It may be the biggest question the Cardinals face this offseason, and perhaps that’s fitting, since it involves “Big.” Does the team try to keep left tackle and unrestricted free-agent-to-be Leonard Davis?
With two games left in the season, there are arguments on both sides. Publicly, Davis says he doesn’t know what will happen. Vice president of football operations Rod Graves says the decision will be fleshed out after the year ends.
Davis has made the determination more difficult with improved play over the season, and the way the offensive line has jelled in the second half.
But the way both parties carefully chose their words, it sounds as if the second pick overall in the 2001 draft will have a new address in 2007.
“We had high expectations for Leonard coming into the season,” Graves said. “He is our highest-paid player and one of the highest-paid players in the NFL.
“Ever since he was drafted as the second player overall, he has been held to a higher standard. While I am excited about the fact he has been playing good football, lately, I expected Leonard to be a perennial Pro Bowl player and that obviously hasn’t happened.”
Unless the Cards use their franchise tag, the 6-foot-6, 365-pound Davis, who is a Pro Bowl second alternate but has never been selected to play in Hawaii, will enter free agency.
That was all but determined when the team was extending contracts to defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and middle linebacker Gerald Hayes while discussions never started with Davis.
“It’s kind of weird, to me, kind of like the draft all over again,” Davis said of free agency. “You are a high pick, but you don’t know where you’ll be with 32 possibilities. Now there are 31 other possibilities — besides here.”
It is Davis’ huge contract that has provided such a conundrum. Davis is making $9.17 million this season; in a weak free agent market, he will likely command a contract the Cards won’t be willing to match.
The Cardinals could designate Davis their franchise player, but if they do, he will make a salary slightly north of $11 million next season, barring a new long-term contract.
That seems unlikely, although Graves declined to comment.
“It is a short-term commitment,” Davis said. “I would rather have some stability. I don’t want to get to the end of (another) year wondering instead of just going out and playing.
“Right now, I am just trying to concentrate on playing football because that’s all I can worry about at this point in time.”
Davis will be the highest-profile tackle available in free agency and stands to get a giant payday.
It doesn’t help the Cardinals that two of the top three college tackles this season, Southern California’s Sam Baker and Michigan’s Jake Long, are juniors who have said they are staying in school.
The third, Wisconsin’s Joe Thomas, should be available when the Cards pick in the first round, although Arizona will have options with what could be a top-five choice.
Davis’ linemates, who have watched coach Dennis Green shuffle the offensive line often this season, view Davis’ potential departure — just as the line has come together — in realistic terms.
“Any time you play with a guy as long as I have played alongside Leonard, (him leaving) is not an ideal situation,” right tackle Reggie Wells said. “But we all understand it is part of the business.”
Green said Davis has been “pretty consistent” this season. Offensive line coach Steve Loney said Davis has graded out the best of all the linemen.
Loney said Davis has been coachable and downplayed Davis’ perceived lack of intensity.
“People expect smoke to come out of his ears and snot out of his nose, but that’s not his personality,” Loney said.
The Cardinals might decide it’s also not worth spending millions of dollars on him in the future.
“It’s just one of those deals,” Davis said, “where you never know where you are going to be.”
EXTRA POINTS: Davis missed a second straight practice Thursday after going home to Texas to be with his ill father.
If he cannot return by the weekend, Green said Oliver Ross will start at left tackle.…
Hayes (ribs) missed practice for a second straight day and Green isn’t sure if he will be available. Monty Beisel would start in Hayes’ place.
The only other player to miss practice Thursday was linebacker Calvin Pace (illness), who is listed as probable on the injury report.