Arizona Cardinals 2015 NFL Off-Season Preview

Positions of Need

Outside Linebacker

With John Abraham playing just 37 snaps thanks to a serious concussion, the Cardinals really struggled to rush the passer this season, particularly from the outside linebacker position. Alex Okafor led the position in snaps played, but graded out 45th out of 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers. Sam Acho was better, but he only played 483 snaps and now is a free agent. Help is needed at the position this off-season. Matt Shaughnessy should be healthier in 2015 after missing 8 games with injury in 2014, but he’s only a marginal player at best.

Guard

The Cardinals’ guard play was horrendous last season. Starters Paul Fanaika and Ted Larsen graded out 71st and 68th out of 78 eligible guards respectively last season. Fanaika is a free agent, while Larsen could be a cap casualty or benched this off-season. The Cardinals drafted Jonathan Cooper 7th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft, making him the highest drafted true guard in over two decades, and he’s been a massive bust thus far, struggling with injuries and performance, playing just 189 snaps in 2 seasons combined in the NFL. It’s possible he morphs into a starter in 2015, but the Cardinals still need to add more talent at this position this off-season.

Middle Linebacker

Larry Foote led Cardinal middle linebackers in snaps played last season, but he was horrible, grading out 56th out of 60 eligible players. A free agent going into his age 35 season, Foote is likely done in the NFL and is expected to take a coaching job with the Cardinals. Kevin Minter, a 2013 2nd round pick, did a decent job in the two-down role next to Washington, with a 3rd safety usually playing around the line of scrimmage as a 2nd linebacker in sub packages. Daryl Washington is a talented middle linebacker when on the field and more than capable of playing the three-down role, but he missed the entire 2014 season with suspension and might not be reinstated for the start of the 2015 season. His checkered off-the-field history makes him a shaky bet moving forward. The Cardinals should add here at some point this off-season.

Running Back

The Cardinals ranked dead last in the NFL in yards per carry last season, averaging 3.29 yards per carry. That was largely a result of Andre Ellington averaging 3.28 yards per carry on 201 carries as the lead back, as he struggled through a variety of injuries, before eventually getting shut down for the season late in the season. Ellington averaged 5.53 yards per carry in 2013 as a 6th round rookie, but that was on just 118 carries and, considering his injury history dates back to his days at Clemson, there’s a good chance that the 5-9 199 pound back isn’t capable of staying healthy over 250-300 carries. The Cardinals seem confident going into 2015 with him as the starter, but they need to upgrade their depth behind him, given how unreliable he is. The trio of Kerwynn Williams, Stepfan Taylor, Marion Grice averaged 3.78 yards per carry last season and has essentially no proven NFL success.

Cornerback

Antonio Cromartie did a solid job, making 16 starts for the Cardinals last season and playing pretty well, but he’s a free agent this off-season. Everything sounds like he’s New York bound to re-join the Jets and former Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Jerraud Powers was their 3rd cornerback last season. He has experience as a starter and he’s done a solid job in the past when counted on in that role, including 2013 with the Cardinals, but the Cardinals will need to replenish depth, assuming Cromartie does, in fact, leave.

Center

Lyle Sendlein was horrible last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked center out of 41 eligible. He’s been a solid veteran for them for years and he’s definitely had better days, but he’s now going into his age 31 season. The Cardinals can save 3.15 million in cash and cap space by letting him go this off-season and they could find a cheaper, better starter in free agency.

Defensive Tackle

Dan Williams is a free agent this off-season. He’s been their starting nose tackles essentially for 5 seasons since they drafted him in the 1st round in 2010, making 40 starts over that time period, including 9 last season. The Cardinals will have to replace him if they’re unable to retain him this off-season as they don’t have a clear successor on the roster.

Quarterback

Things aren’t terrible at quarterback, but there is uncertainty. Ryan Lindley was a train wreck down the stretch when he was forced into the starting lineup as a 3rd stringer. He probably won’t be in the NFL at all next season. Logan Thomas was a 4th round pick of the Cardinals in 2014, but it’s very concerning that he couldn’t make it on to the field over Lindley. Thomas completed just 1 of 8 NFL attempts last season and struggled in practice. The history of 4th round quarterbacks becoming starters isn’t great, so he’s hard to rely on as a long-term solution. Drew Stanton flashed at times, but ultimately proved to be the backup caliber quarterback we thought he was all along, completing 55.0% of his passes for an average of 7.13 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. Carson Palmer was easily the best of the bunch. The Cardinals moved the chains at a 73.58% rate when he started and a 67.03% rate when he didn’t. However, going into his age 36 season and two career ACL tears, he’s not a long-term solution and, with one of those ACL tears coming just back in November, he’s iffy for the short-term as well. It’ll be tough for them to find a long-term solution this off-season, but this is somewhere they could add.

Key Free Agents

CB Antonio Cromartie

Antonio Cromartie made 63 of 64 starts from 2009-2012 with the Jets and Chargers and graded out above average in all 4 seasons, maxing out at 18th in 2012. Cromartie started all 16 games for the Jets again in 2013, but graded out 102nd out of 110 eligible and ended up being a cap casualty. He was forced to settle for a 1-year, prove it deal with the Cardinals and the common opinion is that he did prove it and deserves a big contract this off-season. That’s only half true though as, while Cromartie was dominant to start the season, he was horrible in the 2nd half of the season and ended up grading out below average overall. Going into his age 31 season, Cromartie is simply no longer capable of consistently showing top cornerback ability and shouldn’t be paid more than an average starter. A strong candidate to be overpaid this off-season, it’s no secret that Cromartie would like to go back to the Jets and reunite with Todd Bowles. Bowles is now the Head Coach of the Jets after doing a fantastic job as defensive coordinator with the Cardinals in 2013 and 2014.

DT Dan Williams

Dan Williams was a first round pick by the Cardinals in 2010 as a 6-2 327 pounder with rare movement and pass rush abilities for his size. Williams never quite lived up to his billing, maxing out at 428 snaps and primarily just playing in base packages, but he graded out above average in 4 of 5 seasons, including each of the last 3 seasons and he had his best season in his contract year in 2014. He played all 16 games for the first time in his career and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle on just 427 snaps. On top of that, he actually graded out above average as a pass rusher, something he’s done in each of the last 2 seasons after grading out below average in that aspect in each of his first 3 seasons. It’s possible his best football is still ahead of him, going into his age 28 season.

OLB John Abraham

John Abraham is the active all-time leader in sacks and a potential future Hall-of-Famer (he’d get my vote), after grading out as a top-4 4-3 defensive end on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2007-2012 with the Falcons. Because of his size, he didn’t get signed until July 2013, when the Cardinals gave him a 2-year, 4.6 million dollar deal to play rush linebacker in their 3-4, a position he’d never played before. Abraham proved to be a tremendous steal in the first year of his contract, grading out 13th at his new position, but the same cannot be said about the second year of his contract, as he was limited to 37 snaps by a serious concussion. Now going into his age 37 season, he’ll be looking at one-year, incentive laden deals with minimal guaranteed money, assuming he wants to continue his career. He’s reportedly 50/50 to retire as of this writing.

DE Tommy Kelly

Tommy Kelly looked done after 2013. He was going into his age 34 season, off of a 2013 season in which he played just 5 games before tearing his ACL and a 2012 season in which he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 80th ranked defensive tackle out of 85 eligible. He was released by the Patriots and Raiders respectively following those two seasons. However, the Cardinals gave him a chance on a cheap deal in late August after Darnell Dockett tore his ACL and it paid off as he turned back the clock in Arizona, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked 3-4 defensive end. Kelly heads into his 3rd straight free agency with a lot more leverage than his past 2 free agencies, even going into his age 35 season. Returning to the Cardinals on a cheap deal makes a lot of sense for both sides as Dockett is expected to be a cap casualty this off-season.

OLB Sam Acho

Sam Acho was a 4th round pick by the Cardinals in 2011. He made 26 starts in his first 2 seasons combined, but it was clear he was forced into starting action too quickly, as he graded out 25th out of 28 eligible in 2011 and 31st out of 34 eligible in 2012. In 2013, he played just 104 snaps in 3 games (2 starts) before going down for the season with a broken leg, but he bounced back to grade out above average in 2014 for the first time in his career, doing so on 483 snaps. Now he hits free agency and can make a decent amount of money as a reserve somewhere.

TE Rob Housler

Rob Housler came into the NFL with a lot of promise, drafted in the 3rd round in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Cardinals after running a 4.55 40 at 6-5 248. However, he never lived up to that potential, grading out below average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the NFL and averaging 418 snaps played per season, including just 327 snaps in his contract year in 2014. He never developed as a blocker and caught just 105 passes in 55 career games. I don’t expect him back in Arizona, as Bruce Arians prefers tight ends who can at least block. He’ll try to catch on somewhere as a reserve tight end.

G Paul Fanaika

Paul Fanaika, a 2009 7th round pick, was given a 1-year contract extension after his first NFL career start in week 1 of the 2013 season. That’s how much they liked him. He never lived up to their expectations though. He started 30 games over the past 2 seasons, but he wasn’t good, grading out 76th out of 81 eligible guards in 2013 and 71st out of 78 eligible guards in 2014. The Cardinals may opt to bring him back if Bruce Arians still sees something in him, but they should look to do better than him in the starting lineup.

MLB Larry Foote

Larry Foote had a solid prime of his career as a linebacker in Pittsburgh and Detroit, but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 4 seasons, including 56th out of 60 eligible in 2014. Going into his age 35 season, he appears to be at the end of the line. He’s already accepted a coaching job with the Cardinals and, even though the language of his coaching contract is flexible enough that he could get out of it to take a playing job, there’s a very good chance he’s played his last snaps.

Cap Casualty Candidates

DE Darnell Dockett

Darnell Dockett is going into his age 34 season coming off of a torn ACL, but that’s not the only problem. Even in his prime, he was never that good, particularly struggling mightily against the run. From 2007-2013, he graded out below average in 6 of 7 seasons, including 26th out of 28 eligible 3-4 defensive ends in 2008, 31st out of 39 eligible in 2009, 34th of out 42 eligible in 2010, and dead last among eligible in 2012. Owed 6.8 million dollars guaranteed this off-season on a team with cap issues, he’s a virtual lock to be let go. The Cardinals would save that whole amount on the cap by doing so.

WR Ted Ginn

Ginn has been a massive bust as the 9th overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, but he’s managed to stay in the league 8 years because of what he does in the return game. He averages 11.09 yards per punt return and 22.93 yards per kickoff return with 7 total special teams touchdowns in his career. However, when the Cardinals signed him to the 3-year, 9.75 million dollar contract that they signed him to last off-season, they did so expecting him to contribute as a pass catcher. Ginn has never been much of a pass catcher, but graded out above average as a pass catcher the first time in 2013. The Cardinals were mistaken to think that though as Ginn fell behind 3rd round rookie John Brown on the depth chart to start the season and ended up catching just 14 passes for 190 yards. Going into his age 30 season with Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown all locked in ahead of him, Ginn isn’t worth his 3.25 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2015 and the Cardinals can save 2.5 million by releasing him.

C Lyle Sendlein

Lyle Sendlein was horrible last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked center out of 41 eligible. He’s been a solid veteran for them for years and he’s definitely had better days, but he’s now going into his age 31 season. The Cardinals can save 3.15 million in cash and cap space by letting him go this off-season and they could find a cheaper, better starter in free agency.

G Ted Larsen

Like Sendlein, Larsen struggled as a starter last season, grading out 68th out of 78 eligible guards. Teams don’t usually cut starters unless they have massive salaries, even if they were ineffective, but the Cardinals can save 2.2 million on the cap and in cash by letting Larsen go, money they could use on an upgrade. Larsen isn’t worth starting caliber money.

TE John Carlson

John Carlson was a disaster in his first season as the starting tight end in Arizona, grading out 65th out of 67 eligible tight ends on Pro Football Focus. He caught just 33 passes for 350 yards and 1 touchdown on 49 targets (67.3%) and 384 routes run (0.91 yards per route run). He also struggled as a blocker, grading out 65th in that aspect, which is something that had to disappoint Bruce Arians, who loves tight ends who can block. The Cardinals can save 1.6 million on the cap and cash by letting him go this off-season and they have 2014 2nd round pick Troy Niklas ready for a bigger role in 2015.

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