Arizona Cardinals 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Last off-season, the Cardinals were essentially forced into hitting the reset button, following a 8-8 season in 2017. Head coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer both announced their retirement, leaving them without a head coach and without a single quarterback under contract at the start of the off-season. The Cardinals hired ex-Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and added a pair of starting quarterback options, signing veteran Sam Bradford to a 2-year, 40 million dollar deal with a 15 million guaranteed and trading up to draft UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen with the 10th overall pick. However, the results were far from what they expected. Bradford struggled mightily before being benched 3 games in the season and Rosen wasn’t much better, as the Cardinals plummeted to league worst 3-13.

That’s not quite as big of a drop off as records suggest, as the Cardinals had a -66 point differential in 2017 (24th in the NFL) and needed to go 6-2 in one score games just to get to 8-8, but by most measures the Cardinals were the worst team in the league in 2018. In addition to their record, they also ranked dead last in point differential at -200 and in first down rate differential at -8.68%. Quarterback play and coaching were not the whole problem, but the Cardinals decided to hit the reset button again this off-season.

Wilks was let go after one year and replaced with former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury, which was an unorthodox hire to say the least. Not only does Kingsbury not have any NFL coaching experience whatsoever, but he also went just 35-40 as a college head coach and was fired by Texas Tech this past fall. Kingsbury spent 3 seasons in the NFL as a backup quarterback, so he does have some familiarity with the league, he’s young (40 in August), and he’s regarded as an excellent quarterback whisperer, working with both Pat Mahomes and Baker Mayfield in college, but the move to hire Kingsbury seems like taking copycatting too far.

The trend right now in the NFL is to hire young offensive minds, ever since the Rams turned their franchise around seemingly overnight by hiring Sean McVay to develop struggling young quarterback Jared Goff, but the Cardinals might have been better off zigging when everyone else zags. By far the most qualified candidate available this off-season was Vic Fangio, who has a whopping 19 years of experience as an NFL defensive coordinator, continually getting passed over for head coach jobs because of his defensive background, despite consistently getting good results out of his units. He eventually was hired by the Denver Broncos, one of two (out of eight) head coaching hires this off-season to come from a defensive background.

Quarterback is obviously the most important position on the field, so it’s understandable what the Cardinals are trying to do, but Kingsbury’s track record from college suggests his ability to coach a full roster is underwhelming. The Cardinals did wisely pair Kingsbury with defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who is not only a talented defensive play caller, but he also just spent two years as the head coach of the Broncos, so he’ll provide some needed experience in the coaching room.

The one big difference between the Rams hiring McVay and the Cardinals hiring Kingsbury is that, while McVay came in and turned around Jared Goff’s career, Kingsbury pushed hard for the Cardinals to draft Heisman winner Kyler Murray #1 overall and trade Josh Rosen, which they ultimately ended up doing. The Cardinals were likely expecting Kingsbury to try to get the most out of Rosen when they hired him, but that was back when most expected Murray to stick with baseball. When Murray committed to football, Kingsbury decided he had to have the prospect that he had been recruiting since he was a sophomore in high school 7 years ago and the Cardinals let their new coach have his man, becoming just the 2nd team in the last 50 seasons to take a quarterback in the first round in back-to-back years.

Rosen was sent to the Dolphins for the 62nd overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and a 2020 5th round pick, a decent return for a player everyone knew was available, but obviously much less than they paid to acquire him (15th, 79th, and 152nd overall picks in the 2018 NFL Draft). The Cardinals also ended up paying most of his rookie contract because of the way these contracts are structured. In total, Rosen’s rookie year was a 4-year, 17.6 million dollar deal with a 5th year option, but 11.36 million of that was paid in the first year.

Rosen struggled mightily as a rookie, completing 55.2% of his passes for an average of 5.80 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions and finishing 38th out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, but his supporting cast gave him no help and he certainly wouldn’t be the first quarterback to struggle mightily as a rookie and go on to have strong careers (Jared Goff and Peyton Manning come to mind).

It’s obviously a risky decision and one that will undoubtedly tie the two quarterbacks together in debate for the foreseeable future. If Murray pans out in Arizona, it’s unlikely fans will be too upset, but if Rosen has an equally good career, the Cardinals’ decision is going to look a bit foolish. If they had kept Rosen, they could have used the #1 overall selection on a defensive stud like Quinnen Williams or Nick Bosa or they could have traded down and gotten a king’s ransom from another team that wanted Murray. Instead, all they got back was a late second round pick for Rosen.

Murray himself comes with a lot of risk. A lot has been made about his height (5-10) and, while I don’t think that’s the kiss of death for a quarterback, it’s not irrelevant either. There’s a reason there haven’t been more successful quarterbacks under 6 feet tall. It can be overcome, especially by a quarterback as athletic as Murray (Russell Wilson is the obvious best case scenario), but it’s an obvious weakness for him.

Perhaps more concerning is his lack of experience, making just 17 collegiate starts. He played at a high level in those 17 starts, especially in his 14 starts in 2018, earning top marks for his passing and rushing from PFF, prompting them to call him the best dual threat quarterback prospect they’ve ever scouted, and he wouldn’t be the first quarterback to succeed in the NFL despite limited college experience (Cam Newton and his 14 collegiate starts come to mind), but we have a pretty limited sample size with Murray and most quarterbacks who go in the top-10 have put at least 25 collegiate starts on tape. In my opinion, that’s more of a concern than his height.

Without a clear other option on the roster, Murray will undoubtedly be the week 1 starter, barring something incredibly unexpected. The Cardinals have comically talked up Brett Hundley as a potential week 1 starter, but it’s hard to believe that’s anything more than coachspeak. Signed as a free agent this off-season for just 1.875 million over 1 year, Hundley has completed just 59.5% of his passes for an average of 5.68 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in 4 seasons between the Packers and Seahawks. Murray will be starting week 1. How well he can perform right away remains to be seen.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The bigger problem for this team is their supporting cast around Murray. Rosen was put in a very difficult situation as a rookie quarterback who had no help around him and Murray could easily struggle in a similar situation this season. The Cardinals’ offensive line was probably their weakest unit last season. They allowed 52 sacks on the season, 5th most in the NFL, and Rosen was pressured on 40.4% of his dropbacks, also 5th most in the NFL. On those pressured dropbacks, Rosen threw 6 interceptions to 1 touchdown and had a league worst 38.1 QB rating (just behind fellow 2018 first round pick Sam Darnold, who was at 39.7). Murray’s mobility should help him avoid sacks and pressure, but the Cardinals didn’t do much to upgrade their offensive line this off-season, so he could easily be under fire frequently.

Injuries were part of the problem last season, as they led the league in adjusted games lost to injury on the offensive line. Center Mason Cole made all 16 starts, but the Cardinals used 12 different starters at guard and tackle and even Cole was supposed to be a backup originally, until AQ Shipley went down for the season with a torn ACL before the season even started. By the end of the season the Cardinals had placed all 5 of their original starting offensive linemen on injured reserve. They should be healthier this season, but only one of the 13 players that made a start on the offensive line last season earned an above average grade from PFF, so better health might not make a huge difference.

That one player with an above average grade was left tackle DJ Humphries, who finished as Pro Football Focus’ 41st ranked offensive tackle in 9 starts, before knee injuries ended his season. A first round pick in 2015, Humphries has always had plenty of talent, but he hasn’t been able to put it together consistently and injuries have been a big part of that, with knee injuries ending his last two seasons. Between injuries and the fact that he spent his whole rookie year as a healthy scratch, Humphries has made just 27 starts in 4 seasons in the league. Still only 25, Humphries still has upside if he can make it through a full season, so the Cardinals opted to bring him back at a 9.625 million dollar salary on his 5th year option, but he could easily miss time again.

The one key addition the Cardinals did make upfront this off-season is right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who was acquired from the Steelers. He’s an experienced veteran and should be locked in as the starter opposite Humphries, but he’s been increasingly injury prone as well and, going into his age 31 season, he could be breaking down. He’s earned average or better grades from PFF in all 8 seasons in the league and was acquired for only a 6th round pick and has just a 4.915 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, so he could prove to be a smart addition, but he’s played just 12 games in the past 2 seasons, so he’s no guarantee to make an impact. If either Humphries or Gilbert gets hurt, either Korey Cunningham or Will Holden, who both struggled last season, would be forced back into action.

On the interior of the offensive line, right guard Justin Pugh, center AQ Shipley, and left guard Mike Iupati all ended up on injured reserve last season. Pugh is the only one locked into a starting job, with Iupati signing in Seattle this off-season and Shipley possibly returning as a backup behind Mason Cole. Pugh has bounce back potential and was once one of the better guards in the league, finishing 17th among guards on PFF in 2015 and 15th in 2016, but injuries have started to pile up for him.

He hasn’t played all 16 games since his rookie season in 2013 and he’s missed 26 games total in the 5 seasons since with a various of injuries, including back, hand, and knee injuries just in the past two seasons. He’s missed a total of 17 games with those ailments and they have coincided with two years of subpar play, including a 2018 season in which he finished 69th out of 86 qualifying guards on PFF. Still only going into his age 29 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him stay healthy and bounce back, but he’s best days might be behind him. After giving a 10 million dollar signing bonus as a free agent last off-season, the Cardinals are obviously hoping he bounces back, but they can move on from his 8.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2020 next off-season if he doesn’t.

Shipley is a much lower upside player, going into his age 33 season, coming off of a torn ACL, but he’s experienced (54 career starts) and has been a solid player in the past, so he could push Mason Cole for the starting job. The Cardinals drafted Cole in the 3rd round in 2018 to be the long-term successor to Shipley, but he was underwhelming when forced into action as a rookie, finishing 35th among 39 qualifying centers on PFF. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but it’s nice for the Cardinals to have Shipley as insurance.

With Iupati leaving as a free agent, the Cardinals signed veteran JR Sweezy to replace him. Sweezy is experienced (78 career starts), but has always struggled in pass protection and hasn’t been as good of a run blocker over the past 2 seasons either, finishing last season as PFF’s 82nd ranked guard overall out of 88 qualifying. I thought the Cardinals would add competition for him through the draft, but they strangely didn’t use a draft pick on an offensive lineman until the 6th round, so Sweezy is probably locked into a starting job. Their only other options are Jeremy Vujnovich and Colby Gossett, both of whom struggled mightily last season. This offensive line should be better by default this season, but this is still an underwhelming unit and they have several injury prone players whose absence would make this offensive line resemble last season’s very quickly.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

While the Cardinals didn’t do much to upgrade their offensive line in the draft, they clearly made upgrading their receiving corps a priority, adding a wideout in the 2nd round (Andy Isabella), 4th round (Hakeem Butler), and 6th round (KeeSean Johnson). Going into the draft, the Cardinals really lacked depth behind Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk, their only two wide receivers to top 210 yards in 2018, and Kliff Kingsbury wants to spread the field with 3-5 receivers frequently.

Fitzgerald is also getting up there in age, going into his age 36 season, although the future Hall-of-Famer was still their leading receiver in 2018 with a 69/734/6 slash line. A 15-year NFL veteran (all in Arizona), Fitzgerald ranks 3rd all-time in catches (1,303), 2nd all-time in receiving yards (16,279), and 6th all-time in receiving touchdowns (116), despite spending most of his career with poor quarterback play. He earned an above average grade from PFF for the 13th straight season in 2018, but at this point in his career he’s year-to-year. He could easily see his abilities drop off significantly in 2019, which could end up being his final season in the league either way. With a deeper receiving corps, he likely won’t have as big of a role as the 112 targets (24th in the NFL) that he had in 2018.

While Fitzgerald is nearing the end of his career, Christian Kirk is just getting started on what looks like a promising career. The 2018 2nd round pick had a 43/590/3 slash line on just 68 targets as a rookie, despite missing 4 games with a broken foot and dealing with poor quarterback play. His 1.72 yards per route run ranked 41st in the NFL and led the team (Fitzgerald ranked 63rd with 1.38). His deep threat ability makes him a better fit with Murray than underneath route runner Larry Fitzgerald and we could see a passing of the torch of sorts in the Cardinals’ receiving corps this season. Kirk could easily have a breakout 2nd season in the league.

With last year’s 3rd and 4th receivers Chad Williams and Trent Sherfield struggling, 2nd round rookie Andy Isabella (selected 62nd overall with the pick from the Rosen trade) is likely the favorite for the #3 receiver job, which could be close to an every down role in this offense. Isabella didn’t consistently face tough competition at the University of Massachusetts, but he led the Division 1 with 1,698 receiving yards (more than 200 more than anyone else) and had 219 yards against Georgia, so he can clearly get it done against top level competition. He earned a borderline first round grade from Pro Football Focus and could prove to be a steal at the end of the 2nd round. He’s undersized at 5-9 188, but he’s every bit as fast as his 4.31 40 time and is a great fit for this offense.

Other than Isabella, they don’t really have another good option for the 3rd receiver job, so they’ll need him to make a rookie year impact. Both Hakeem Butler and KeeSean Johnson were ranked higher on PFF’s draft board (42nd and 173th respectively) than where they were drafted, but both enter the league pretty raw. Meanwhile, neither Chad Williams nor Trent Sherfield have ever shown much and neither are locks for the final roster.

The Cardinals signed Kevin White from the Bears in free agency, but he’s nothing more than a flyer. The 7th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, White played just 5 games in his first 3 seasons in the league due to injury and then, even though he was healthy, he managed just 4 catches in 2018 and played just 66 snaps in the final 9 weeks of the season. Only going into his age 27 season, White theoretically still has upside, but is not a lock to even make the final roster.

The Cardinals don’t nearly have as much talent at tight end as they have at wide receiver, but Kingsbury has never used tight ends much in the passing game, opting instead to spread the defense with wide receivers. Ricky Seals-Jones, a converted college receiver, was the primary pass catching tight end last season, but he had just a 34/343/1 slash line on 366 routes run, an average of 0.94 yards per route run, 35th out of 40 qualifying tight ends. It may help him in this offense that he used to play wide receiver, but I wouldn’t expect him to have a big role. Even if their quarterback play is better, he probably won’t produce much more than last season.

Blocking tight end Jermaine Gresham (9 catches) was let go this off-season and replaced with veteran Charles Clay. Clay was once a solid starter, but he’s had chronic knee problems for years and they finally seem to be catching up with him, now going into his age 33 season. He is coming off of career worst a 21/184/0 slash line and isn’t a particularly good blocker either. He might not have much of a role as the #2 tight end and could be pushed for snaps by fellow free agent signing Maxx Williams. Williams also has serious knee issues, but he’s a former 2nd round pick who is still only going into his age 25 season, so he has more upside than Clay. He showed that upside with 32 catches as a rookie, but injuries have limited him to 31 catches in the three seasons since. The Cardinals will need some young wide receivers to step up to compensate for not having a receiving threat at tight end.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Running back David Johnson is also expected to be a big part of the passing game, as he’s one of the better pass catching running backs in the league. Johnson “only” had a 50/446/3 slash line as a receiver in 2018, but that still was good for 3rd on the team and he had a 80/879/4 slash line on a better offense in 2016. On top of that, he had a 36/457/4 slash line as a rookie in 2015, despite only being a part-time player (2017 was a lost season due to injury). With a more creative offensive staff and no other truly dynamic weapons on this offense, expect Johnson to get the ball in his hands in space out of the backfield more this season.

Johnson isn’t quite as dynamic as a runner and in fact only averaged 3.64 yards per carry on 258 carries last season, but that was largely the result of the lack of offensive talent around him. In 2015-2016, he averaged 4.35 yards per carry and scored 24 times on 418 carries. His supporting cast isn’t much better this season, particularly on the offensive line, but he should have a higher YPC average, even if only by default, and the Cardinals should run more plays than the 902 they ran in 2018 (2nd fewest in the NFL), which will lead to more carries as well (355 carries in 2018, 28th in the NFL).

Johnson is still the clear feature back, with backup Chase Edmonds carrying the ball just 60 times to Johnson’s 258 last season. A 4th round pick in 2018, Edmonds didn’t show much as a rookie, rushing for 208 yards and 2 touchdowns on 60 carries (3.47 YPC) and adding 103 yards on 20 catches through the air, but the Cardinals did not add any competition for him, so he should remain in his same role. Johnson has played all 16 games in every season except for his lost 2017 season and the Cardinals will obviously hope that continues as Edmonds would likely be a big drop off, especially in the passing game.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

While the Cardinals’ offense was the bigger issue (ranking dead last in first down rate at 29.16%), their defense wasn’t much better, ranking 23th in first down rate allowed at 37.84%. That was a big drop off from 2017, when they finished 6th in that metric. The Cardinals’ defensive personnel didn’t change that much from 2017 to 2018, but several players did not play as well last season as they did the year before.

The most prominent player to regress was edge defender Chandler Jones, who was an All-Pro in 2017. Jones still had 13 sacks in 2018, but his peripheral pass rush stats were not as good, as he managed just 4 quarterback hits and 25 quarterback hurries on 526 pass rush snaps, a pressure rate of 8.0%. That’s not horrible, but when you compare it to 2017, when he had 17 sacks, 18 hits, and 41 hurries on 610 pass rush snaps (12.5%), it was a big step backward.

Jones is no one-year wonder, totaling 77 sacks, 73 hits, and 237 hurries on 3,649 career pass rush snaps (10.6% pressure rate), and even at his worst he’s still an above average player, but the Cardinals will obviously be hoping he bounces back to his All-Pro form. Not over the hill yet, going into his age 29 season, it’s possible a change in defensive coordinator from first time play caller Al Holcomb to the more experienced Vance Joseph will be a big help for him. The Cardinals will also be transitioning back to a 3-4 base defense, which they ran in 2016 and 2017.

Jones was still the only Cardinal that consistently got to the quarterback in 2018, with no one else on the team topping 4.5 sacks. The Cardinals hope to change that with the addition of veteran Terrell Suggs. After spending the first 16 years of his career in Baltimore, the future Hall-of-Fame edge defender and Arizona State product decided to return home for his age 37 season this off-season, signing a one-year deal worth a guaranteed 7 million.

Suggs’ age is a concern, but he’s been one of the best edge rushers of his generation (his 132.5 career sacks are most by an active player) and he still played at a high level in 2018, finishing 40th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus and totaling 7 sacks, 8 hits, and 39 hurries on 443 pass rush snaps (12.2%). Sometimes players his age lose it quickly, so he’s not a sure thing, but he should have a significant role opposite Jones and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade.

Given Suggs’ age, I expected them to add a young edge defender through the draft, but they didn’t, leaving veteran free agent signee Brooks Reed as their primary reserve. Reed is capable early down run stuffer, but doesn’t get much pass rush anymore and is now going into his age 32 season. In his last 4 seasons in Atlanta, he averaged 411 snaps per season and the Cardinals shouldn’t want him playing much more than that.

They may have to though, as they lack another capable reserve. Cameron Malveaux is currently penciled into the #4 edge defender job and the 2017 undrafted free agent has played just 281 snaps in 2 seasons in the league with the Dolphins and Falcons. He may not even make the final roster. The Cardinals’ depth at the edge defender position is an issue, but Chandler Jones and Terrell Suggs could be a strong starting pair if the latter can continue fighting off Father Time.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

With the Cardinals moving back to a base 3-4 defense, Corey Peters will be moving back to nose tackle. The 6-3 335 pounder isn’t much of a pass rusher, with 14.5 sacks in 113 career games, but he’s a strong run stuffer who has earned an above average run stuffing grade from Pro Football Focus in 5 straight seasons, so he’s a much better fit for a 3-4 than a 4-3. He played a career high 735 snaps last season, but the Cardinals probably won’t him to play more of a part-time role this season, in his age 31 season. He pressured the quarterback on just 4.0% of his pass rush snaps last season and should be limited to a base package role.

To take some of the pressure off of Peters, the Cardinals brought in Darius Philon through free agency and Zach Allen through the draft (65th overall) to compete for roles on the interior. Philon is likely penciled in to a starting role, as he’s developed into a starting caliber player in the past couple years. A 6th round pick in 2015, Philon struggled in limited action in the first two seasons of his career, but took a step forward from year 2 to year 3 and last season earned an average grade from PFF on 607 snaps. This is his first time in a base 3-4 defense, but he should see a similar role in his first season in Arizona. Still only going into his age 25 season, it’s possible he continues improving, so he was a smart signing on a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal.

Allen’s role is a little bit more up in the air, but even though he fell to the 3rd round he could easily have a rookie year impact. PFF ranked him as their 40th ranked draft prospect and he’s a prototypical 3-4 defensive end at 6-4 281. His strength throughout his collegiate career was his run stopping ability, but he took a big step forward as a pass rusher in his final season and has the upside to become an every down player in the NFL.

Holdovers Rodney Gunter and Robert Nkemdiche are also in the mix for roles. Gunter is likely the favorite for the 3rd starting job on this defensive line in base packages with Peters and Philon. He might not play quite as many snaps on a deeper defensive line as he did in 2018, when he played 641, but the 2015 4th round pick has developed into a capable starter. The Cardinals brought him back on a bargain one-year deal this off-season, worth just 1.75 million, and he should exceed that value.

Nkemdiche, on the other hand, was a first round pick in 2015, but he hasn’t developed into much of anything. Injuries have been part of the problem, as he’s missed 21 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league, but he hasn’t shown much even when healthy. He played just 425 snaps last season and could easily have an even smaller role on a deeper line in 2019, which could also be his final year with the team, after they unsurprisingly turned down his 5th year option this off-season. This is a decent defensive interior overall, but it lacks a clear difference maker that defenses have to gameplan for.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Despite having a good amount of cap space, the Cardinals struggled to sign marquee free agents this off-season, as players aren’t too keen on going to last place teams. The one big free agent they added was middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, who comes over from the Eagles on a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal to be an every down player in the middle of this defense. Hicks comes with some injury risk, missing 21 of 64 career games, but he’s finished in the top-14 among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 4 seasons in the league and his presence is noticeably missed when he’s not on the field. Considering he signed with one of the worst teams in the league on a deal that only makes him the 12th highest paid middle linebacker in the league, it’s unclear why the Eagles didn’t try harder to bring him back, but their loss is the Cardinals’ gain. He’ll be a difference maker for this team when on the field.

Third year linebacker Haason Reddick is expected to be the other starter at middle linebacker. A first round pick in 2017, Reddick is an interesting player. A college defensive end, Reddick lacks ideal size at 6-1 235, but was still tried as an edge defender in the Cardinals’ 3-4 defense as a rookie. He struggled on 444 snaps, especially as a pass rusher (2.5 sacks, 5 hits and 9 hurries on 218 pass rush snaps) and was converted to an off ball outside linebacker when the Cardinals transitioned to a 4-3 last off-season.

He barely played the first four weeks of the season before playing close to every down as a starter for the final twelve weeks. Reddick wasn’t bad overall, but his best grade from PFF was actually his pass rush grade, as he had 4 sacks, 4 hits, and 10 hurries on 111 pass rush snaps (64 out of 111 snaps as a blitzer). He’s still a work in progress both against the run and in coverage, earning below average grades from PFF in those aspects. This year he will be a middle linebacker in the Cardinals 3-4 and they will obviously be hoping he takes a step forward and shows himself to be something more than an above average blitzer.

He may also see some work as a 3-4 outside linebacker, given their lack of depth at the position, but he’s proven to be too small to hold up outside every down and the Cardinals’ depth at middle linebacker isn’t good either. Career backup Joe Walker, who has played 98 snaps in 3 seasons in the league, would likely be the next man up. They’ll need Hicks to stay healthy and Reddick to take a step forward.

Grade: B

Secondary

Note: This was written before the announcement of Patrick Peterson’s 6-game suspension. I have included an update in the conclusion.

The Cardinals might not be much of a threat in 2019, but this team interestingly does have a few future Hall of Famers on it. I’ve already mentioned Terrell Suggs and Larry Fitzgerald, who are both in the twilight of their careers, but they also have cornerback Patrick Peterson, who is still in his prime. Normally it’s premature to call someone a future Hall of Famer before their 30th birthday, but Peterson has made the Pro Bowl in all 8 seasons he’s been in the league and just 5 of the 42 players with 8 Pro Bowls and Hall of Fame eligibility have not been inducted. Even if Peterson never makes another Pro-Bowl, it’s going to be hard to keep him out of the Hall of Fame.

Peterson hasn’t always played at a Pro-Bowl level, but he’s been a top-19 cornerback on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 8 seasons and finished 10th at the position in 2018. Perhaps most impressively, he’s made 128 all starts in 8 seasons in the league, playing through several ailments that have coincided with down years, including undiagnosed diabetes in 2014. Only going into his age 29 season, there’s no reason to believe he will have any sort of drop off this season.

The only real concern with Peterson is his dissatisfaction with his contract. The Cardinals wisely locked up Peterson on an extension as early as they could, giving him a 5-year, 70.05 million dollar extension after 3 years in the league that was essentially a 7-year, 83.2 million dollar total contract when you include the final two years of his rookie deal. That contract has allowed the Cardinals to keep Peterson at a below market value for his prime, but now with 2 years and 23.8 million left on his contract, Peterson feels underpaid and wants another top of the market extension before it’s too late (his current contract has him hitting free agency at 31, which isn’t ideal).

This situation hasn’t become a big problem yet and it’s possible the Cardinals acquise his demands, but he’s so far skipped voluntary workouts and could skip mandatory minicamp to make a statement. His name has also been involved in trade rumors, though it’s likely he would have been moved before the draft if that was what the Cardinals wanted to do. For now, assume Peterson will remain in his usually spot as this team’s top cornerback, but this is a situation to monitor.

The other outside cornerback spot opposite Peterson has been a weak point for years, however, and last year was no different, with both Bene Benwikere and Jamar Taylor struggling in that role. Neither player is still with the team and the Cardinals added help at cornerback this off-season, signing veteran Robert Alford to a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal and using the 33rd overall pick on Byron Murphy. Despite Alford’s contract, Murphy could be the better player, even as a rookie. Murphy was PFF’s top ranked cornerback prospect and 7th overall prospect, after holding opponents to a 47.7% completion percentage in 2018.

Alford, meanwhile, used to be a solid starter, but he was PFF’s 114th ranked cornerback out of 131 qualifying in 2018 and is now going into his age 31 season. He earned an above average grade from PFF as recently as 2017, so the Cardinals are banking on his 2018 being a fluke, but it seems like his best days are behind him. The Falcons released him rather than paying him a 8.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, so it’s shocking the Cardinals were willing to guarantee him 9 million in the first year of his contract. He and Murphy will compete for the #2 cornerback job, but Alford’s salary suggests they view him as the starter. The Cardinals also added veteran Tramaine Brock in free agency, but he’s a declining veteran going into his age 31 season. He has starting experience (45 career starts), but hasn’t played well in the past 2 seasons and would be best as the 4th cornerback.

Budda Baker was their slot cornerback in 2018, but with more depth at cornerback, he’s expected to move back to safety this season. The 2017 2nd round pick was primarily a safety as a rookie, but he has the versatility to line up in multiple different spots, including slot cornerback and linebacker. He’s also earned above average grades from PFF in both seasons and could easily take another step forward in his 3rd season in the league, only his age 23 season. He’s a young building block for this defense regardless of where he lines up, but given their lack of depth at safety, that’s likely where he’ll play the most.

Last year’s starting safeties Tre Boston and Antoine Bethea are no longer with the team, but the Cardinals did add DJ Swearinger and he will start at the other safety spot. Swearinger was actually acquired at the end of last season, after being kicked off the team in Washington for criticizing the coaching staff. Swearinger has had issues with coaches in the past, but he’s also a very talented player, making 43 of 48 starts in the past 3 seasons and finishing in the top-32 among safeties in all 3 seasons, including a 14th ranked finish in 2018. It’s telling that Swearinger was claimed on waivers by the first team that could have claimed him, despite a 4.5 million dollar salary for 2019. Swearinger should continue his strong play, now in his 2nd stint in Arizona (2015-2016).

Rudy Ford is the top reserve and could see some action in 3 safety sets, given Baker’s versatility to play other positions, but the 2017 6th round pick has played just 65 snaps in his career and is a projection to a larger role. Even with the Cardinals losing both starting safeties this off-season, the Cardinals could easily have a better secondary with the additions of Byron Murphy and DJ Swearinger. They’ve done a nice job patching holes around Patrick Peterson and the promising Budda Baker.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Cardinals should take a step forward in 2019, but that could be largely by default, as this team still has a long way to go to reach the post-season. They had trouble adding impact players in free agency and lack difference makers, especially on offense. Of course, the most important thing for this franchise is that Kyler Murray goes on and becomes a better quarterback than Josh Rosen, who the Cardinals traded for much less than gave up to acquire him just last off-season, in order to draft Kyler Murray #1 overall.

Rosen adds to a trend for recent Arizona first round picks, as just two of the Cardinals’ 7 first round picks from 2012-2018 are projected starters and neither player (DJ Humphries and Haason Reddick) has developed into the player they were expected to be when drafted. That’s a big part of why this team was where they were last season and it’s going to take more than one off-season to fix it. Even if Kyler Murray has a Rookie of the Year type season, this team probably won’t win many games. 

Update: Patrick Peterson has been suspended six games for performance enhancing drugs. While that probably won’t affect whether or not he ultimately makes the Hall of Fame (when’s the last time you heard someone argue that Antonio Gates shouldn’t be a Hall of Fame because he tested positive for a banned substance), it will hurt the Cardinals for the first 6 weeks of the season, as Tramaine Brock is the next man up to replace Peterson.

Prediction: 4-12, 4th in NFC West

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