- Josh Weinfuss, ESPN Staff Writer
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- Two months from now the circus would have already begun.
Free agency begins March 11 -- teams can begin negotiating on March 8 -- and, like last year, the Arizona Cardinals are expected to be a major player, but this time around, their focus will be laser-like on a few key positions. On Tuesday, ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando listed his 25 “must-sign” free agents, starting with New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham.
Of the list, the Cardinals could be interested in nine of them, including Graham.
The rest include No. 5 LT Branden Albert, No. 9 WR Anquan Boldin, No. 10 TE Dennis Pitta, No. 13 ILB Karlos Dansby, No. 18 SS Donte Whitner, No. 20 WR Golden Tate, No. 23 SS T.J. Ward, No. 25 T Eugene Monroe.
Out of this year's class, the Cardinals will be most interested in Albert, a 6-foot-5, 316-pound left tackle to take over for Bradley Sowell, who came on in the second half of the season. But with a premium put on left tackles, the Cardinals need to get the best money can buy and this year -- at least in free agency -- that's Albert. He made $9.83 million last season in Kansas City -- almost as much as the entire Cardinals starting offensive line in 2013. The other tackle on Sando's list was Eugene Monroe, who could be a last resort type of signing. However, the Cardinals may be better off drafting a tackle in the first round.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians' offense is made to run with two tight ends, which makes Graham extremely intriguing and Pitta a distinct possibility. Arizona loses Jim Dray and Kory Sperry to free agency this year, and Jake Ballard is a restricted free agent. Having Graham as the Cards' primary tight end across with Rob Housler as his complement could cause headaches for defenses. Graham will command high dollar, as he made just $1.32 million last season, the final year of his rookie deal. However, the knock against Graham, as it is against Housler, is their ability to block the run. Ballard has established he's tough against the run but Graham is more of an offensive weapon than a blocker. Pitta may be franchised by the Baltimore Ravens, but if he's not, he could be a good fit for Arians' offense despite coming off a hip injury that forced him to miss the first 12 games. Pitta, who made a shade more than $2 million in the final year of his rookie contract, could be the run-blocking option Arizona needs.
The only way either Boldin or Tate would make sense coming to Arizona is if Larry Fitzgerald is traded because he won't renegotiate his contract. Boldin would come at a cost, but it'd still be less than the $13 million salary and $18 million cap hit Fitzgerald would cost the Cardinals next year.
Dansby is an interesting situation because the Cardinals' defense was even better with him in charge of it but after a career year at 32, he could demand the type of salary -- $9 million -- that he made in Miami in 2012 with lower numbers. But if his offseason in 2013 mirrors that of 2012, he could be back in Arizona for less money than he wanted. Then again, another team could come in and offer him a salary between his 2012 number and his 2013 salary of $2.5 million.
The last two players Arizona could be interested in are strong safeties Donte Whitner and T.J. Ward, although of the two, Whitner would be the more desirable. Both are 5-foot-10, which would work, especially because Whitner is known as a big hitter. The Cardinals are looking for a safety to replace Yeremiah Bell, who's tall and fast, so they can combat the bigger tight ends popping up around the league, such as Jimmy Graham.