Fitz deal needed to be long-term answer

February, 4, 2014
Feb 4
9:20
PM ET

TEMPE, Ariz. -- As more details emerge about Larry Fitzgerald's freshly restructured contract, the better it looks for him and the better it looks for the Arizona Cardinals -- for now, at least.

What Fitzgerald signed on Tuesday was simply a short-term answer to a long-term issue. By restructuring his contract, Fitzgerald will still receive his $12.75 million base salary in 2014; this wasn't a renegotiation, he still will get his money. Actually, he received most of it in the form of an $11.75 million signing bonus, according to multiple reports. But by restructuring, Fitzgerald helped the Cardinals avoid his $18 million cap hit in 2014, which shrunk to $8.6 million, according to reports.

Since the majority of Fitzgerald's salary was turned into a “bonus,” the cap hit on the $11.75 million can now be prorated throughout the life of his contract -- which ends in 2018 -- to about $2.35 million per year, according to numbers from multiple reports. The same overall cap number for Fitzgerald's $120 million contract is intact, but the 2014 number is lower while the cap hit for 2015-18 increased.

And that's all the Cardinals needed heading into this offseason.

Faced with little cap room, Arizona needed to reduce Fitzgerald's massive number so the team can re-sign free agents like linebacker Karlos Dansby, who'll ask for more than the $2.25 million he earned in 2013. This will also allow the Cardinals to chase the right pieces during free agency.

Arizona was apparently already in talks with Fitzgerald's camp before the Super Bowl. But after Seattle won, the ante in the NFC West was upped significantly. And instead of giving up millions to play for a team with an easier shot at winning its division, Fitzgerald undoubtedly looked at the Seahawks' win as motivation and wanted to stay in Arizona even more.

While Fitzgerald's decision to restructure will help the Cardinals in 2014, it'll hinder the team in the future. The prorated cap hit on the bonus will be added to his already high cap numbers, putting Fitzgerald's cap hit at $23.6 million in 2015, $20.6 million in 2016, $17.35 million in 2017 and $17.35 million in 2018.

Fitzgerald could've helped Arizona as much as the Cardinals have helped him by renegotiating his future salaries and lowering the cap numbers. Fitzgerald, who is due an $8 million roster bonus in 2015, has earned $27 million since Week 1 of the 2013 season.

But if an $18 million cap hit was too high for the Cardinals this year, how will they afford the $23.6 million and $20.6 million cap hits the next two seasons? My guess is they won't.

I think 2014 will be the equivalent of a “contract year” for Fitzgerald. If he can still prove that he's a premier wide receiver at 31 years old, the Cardinals will find a way to accommodate that type of hit. If not, the same kind of speculation that flurried about in 2013 will start again, but most likely in avalanche form. And it probably won't end with another restructuring. With the improvements they made in 2013, the Cardinals won't want to be handcuffed by that large of a cap hit, which would prohibit them from improving even more in 2015.

Fitzgerald is the type of player who's hard to part with. He's productive. He's a Pro Bowler. He's still the face of the franchise.

But at what point does his contract bear too much weight on an organization?

Arizona didn't have a choice this go-round. It needed the cap space and the easiest way to do that was to put off the headache that comes with looking at Fitzgerald's contract, which was handled by the Cards' previous regime, until next season.

What happens then? The Cardinals don't want to make an annual call to Fitzgerald's agent, Eugene Parker, to discuss ways to help the team find more cap space.

But, like Fitzgerald's cap hit, Arizona can figure that out next year.

Josh Weinfuss

ESPN Arizona Cardinals reporter

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