The Cardinals knew what the ramifications might be when they tagged edge rusher Chandler Jones last month. Namely, that they stood to lose DL Calais Campbell and S Tony Jefferson to free agency.
That’s exactly what will happen Thursday. According to a pair of reports from ESPN’s Dianna Russini, Campbell “is expected” to sign with the Jaguars and Jefferson with the Ravens, “barring ... last-minute issues.”
“That’s the hard part of the business,” Arizona GM Steve Keim said at the combine. “You get so attached to these guys, you drafted them, signed them as a college free agent. To have a situation where you could potentially lose some players, it’s a tough part of the business.
“We all understand the salary cap, and the situation we are in, it’s a big piece of the pie. There are only so many slices to go around. We’d like to have all of those guys back, but the reality is, there are tough decisions to be made. That’s why you have to continue to draft well.”
Cardinals coach Bruce Arias pointed to Rodney Gunter and 2016 first-rounder Robert Nkemdiche as players who could help fill Campbell’s shoes. There are not as many options lying in wait at Jefferson’s safety spot, particularly with D.J. Swearinger also set to become a free agent Thursday.
These are tough losses, no matter how Arizona moves forward. Jefferson was the team’s leading tackler last season, while Campbell, a two-time Pro Bowler, had been a stalwart member of the defense since he was drafted in 2008.
Jacksonville and Baltimore won’t be shedding any tears for the Cardinals, though.
Let’s start with the Jaguars, who will add Campbell one year after swiping DT Malik Jackson from Denver via free agency. On paper, their defensive line is loaded up with talent and depth—Sen’Derrick Marks (subject of reported trade rumors), Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler, Abry Jones, Sheldon Day and so on.
For all the money they’ve spent in recent seasons up front, however, the Jaguars never developed the dominant unit they expected to have. That’s one of the reasons Gus Bradley no longer runs the show there, having been replaced by Doug Marrone. There will be no excuses for Marrone’s defensive coordinator Todd Wash in 2017, either, if the Jaguars still struggle to control games up front.
Campbell has spent the majority of his career playing a 3–4 end role, so it remains to be seen exactly how the Jaguars will plug him in. He did line up as a three-tech frequently during his 8.0-sack 2016, so he’ll get some run there. Both he and Jackson increase the Jaguars’ flexibility up front.
It’s easy to brush off the Jaguars’ off-season moves because of their past flops, but landing Campbell is an upgrade no matter how one slices it.
The Ravens’ defense also received some much needed help, in the form of Jefferson. Baltimore is headed for a minor free-agent exodus of its own—OT Ricky Wagner (reportedly to Detroit), FB Kyle Juszcyzk (reportedly to San Francisco) and likely DT Brandon Williams (destination TBD).
Jefferson doesn’t replace any of those players, but he would join with Eric Weddle in a skilled, active safety pairing. His imminent arrival could signal the end of Lardarius Webb’s time in Baltimore—cutting Webb would save the Ravens $5.5 million of the $7.5 million he’s owed next season.
While Jefferson racked up 96 tackles in Arizona last season, Weddle notched 89 of his own. The Ravens’ new arrival has been more effective to date pulled up into the box; Weddle is an all-around safety, but his coverage skills mesh well with what Jefferson brings to the table.
According to the NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport, Jefferson turned down more money from the Browns to sign with the Ravens. That revelation provides a harsh reminder of the challenges Cleveland is facing in free agency, despite having a boatload of cap space available. Even though the Ravens are a combined 13–19 over the past two years, that still keeps them well ahead of the Browns’ current pace.
Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome has his work cut out for him replacing those players he is expected to lose. At least as far as the defense goes, though, Jefferson’s addition helps. A Weddle-Jefferson safety combo will help cover up for any issues in the front seven or at cornerback.
These are key pickups for the Jaguars and Ravens, and this is a tough day for the Cardinals.