Arizona Cardinals 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Cardinals were the NFL’s last remaining undefeated team last season, starting the year 7-0 and, even after dropping a couple games, they still remained in the NFC’s #1 overall seed at 10-2, with just five games left in the season. However, the Cardinals lost four of those last five regular season games to not only fall out of the #1 seed, but to fall out of the division lead as well, forcing them to go on the road in the first round of the playoffs, where they were embarrassed by their divisional rival Los Angeles Rams.

In some ways, the Cardinals’ collapse was predictable, as they were very reliant on the turnover margin early in the season, with a +12 turnover margin through 12 games. Turnover margins tend to be very unpredictive on a week-to-week basis and the Cardinals’ efficiency ratings, which are more predictive, did not show them to be as good as their record through 12 games, as they ranked 9th, 14th, 12th, and 8th in offensive, defensive, special teams, and overall efficiency. In the Cardinals’ final five games, they were even in the turnover margin, which made it much tougher for them to win games.

Their failure to continue to dominate the turnover margin was not their only problem though, as they badly missed top wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who missed 7 of the Cardinals’ final 9 regular season games, including their final 4 games, as well as their playoff loss, top defensive lineman JJ Watt, who missed the final 10 games of the regular season before returning to be a shell of himself in the playoff loss, and top cornerback Robert Alford, who missed the final 4 regular season games and the playoff loss. As a result, the Cardinals fell to 13th, 19th, 20th, and 15th in offensive, defensive, special teams, and overall efficiency by season’s end.

That doesn’t bode well for the Cardinals’ chances of bouncing back in 2022. Hopkins is suspended for the first six games of the season, JJ Watt heads into his age 33 season with a big history of major injuries, and the oft-injured Robert Alford was not retained for his age 34 season this off-season. On top of that, the Cardinals lost Christian Kirk, their top receiver in Hopkins’ absence, Chandler Jones, their top edge defender, Jordan Hicks, their top off ball linebacker, and Chase Edmonds, their most efficient running back this off-season, with their only major addition being former Ravens wide receiver Marquise Brown, who cost the Cardinals their first round pick in a trade.

Quarterback Kyler Murray will have his work cut out for him if he wants to get the Cardinals back to the post-season. The 2019 #1 overall pick, Murray has taken a step forward in all three seasons in the league, going from 29th among quarterbacks on PFF as a rookie to 12th in 2020 and then 7th last season, emerging as one of the top dual threat quarterbacks in the league. In total, Murray completed 69.2% of his passes for an average of 7.87 YPA, 24 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions last season, while rushing for 423 yards on 88 carries (4.81 YPC) with 5 touchdowns.

Murray is still only going into his age 25 season and may still have further untapped upside and, even if he doesn’t, he’s likely to remain one of the better quarterbacks in the league for years to come. The Cardinals will have to make a decision on his contract long-term at some point in the next calendar year or so, with Murray set to see his salary jump to 29.703 million in the final year of his rookie deal after this season, and Murray spent some of the off-season pressuring for a big deal from the Cardinals sooner rather than later, with this being the first off-season he is eligible for a new contract. 

Murray is likely to command a top of market deal whenever he signs so there might be some logic to giving him a deal now, when the top of the market is lower than it might be in a year, with Lamar Jackson still unsigned long-term and Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert set to be eligible for extensions next off-season. However, when Murray is ultimately signed long-term, it will make it even more difficult for the Cardinals to keep talent around Murray. In the salary cap era, only Hall of Fame caliber quarterbacks have won the Super Bowl with a cap hit lower than 11%, so Murray will have to prove he is on that level to justify his new payday when that day comes.

One concern with Murray, given his size (5-10 207) and playing style (314 carries in 3 seasons in the league), is injuries and he did miss the first three games of his career last season, but the Cardinals were able to hold down the fort pretty well because backup Colt McCoy gave them solid play. McCoy has been a bit of an erratic backup throughout his career, with just a 80.3 career QB rating, but he had a 101.4 QB rating on 99 pass attempts in his first season in Arizona last season and seems to be a good fit for the scheme. He’s only started 33 games total in 12 seasons in the league and he’s now going into his age 36 season, so it’s very possible he would struggle if he had to start for an extended period of time, but there are worse backups. The Cardinals obviously need Murray to stay healthy though, if they want any chance at being contenders.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, the Cardinals traded their first round pick, 23rd overall, to the Ravens for wide receiver Marquise Brown. The Cardinals did get back pick #100, but they still gave up the equivalent of the 28th overall pick in draft capital, a steep price to pay for a wide receiver who wants a big long-term extension added on to the 15.52 million he’s due over the next two seasons on the final two years of his rookie deal. 

Brown is a 2019 first round pick who is still only going into his age 25 season and there is some believe that he’ll be able to consistently put up better numbers in a more pass heavy system, after beginning his career with the run heavy Ravens, which is a big part of the reason Brown requested a trade from Baltimore in the draft place. However, Brown has actually surpassed 100 targets in each of the past two seasons and, while his 1.69 yards per route run average for his career is solid, it’s not the kind of number that suggests he’s secretly an elite wide receiver trapped in the wrong offense.

Brown played with Murray at the University of Oklahoma and their previous chemistry, as well as the likelihood that having Brown around will keep the mercurial Murray happy, make the addition of Brown more logical, but he hasn’t proven he’s worth the top level contract he wants long-term and giving a first round pick for the right to give him that contract is very questionable. He does give them a necessary replacement for Christian Kirk (1.81 yards per route run in 2021) and he gives them a interim #1 wide receiver while DeAndre Hopkins serves his 6-game suspension, but he comes at a very steep price.

Prior to the seven games he missed last season, Hopkins has missed just two games total in eight seasons in the league from 2013-2020. Starting in his breakout season in his second season in the league, the 2013 1st round pick had seven straight seasons among the top wide receivers in the league from 2014-2020, averaging a 99/1315/8 slash line and 2.18 yards per route run, despite generally inconsistent quarterback play, but he’s now going into his age 30 season and seemed to be slowing down a little bit in 2021 even before his injury, as he was averaging just 1.76 yards per route run and was on pace for just a 71/972/14 slash line across 17 games. 

Hopkins still was PFF’s 18th ranked wide receiver across the 10 games he did play, but that was his lowest rating since his 2016 season, with five finishes in the top-7 among wide receivers on PFF the previous seven seasons prior to 2021. His age isn’t a big concern, but 30-year-old wide receivers are about 40% less likely to have a 1,000 yard receiver than 26-year-old wide receivers and, even if he doesn’t drop off significantly this season, it’s likely that is coming in the next 2-3 seasons, with 33-year-old wide receivers being 80% less likely to have a 1,000 yard receiver than 26-year-old wide receivers. Hopkins has a good chance to remain one of the better wide receivers in the league when on the field in 2022, but his best days are likely behind him and a higher than expected dropoff is certainly possible, especially if he continues becoming increasingly injury prone.

Before trading for Marquise Brown, the Cardinals brought back veteran AJ Green, but he was never a long-term solution, now heading into his age 34 season. The 4th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Bengals. Green surpassed 1,000 yard receiving in six of his first seven seasons in the league, but has had a pretty typical decline for a top level wide receiver, posting his most recent and likely final 1,000 yard season in 2017, in his age 29 season. 

Green got off to an impressive start in 2018, with a 46/694/6 slash line in 9 games, but then he got hurt, leading to him missing all of 2019 and he has not nearly been the same since. His yards per route run average in 2021 was up from the pathetic 1.02 average he had in his final season in Cincinnati on a hapless Bengals team, but he still only averaged 1.60 yards per route run in a middling at best 2021 campaign and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he declined further in 2022. He could remain a serviceable stopgap, but he could also see his abilities totally fall off and his best days are almost definitely behind him either way.

The Cardinals also have 2021 2nd round pick Rondale Moore, who figures to be the 3rd receiver to begin the season, with Hopkins out. Moore is still extremely raw, only turning 22 this season, but he had an impressive 1.64 yards per route run average as a rookie in a limited role and could be ready for a bigger role in year two. Even when Hopkins returns, Moore figures to continue seeing action in 4-wide receiver sets, which the Cardinals run about as much as any team in the league under head coach and offensive play caller Kliff Kingsbury.

Because of how many 4-wide receiver sets they run, the Cardinals never used a tight end much in the early days of the Kliff Kingbury/Kyler Murray era, but that changed when they acquired veteran Zach Ertz from the Eagles mid-season last year. Ertz seemed to be nearing the end in 2020 and earlier last season with the Eagles, seeing his yards per route run average drop to 1.03 between 2020 and his time with the Eagles in 2021, after averaging 1.83 in the first seven seasons of his career prior to 2020, but he managed to have something of a resurgence in what was previously considered an unfriendly offense for tight ends in Arizona, posting a 56/574/3 slash line in 11 games while averaging 1.54 yards per route run, not as good as what he averaged earlier in his career, but still an above average figure for a tight end.

Ertz’ best days are still almost definitely behind him, as he now heads into his age 32 season, and it’s very possible he could see his 2020 form return, but it’s also very possible he remains a solid starter for at least another season. The Cardinals clearly believe Ertz can remain a solid starter going forward, re-signing him on a 3-year, 31.65 million dollar deal with 14.5 million fully guaranteed in the first year, but they also hedged their bet a little bit, using their 2nd round pick on Colorado State’s Trey McBride as potential long-term successor for Ertz. 

McBride was mostly drafted for the future, but with Hopkins suspended to begin the year, we could see more two-tight end sets from the Cardinals, so the rookie could have a significant role to begin the season. The Cardinals also still have veteran tight end Maxx Williams, whose torn ACL suffered last season was what spurred the Cardinals to acquire Ertz in the first place. Williams has just 102 catches in 68 career games and injuries have been a consistent problem for him, costing him 45 games total in seven seasons in the league, but he’s an above average blocker and will be useful in that capacity if he can recover from his latest injury and stay on the field. This is a deep and talented group with a lot of potential when Hopkins is out there, but they’ll miss him early in the season and he may continue declining when he returns.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Cardinals employed a two-headed attack out of the backfield last season, three if you include Kyler Murray’s contributions as a runner. This off-season, both of those backs, James Conner and Chase Edmonds, were set to hit free agency. Conner had more carries (202 vs. 116) and significantly more touchdowns (15 vs. 2), but he was also the significantly less efficient back on a per carry basis (3.72 YPC and 52% carry success rate vs. 5.10 and 58% for Edmonds), so it might have been a mistake for the Cardinals to bring Conner back on a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal, while Edmonds signed in Miami on a cheaper 2-year, 12.1 million dollar deal.

The Cardinals also didn’t do anything to replace Edmonds aside from signing mediocre veteran Darrel Williams, so Conner figures to have a significantly expanded role this season, a concern considering he’s been injury prone throughout his career, never missing fewer than two games and never surpassing 215 carries in a season. Williams is likely to have at least some role as the #2 back, probably mostly on passing downs, after a 47/452/2 slash line with the Chiefs last season, and he’ll likely see at least a couple starts at some point as well when Conner inevitably misses time with injury, but that is a concern, considering Williams has averaged just 3.85 YPC on 237 carries in four seasons in the league. Even his 1.18 yards per route run average is mediocre, actually lower than Conner’s 1.27 average for his career.

It’s possible Williams could face competition for the #2 back job from incumbent #3 running back Eno Benjamin, but the 2020 7th round pick struggled when given the first action of his career in 2021, averaging just 3.47 YPC on 34 carries. He’d likely see some role if Conner gets hurt, but he would likely be just as unimpressive as Williams in an expanded role. The Cardinals are counting on Conner staying healthy as a feature back, with questionable depth behind him, but his 4.16 YPC and 1.27 yards per route run average for his career are underwhelming and he’s never been healthy enough to have more than 270 touches in a season in five seasons in the league, so he’s a questionable fit in a feature back role. It’s a concern for this backfield.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Cardinals’ offensive line was more of a weakness than a strength in 2021. Their expected starting five was not that bad, but all five missed at least some time with injury, so they rarely had their expected line together and their top reserves Josh Jones (852 snaps), Sean Harlow (441 snaps), and Justin Murray (90 snaps) all struggled. In addition to depth being a weakness, the Cardinals also had a weak spot on the starting offensive line at right guard to address this off-season. However, the Cardinals did nothing of note to address their depth and only replaced mediocre incumbent right guard Max Garcia with free agent addition Will Hernandez, who may not be a significant upgrade.

A second round pick by the Giants in 2018, Hernandez looked like a long-term above average starter after a solid rookie season in which he made all 16 starts and finished as PFF’s 24th ranked guard. However, that has proven to be his peak thus far in his career, as he’s finished below average on PFF in each of the past three seasons and was even benched for a stretch in 2020. Garcia finished the 2021 season as PFF’s 64th ranked guard out of 90 eligible, but Hernandez was even worse, finishing 68th. Hernandez is an experienced starter (56 career starts) and may still have some bounce back potential, but he’s already in his age 27 season and is unlikely to have significant untapped upside. I wouldn’t expect him to be more than a serviceable starter and even that may be wishful thinking.

The Cardinals’ depth concerns upfront are even more concerning as several of their starters are on the wrong side of 30, with left guard Justin Pugh going into his age 32 season, center Rodney Hudson going into his age 33 season, and right tackle Kelvin Beachum going into his age 33 season. Pugh was an injury concern even when he was younger, playing all 16 games just twice in nine seasons in the league and missing 30 games total over those nine seasons, and he’s unlikely to become more durable now in his 30s. He was still a solid starter last season, but early career injuries largely sapped his abilities, as he hasn’t been more than a solid starter since 2016, and he could easily fall off significantly in 2022, given his age.

Hudson had a significant drop off last season, in his first year with the Cardinals after being acquired from the Raiders for a third round pick last off-season, finishing 28th out of 41 eligible centers, after finishing in the top-13 among centers in each of the previous seven seasons, with five top-10 finishes in those seven years. Hudson could bounce back a little bit in 2022, but his best days are almost definitely behind him and he also could just as easily drop off even further, as he goes further into his 30s. Beachum was still a capable starter in 2021, but he did earn his worst grade from PFF since 2016 and also could easily continue declining. Even if he doesn’t decline, he hasn’t been much more than a middling starter for most of his career, though he is plenty experienced with 130 career starts in 10 seasons in the league.

The Cardinals will need Pugh, Hudson, and Beachum to hold up as at least capable starters for another season because Josh Jones, Sean Harlow, and Justin Murray remain as their top reserves and none of them are likely to be significantly better than a year ago. Jones has the most upside of the bunch, as a 2020 3rd round pick, but he was horrendous last season, finishing 85th out of 90 eligible guards on PFF, after barely playing as a rookie. Even if he takes a step forward in his third year in the league, he could easily still remain a below average option. Harlow, meanwhile, is a 2020 undrafted free agent who struggled in the first significant action of his career last season and is no guarantee to be better going forward, while Justin Murray is a career backup who has never been more than a middling injury fill-in.

The only above average starter on this offensive line in the prime of their career is left tackle DJ Humphries, who heads into his age 29 season. A first round pick in 2015, Humphries took a year to earn a starting job and dealt with a lot of injuries early in his career, so he only had 27 starts in the first four seasons of his career, but in three seasons since, he’s missed just one game total and has developed into a consistently above average starter. His best season came in 2020 when he finished 5th among offensive tackles on PFF and, while he hasn’t consistently been that good, it shows the highest ceiling he has. Other Humphries though, this is a pretty underwhelming group.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

As I mentioned earlier, the Cardinals lost Chandler Jones in free agency this off-season, with Jones signing in Las Vegas on a 3-year, 51 million dollar contract. Jones is going into his age 32 season, but he still had the 7th double digit sack season of his career last season and the Cardinals top’ returning edge defenders Markus Golden and Devon Kennard are also on the wrong side of 30, going into their age 31 seasons in 2022. The Cardinals used 3rd round picks on San Diego State’s Cameron Thomas and University of Cincinnati’s Myjai Sanders in this year’s draft, but they probably won’t play huge roles as a rookie, so the Cardinals will be relying heavily on the veterans Golden and Kennard at this position in 2022.

Golden actually led this team with sacks last season with 11, while also totaling 9 hits and pressuring the quarterback at a 11.4% rate, and he’s mostly been an above average pass rusher throughout his career, with 44.5 sacks, 73 hits, and a 12.8% pressure rate in 94 games in 7 seasons in the league. He was limited to just 15 games total from 2017-2018 by injury, but has bounced back nicely to only miss one game over the past three seasons. He could easily have another above average season rushing the passer, but his age is becoming a concern and if his pass rush ability significantly declines, he would become a liability because his run defense has always been a problem. 

Kennard, on the other hand, is in many ways the opposite, as he’s never been much of a pass rusher, with 26.5 sacks, 36 hits, and a 9.7% pressure rate in 111 games in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s also generally received above average grades from PFF for his run defense. He’s played more of a reserve role over the past two seasons since joining the Cardinals, playing just 22.8 snaps per game in 28 games, but he played 44.3 snaps per game in his first six seasons in the league prior to the past two seasons and now will need to play a bigger role with Jones gone. How effective he’ll be in that larger role, now on the wrong side of 30, is questionable though. The Cardinals will need Golden and Kennard to not show any signs of decline and they will need good production from their rookies for this to be an above average group. More likely, they’ll be more of a middling group.

Grade: B-

Interior Defender

JJ Watt returns to the Cardinals this season, which is important because their defense fell off significantly when he missed the final 10 games of last season. Watt is going into his age 33 season and has missed at least half the season with injury in four of the past six seasons though, so he’s not that reliable of an option. Watt still played at a pretty high level when on the field last season, pressuring the quarterback at a very impressive 12.9% rate from the interior and ranking 10th among interior defenders on PFF across the seven games he played, but he still finished with the 3rd lowest PFF grade of his 11-year career, with his previous season in 2020 being the 4th lowest grade of his career, so he’s clearly on the decline. Even a declined JJ Watt could still be one of the better players in the league at his position, but it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he continued declining further, considering his age and injury history.

If you’ve noticed something of a theme on this Cardinals team, it’s having key players who have been accomplished in the past, but who are now on the wrong side of 30. In addition to Watt, edge defenders Markus Golden and Devon Kennard, offensive linemen Justin Pugh, Rodney Hudson, and Kelvin Beachum, and pass catchers DeAndre Hopkins, AJ Green, and Zach Ertz are all on the wrong side of 30 and those nine players could all easily be starters for this team. 

It’s not hard to see how this could be one of the oldest teams in the league this season in terms of average age of snaps played, which is a concern, because older players tend to drop off suddenly. If that happens to a few of the aforementioned players, the Cardinals will be in trouble, given that efficiency ratings suggested they were a middling team last season, even before off-season departures and potential drop offs from key players. 

Watt dropping off significantly would especially be a concern, not just because of how well he still played last season before the season, but also because the Cardinals have next to nothing at the interior defender position behind him. Jordan Phillips (284 snaps) and Corey Peters (362 snaps) were their only other interior defenders to earn even an average grade from PFF last season, but those two veterans are gone and the Cardinals didn’t do anything to replace him, so they will be banking on getting better play from some of their young players at the position.

Those younger player sare 2019 3rd round pick Zach Allen (684 snaps), 2020 4th round pick Leki Fotu (371 snaps), fellow 2020 4th round pick Rashard Lawrence (219 snaps), and 2019 7th round pick Michael Dogbe (263 snaps), who all had roles last season and who are candidates to see their roles expanded in 2022, despite all of them finishing below average on PFF in every season of their careers. Allen led this position in snaps played last season, so there might not be much room for his role to grow, but either way, he will have a big role, which is a problem because he is a significant liability against the run. His career 6.4% pressure rate is not bad and he’s still only in his age 25 season and may have untapped upside, but he’ll need to improve his run defense to become even a capable starter.

Fotu, Lawrence, and Dogbe all may have untapped upside as well, but they’ve shown even less than Allen has thus far in his career, with Fotu and Lawrence also struggling on snap counts of 284 and 166 respectively as rookies in 2020 and Dogbe only playing 123 snaps total in two seasons in the league prior to earning a slightly bigger role in 2021. It’s very possible none of them ever develop into useful contributors, which is a concern because the Cardinals will need at least a couple of them to do so this season, for this to be a solid group overall. JJ Watt’s presence elevates this whole position group, but he has become increasingly unreliable in recent years.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Cardinals used back-to-back first round picks on off ball linebackers in the 2020 and 2021 NFL Draft, taking Isaiah Simmons 8th overall in 2020 and then taking Zaven Collins 16th overall in 2021. Simmons only saw 376 snaps as a rookie, but he moved into an every down role in year two in 2021. Collins was supposed to join him and his selection was expected to lead to the Cardinals trading or releasing veteran Jordan Hicks, but instead Hicks took a pay cut and stayed ahead of Collins on the depth chart all season, limiting Collins to 220 snaps as a reserve. In fact, Hicks was the Cardinals’ best off ball linebacker overall in terms of PFF grade and finished 27th in overall grade among off ball linebackers.

Hicks was still let go this off-season, a move that saved the Cardinals 6 million, freeing up the job for Collins, but there is no guarantee Collins is as good in his first year as a starter, even if he is a first round talent who flashed a lot of potential as a rookie. On top of that, Simmons hasn’t shown much more than middling play thus far in his career, though he obviously has the upside to take a big leap forward in year three. Both Collins and Simmons have the upside to be a very talented off ball linebacker duo long-term, but there is no guarantee they reach their potential and, even if they do, it might not be in 2022.

Collins and Simmons are also both somewhat non-prototypical linebackers, with the 6-4 230 pound Simmons having the athleticism to play on the slot and to move to the edge and the 6-4 260 Collins having the size to also play some defensive line, so there will be snaps available for at least one reserve off ball linebacker to see action. The most likely candidate for that role is veteran free agent signing Nick Vigil, who is plenty experienced, with 51 starts in 85 games in 6 seasons in the league, but who also has never been more than a middling linebacker and who finished last season as PFF’s 80th ranked off ball linebacker out of 94 eligible across 718 snaps. He’s not a bad reserve option, but he’ll likely struggle if he has to see extended action. This group has upside, but obvious downside if neither Collins nor Simmons take a step forward and it’s very possible they’ll miss Jordan Hicks, their best player at the position a year ago.

Grade: B-

Secondary

Robert Alford definitely wasn’t the biggest name on the 2021 Cardinals, but he was by default their top cornerback and his absence down the stretch last season was as big of a reason as any why the Cardinals declined down the stretch. Alford is oft injured, playing just 28 games total over the past 4 seasons, and was heading into his age 34 season in 2022, so the Cardinals opted not to retain him this off-season and he could easily have struggled even if he was brought back, so it’s understand why they let him go, but the Cardinals also didn’t replace him, so cornerback looks like it will be a very questionable position for the Cardinals this season.

Byron Murphy (967 snaps) and Marco Wilson (748 snaps) both played significant roles last season in three cornerback sets with Alford and both remain on the roster, but they finished 89th and 117th respectively out of 134 eligible cornerbacks on PFF and will likely be underwhelming starting options again in 2022. Wilson was only a rookie, but he was also only a 4th round pick and it’s far from a guarantee that 4th round picks ever develop into long-term starters, even ones that see playing time early in their career. Wilson could take a step forward in year two, but he played badly enough last season that a step forward wouldn’t necessarily make him even a capable starter.

Similarly, Murphy is a 2019 2nd round pick who was a little better in 2020 than he was in 2021, but he was still only a middling cornerback in 2020 and he finished 122nd out of 135 eligible cornerbacks as a rookie in 2019, so he’s had an inconsistent at best three years in the league thus far. Still only in his age 24 season, there is still time for him to develop into an above average starter and, even if that doesn’t happen this season, he could still be better than a year ago, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Without any significant additions being made to this group this off-season, the Cardinals will likely turn to Antonio Hamilton as their third cornerback. He was decent on 313 snaps last season, but that was a very limited sample size and it was still a career high in defensive snaps for a 6-year veteran who has primarily been a special teamer in his career. Now in his age 29 season, it’s unlikely he’s suddenly going to break out as even an average #3 cornerback.

Making matters worse, the Cardinals don’t have any real depth to speak of behind their shaky top-3 cornerbacks. Breon Borders was probably the most significant addition the Cardinals made to this group this off-season and he flashed potential on 360 snaps with the Titans in 2020, but the 2017 undrafted free agent has played just 166 other defensive snaps in his career, including just 70 last season for the Titans, so he’s a highly unproven option as well. The Cardinals took cornerback Christian Matthew in the 7th round, but he would very likely struggle if forced into significant action as a rookie. This is one of the shakiest cornerback groups in the league.

Things are fortunately better at safety, although somewhat by default. Budda Baker is arguably the Cardinals’ best defensive player with Chandler Jones gone and Markus Golden and JJ Watt getting up in age, but Baker is also coming off of a down year. He still finished above average on PFF, but he fell to 47th among safeties on PFF after finishing 33rd in 2019 and 10th in 2020. He’s only in his age 26 season though and he’s been an above average starter in all five seasons of his career, so he has a good chance to bounce back and even if he doesn’t, he should remain a valuable player.

Jalen Thompson was actually the better of the two starting safeties last season, finishing 37th among safeties on PFF in his first full season as a starter. A 5th round pick in the 2019 supplemental draft, Thompson actually became a starter midway through his rookie season, when he made 9 starts in total, but his second season in the league was ended after 4 starts by injury. He fared well when on the field in his first two seasons in the league though, so it wasn’t surprising that he had a solid season as a full-time starter in his 3rd year in the league. He should remain at least a solid starter and, still only going into his age 24 season, he may still have some untapped upside.

Depth is a bit of a concern at safety though, with Deionte Thompson being their only notable reserve. The incumbent #3 safety, Thompson should remain in that role, but the 2019 5th round pick has struggled in limited action in his career and would likely be a big weakness if forced to start for an extended period of time. He’s played just 655 snaps total in his career, with just 71 of those snaps coming last season. The Cardinals will need their starting safeties to stay healthy because they’ll have to try to mask the Cardinals’ big weakness at cornerback.

Grade: B-

Special Teams

The Cardinals’ special teams was slightly below average last season, finishing 20th in special teams DVOA. Kicker Matt Prater had a better good season and returns for another year, but, sticking with the theme of this team, he’s getting up there in age, even for a kicker, in his age 38 season, while punter Andy Lee is in his age 40 season and coming off of a significantly down year, finishing dead last out of 35 eligible punters on PFF.

Rondale Moore will likely remain their primary return man, even if he has to play a bigger role on offense when DeAndre Hopkins is suspended, but he was underwhelming last season and is not a guarantee to be better in year two. On top of that, one of the Cardinals’ two best core special teamers, veteran Demetrius Harris, is no longer with the team, leaving Dennis Gardeck as their only top-50 special teamer on PFF from a year ago. Because of that, it wouldn’t be a surprise if this group was even worse in 2022, especially given the age of their kicker and punter.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Cardinals went 11-6 last season, but they needed a +12 turnover margin to win that many games, finishing just 15th in efficiency, and they were exposed in a big way down the stretch last season. Even if they brought back the same team as a year ago, they likely would not win 11 games again, as they would not be able to count on dominating the turnover margin again, as turnover margin is not predictive year-to-year, but the Cardinals also look worse than a year ago.

The aging Cardinals lost top edge defender Chandler Jones and top cornerback Robert Alford this off-season, both over 30, which will be big losses, and they still have nine players over 30 who could easily start for them this season and if even a few of them drop off significantly, that will be very noticeable. The absence of JJ Watt and DeAndre Hopkins was a big part of the reason for their struggles in the second half last season, but Watt is a highly injury prone player in his age 33 season, while Hopkins is also on the wrong side of 30 and will sit for at least the first 6 games with a suspension. 

The Cardinals also lost running back Chase Edmonds and linebacker Jordan Hicks this off-season, key players from last season’s team, and had to trade their first round pick to get Marquise Brown to replace another departure Christian Kirk, meaning the Cardinals didn’t get much out of the draft. There is still talent on this team, but they should be worse than a year ago and they’re starting from a lower base point than their 11-6 record a year ago would suggest. The NFC is the weaker of the two conferences by a wide margin, but the Cardinals play in probably the toughest division in the conference and are not guaranteed to even get a wild card berth again. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC West

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