," coordinator Ray Horton said. "One is well-coached, well-versed, understands schemes and what he's doing and how to play football.
"Justin looks like he's a raw kid from a small school who has a bunch of athletic talent. We have to harness that talent and put it into the right direction. You could see the kid get overwhelmed, but you want him to be a sponge and soak stuff up."
Horton isn't alarmed by the difference; he expected it.
"I don't remember (Fleming) making a mental mistake, which was great," he said. "We're going to start throwing more things at him, but he has the demeanor of an NFL guy. He reminds me of Patrick (Peterson). He came in and said, 'OK, this is what I am. I'm a pro football player.'"
-- The rookie minicamp was the first for coach Ken Whisenhunt in his five years with the team. He missed having veterans around to show rookies what to do, but the extra attention was beneficial for the young players, too.
"For three days, five practices, we actually kind of looked like we knew what we were doing," Whisenhunt said. "Everybody looks good in shorts. You don't want to get too excited. We had a number of guys make plays, look good in what they were doing. We'll have a better sense when we go against our veterans. Things will speed up.
"Let's just say this: The first stage of the test, they passed."
-- Receiver Michael Floyd looked the part of a first-round pick during the minicamp. He ran solid routes, caught the ball well and looked at home in the NFL. Floyd said the offense is similar to the one he ran in his first two seasons at Notre Dame under coach Charlie Weis.
-- Rookie right tackle Bobby Massie is expected to contend for a starting job. He was the only right tackle in the three-day camp and took every snap there. "It was a learning experience," Massie said. "I tried to pick up on the plays really fast and different defenses. I messed up here and there, but I corrected when I could."
Massie is expected to compete for the starting spot at right tackle with veterans Jeremy Bridges and D'Anthony Batiste.
"I'm coming here with the mindset to start, but there's a vet (Bridges) who has been here nine, 10 years," he said. "I'm just coming in to learn as much as I can."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"We had a couple of guys who had a little bit of struggle after the practice, and it wasn't because of the heat or the reps, it was more because of nervous energy and not eating a whole lot. You could certainly sympathize with what they're going through. For some of these young men, this is an opportunity of a lifetime. A lot of guys don't ever get this chance." -- Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt on the 16 players attending rookie camp on a tryout basis.