Less than a week after coach Dennis Green declared that his team would not do any shopping in the higher-priced aisles of the free agent market, the Arizona Cardinals landed one of the highest-profile players in the entire pool Sunday, signing former Indianapolis Colts star tailback Edgerrin James.
In terms of productivity and star quality, they don't get much bigger than James, a four-time Pro Bowl performer, in free agency. And in terms of compensation, contracts for tailbacks don't get much bigger than the one James signed in culminating his weekend visit with Arizona officials and coaches.
ESPN.com has confirmed that the four-year contract is worth $30 million. James received an initial signing bonus of $7 million and will pocket a $4.5 million roster bonus on the seventh day of the 2006 league year, essentially the end of this week. The base salaries in the contract are $3.25 million (for 2006), $5.25 million (2007), $5 million (2008) and $5 million (2009).
"It's a great situation. All they really need is a back," James said at a news conference. "They've got an MVP quarterback [Kurt Warner], they've got two Pro Bowl receivers. They got a back and they're going to shore up the offensive line."
The deal is in keeping with the way the Cardinals prefer to structure contracts, in that it is not dramatically back-loaded, and includes base salaries that remain fairly flat over the term of the contract.
For the first two seasons of the contract, James will earn $20 million and will make $25 million over the first three seasons. By comparison, the eight-year, $62 million contract signed by Shaun Alexander with the Seattle Seahawks last week will pay the reigning league most valuable player $18.525 million in the first two seasons and $23 million for the first three years.
Obviously, the contract, negotiated by agent Drew Rosenhaus over the last two days, makes James one of the highest paid tailbacks in league history. The 27-year-old James played the 2005 season with the Colts under the one-year qualifying offer for a franchise tailback. Indianapolis officials had made it clear they could not afford to bring James back for another season, and the Colts likely will look to the draft for a replacement.
With plenty of cap room, the Cardinals aggressively pursued James from the Saturday outset of the free agent signing period. They flew him, along with several other free agent targets, into Phoenix on Saturday and negotiated hard into Sunday afternoon before closing the deal. It is not known how many other suitors James attracted, but it's unlikely any of them would have topped the Cardinals' offer.
Tentative stops had been scheduled with other teams Rosenhaus wouldn't identify.
"But this was a no-brainer," the agent said. "It was the first stop and the last stop because it was the best stop."
Securing James, who played the first seven years of his career with the Colts, should immediately upgrade an Arizona running game that for years has ranked among the NFL's least productive.
"You look at his ability to go out and run the football, and that's an element we just have to have," Cardinals coach Dennis Green told The Arizona Republic. "We are extremely excited. We had a great weekend."
The Cardinals ranked last in the NFL in rushing in 2005, averaging just 71.1 yards per outing. The team's leading rusher, Marcel Shipp, had only 451 yards. Second-round draft pick J.J. Arrington, who many felt would be an immediate star in the NFL, rushed for just 370 yards and did not run very hard after initial contact, even some teammates conceded.
"OK, it's a risk," James admitted. "But hey, I'm a poker player. You can take it to the river. I'm not scared to make a change. I'm not scared to go out on a limb and try something different."
But last season was merely a continuation of a long stretch of poor rushing performances for Arizona, which has not had a 1,000-yard rusher since Adrian Murrell in 1998. Since 1990, the Cardinals had had just three 1,000-yard rushers. James, by comparison, has five 1,000-yard seasons in seven years and four years of 1,500-plus yards. Not since 2002 has Arizona ranked among the top half of the NFL teams in rushing offense. Since 1990, the Cardinals' average ranking has been No. 24, and 10 times in that period Arizona has statistically rated 25th or lower.
James should help solve that longtime deficiency, but there is some risk for him, too, however, since he will be running behind a suspect offensive line. The Cardinals on Saturday signed young guard Milford Brown of the Houston Texans, but he has never started a full season. Arizona used 11 different starters on the line in 2005 and six different starting combinations, and the unit is not only in need of an upgrade but also of more toughness.
Still, the big investment in James is a gamble the Cardinals almost certainly had to take if their offense is to improve in 2006. Arizona has one of the most potent passing attacks in the league, with a pair of excellent young wide receivers in Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, but their offense sorely needs more balance. The team recently re-signed quarterback Kurt Warner to a contract extension but, at age 34, the two-time NFL most valuable player definitely requires more insulation, and James should offer that.
"We're serious about winning," Cardinals vice president Michael Bidwill told the Republic. "The new stadium allows us to do some things that we haven't been able to do before."
Not only is James a superb rusher, but he also is an accomplished receiver. And one of the strongest elements of his game, although often overlooked, is his terrific ability to pass protect. In the Indianapolis offense, James was often called on to pick up the odd man on the pass rush.
James has carried 2,188 times for 9,226 yards and 64 touchdowns and is the leading rusher in Colts history. He also has 356 receptions for 2,839 yards and 11 touchdowns.
"I'm happy for him," Colts coach Tony Dungy told The Associated Press in Indianapolis, where he was watching the Big Ten championship game. "He was fantastic for us the time we were here, we wish we could have kept him but you can't keep everyone."
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.