New contract solidifies line, displays `new' Cardinals

Updated: November 6, 2003, 8:25 PM ET
ESPN

TEMPE, Ariz. -- L.J. Shelton's new contract extension keeps Arizona's big, improving offensive line together and provides the biggest signal yet the Cardinals' organization is changing its archaic ways.

Last weekend, Shelton signed a five-year extension worth $20 million to $25 million, including about $7 million this season.

"I'm excited about it, and I know people have a lot of reason to be excited about it," Shelton said. "It's something that's different that's happened around here of late. It feels good. It's going to be a good Christmas."

In the past, the Cardinals have almost never extended the contract of a player.

Instead, owner Bill Bidwill would wait until a contract expired to decide if another one would be offered. The result often was the player heading elsewhere as a free agent. If a player was a restricted free agent, he would just get a minimal tender offer when his old contract expired.

But with the promotion of Rod Graves to vice president for football operations, the Cardinals' tactics changed.

In the past month, eight players had their deals extended. Most were lesser-known role players. Shelton's deal was the big one.

"Left tackles are not easy to find in this league," coach Dave McGinnis said. "When you get a guy that you trust, you get a guy that's team-oriented, a guy that has put everything that L.J. has put into this, I wanted him to be our left tackle. It's very, very important that we got that done."

The Cardinals had about $11 million left under this year's salary cap, and had until Monday to use it to re-sign players. That's why Shelton got so much money up front.

"The team stepped up to the plate," Shelton said. "The decision wasn't very hard for me, once the money got put out there."

The deal leaves the entire offensive line under contract for next season and, for most of them, two or three years beyond that.

"That is extremely important," McGinnis said. "I keep talking about the plan that we have. That was a big part of it when I took this thing over two years ago, is to try to get that thing built up, just the importance of having your offensive line intact, in place, together, is huge."

Shelton has been the ironman of the line. While others have been sidelined with injuries, he has started 40 consecutive games. He played most of last season with a painful ankle.

"I was pretty banged up last year, but everybody's banged up," he said. "That's what I tell myself when I go out to work. There's not a person in this league who's been playing who is still feeling good right now. Just join the crowd and go out there and tough it out."

Shelton, son of former NBA player Lonnie Shelton, was a first-round draft pick, the 21st selection overall, out of Eastern Michigan in 1999. He held out in a lengthy contract dispute and didn't play until the fifth game of the regular season.

Those talks are in marked contrast to the extension discussions that went so smoothly. Shelton said he never wanted to test the free agent market.

"I like it here. I like my teammates. I like this organization," Shelton said. "This is the team that drafted me and developed me to put me into a position where I would have been a coveted free agent. You have to show a little loyalty once in a while. This team believed in me."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index