With the #1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Cardinals had a big decision to make. They had just traded up for a quarterback in the first round the previous year, selecting Josh Rosen 10th overall, but he struggled mightily in a rookie year that saw the Cardinals finish dead last in first down rate and finish with the worst record in the league at 3-13, leading to that #1 pick. Top picks are usually used on a quarterback, but teams selecting quarterbacks in the first round in back-to-back years is very rare, with the previous instance coming from the 1982 and 1983 Colts, who lost their 1982 first round pick Art Schlichter to a gambling suspension.
Beyond that, there wasn’t a clear top quarterback in the 2019 NFL draft, which was mostly noted for top defensive talents like Nick Bosa and Quinnen Williams, so those two were seen as the early favorites to the Cardinals with the top pick, barring a trade. However, throughout the pre-draft process, buzz grew that new Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury, hired to replace Steve Wilks after a terrible single season on the job, was infatuated with Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, an undersized quarterback (5-10 207) who many thought was going to play professional baseball, after being selected in the top-10 by and signing with the Oakland A’s the previous year, but who was also reconsidering that decision after a Heisman winning season.
Murray ultimately decided to focus on football, paying back his 5 million dollar signing bonus to the A’s, perhaps in part because of the growing buzz around him possibly going #1 to Kingsbury’s Cardinals. That buzz turned into something of a known fact by draft day, when the Cardinals did ultimately select Murray, sending Josh Rosen to the Miami Dolphins for the 62nd overall pick in the process. It was an unorthodox move, in part because of Murray being an unorthodox prospect, but it has paid off for this team.
Rosen proved to be a complete bust with the Dolphins and has bounced around three different teams since being traded from Arizona, never earning a starting opportunity with any of them. Murray, meanwhile, has proven to be not only the best quarterback from an overall underwhelming quarterback class that included Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, and Drew Lock, but he’s also proven himself to be one of the more promising young quarterbacks in the league.
The Cardinals didn’t win many games in Murray’s first year, going 5-10-1, but a defense that ranked 31st in first down rate allowed was mostly to blame, as Murray quickly turned around an offense that was the worst in the league the year prior, finishing 17th in first down rate, despite an underwhelming supporting cast around the quarterback. Murray won Offensive Rookie of the Year for his efforts, completing 64.4% of his passes for an average of 6.87 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while rushing for 5.85 YPC and 4 touchdowns on 93 carries.
Things got even better in 2020. Murray’s supporting cast on offense was improved, as was Murray himself, completing 67.2% of his passes for an average of 7.12 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while rushing for 6.16 YPC and 11 touchdowns on 133 carries and finishing as PFF’s 12th ranked quarterback on the season. As a result, the Cardinals shot up to 5th in first down rate over expected at +2.14%. However, they still fell short of the post-season at 8-8.
That was a big step forward from the season before, but it was disappointing, given how well the Cardinals offense played, as a 18th ranked defense in first down rate allowed over expected at +0.75% held them back, as did a tough divisional schedule, and a 4-8 record in games decided by 11 points or less, including a week 17 loss to the Rams that eliminated them from post-season contention in which Kyler Murray got hurt early in the game and could not return. As disappointing as not making the post-season was, however, they have a lot of good things to take away from last season.
Their 12th ranked finish in first down rate differential at +1.39% already suggests they were better than their record last season, but there are reasons to believe the Cardinals can be better than that in 2021. The obvious is that Kyler Murray could take another step forward in year three, but there is also a good chance they’ll be improved on defense. Not only are they more talented on that side of the ball this season, which I’ll get into later, but defensive performance tends to be much more inconsistent year-to-year than offensive performance, which is much more easily influenced by the presence of one player, the quarterback, which tends to be pretty steady year-to-year.
Only in his age 24 season, the Cardinals very much seem to have that quarterback and if they’ve added enough talent to the rest of this roster, they could take a big step forward in 2021. They also upgraded their backup quarterback spot a little bit this off-season, adding Colt McCoy in free agency, giving them an experienced (30 starts in 11 seasons in the league), if unspectacular (78.1 career QB rating) backup who struggled in limited action last season and now is going into his age 35 season, but who ultimately should be an upgrade over CFLer Chris Streveler, who looked lost in relief of an injured Murray in their critical week 17 loss to the Rams. The Cardinals are obviously hoping McCoy never needs to see the field, but they’re probably better for having him on the roster.
The biggest reason for the Cardinals’ offensive supporting cast being improved from Kyler Murray’s rookie year in 2019 to last season was the addition of #1 wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in an absolute fleecing of a trade with the Houston Texans. Not only was it strange that the Texans, who were otherwise going all-in by trading away premium draft picks to improve the roster, would want to trade away a 28-year-old player who was owed just 39.9 million over the next three seasons and who had averaged a slash line of 99/1328/9 per 16 games and 2.17 yards per route run over the previous six seasons, despite very inconsistent quarterback play, cementing himself as one of the top wide receivers in the league, but the Texans almost definitely could have gotten more draft compensation from another team had Hopkins seen shopped around properly.
The Buffalo Bills traded away a first round pick (#22) around the same time for Stefon Diggs, who was generally seen as a slightly lesser player than Hopkins, and it’s hard to see the Texans not being offered a first round pick for Hopkins had the league known he was available. The only reason it seems that the Cardinals were able to not only acquire him at all, but for the price of just the 40th pick in the 2nd round, was that the Texans, for some reason, highly desired overpaid Cardinals starting running back David Johnson, who had a strong season a few years back, but had dropped off significantly since and was likely viewed as a negative asset around the league because of the guaranteed money on his contract.
If Hopkins had been valued at let’s say the same 22nd overall pick that the Vikings got for Diggs, the trade of Hopkins for Johnson and the 40th pick only makes sense if Johnson is valued at about the 62nd overall pick, an absurd valuation for a player whose team was likely hoping to just dump him on someone for nothing. The Texans made a variety of head scratching moves under Bill O’Brien, who was ultimately fired just 4 games into the 2020 season, but the Hopkins trade stands out as their most head scratching and the Cardinals benefited greatly.
In Hopkins first season in Arizona, it was more of the same, as he finished with a 115/1407/6 slash line in 16 games, averaged 2.25 yards per route run (11th in the NFL), and was PFF’s 7th ranked wide receiver, his 5th season in the top-7 in the past six seasons. The Cardinals had to add another 54.5 million over 2 years to his contract to keep him happy long-term, something the Texans apparently had balked at, but all in all, the Cardinals are paying him just 84.4 million over 5 seasons, an average of 16.88 million per year that ranks 11th in the NFL in average annual salary by a wide receiver. Still in his prime in his age 29 season, with no major injury history (2 games missed in 7 career seasons), there is no reason to expect anything different this season from Hopkins, who should continue being well worth Arizona’s investment.
Hopkins’ addition was something of a changing of the guard for the Cardinals, whose top receiver for years had been Larry Fitzgerald, dating back to his selection 3rd overall in the 2004 NFL Draft. Fitzgerald had been obviously slowing down in the years before Hopkins’ arrival, but he still led the team with a 75/804/4 slash line in Murray’s first season in 2019 and his last 1000 yard season was as recently as 2017, which just shows you how good he was for so long, becoming just the 8th player ever to top 1000 yards receiving in their 14th season in the league or later. In total, Fitzgerald topped 1000 yards in nine seasons and was a top-16 ranked wide receiver on PFF in ten seasons, in a career that will almost definitely land him in the Hall of Fame.
Fitzgerald seemed to be legitimately at the end of his line in 2020 though, finishing with a 54/409/1 slash line, despite significant opportunity, averaging just 5.68 yards per target and 0.92 yards per route run on an otherwise effective offense. In all, Fitzgerald was PFF’s 100th ranked wide receiver out of 112 eligible, a reminder that even elite skill position players can only fight off time for so long. Fitzgerald is not technically retired, but the Cardinals seem to have moved on and it seems unlikely he’ll sign elsewhere.
Fitzgerald was directly replaced in free agency by another fading former Pro Bowl wide receiver AJ Green. Green isn’t as old as Fitzgerald, heading into his age 33 season, and would have been an exciting addition as recently as 2018, when he had a 46/694/6 slash line in just 9 games, but Green’s injury problems continued into 2019, when he missed the entire season, and then, upon his return in 2020, Green was a shell of his old self, finishing with a 47/523/2 slash line, averaging 1.02 yards per route run and 5.03 yards per target, and earning just a middling grade from PFF, after 7 straight seasons in the top-14 among wide receivers on PFF prior to his lost 2019 season.
It’s possible Green’s struggles last season had more to do with him being unmotivated, playing on the franchise tag for a Bengals team that was in a rebuilding process he didn’t want to be a part of, but it also seems like his injuries have gotten the best of him, understandable from a player who missed 29 games in a 4-year span from 2016-2019. The 1-year, 6 million dollar deal the Cardinals gave Green this off-season may seem low risk, but 6 million is a lot on a one-year deal this off-season, given the shrunken cap, and Green could block more promising players from getting playing time, while the upside on the deal is limited by the fact that he would likely command more money in free agency next off-season on the off chance that he does bounce back.
Green played all 16 games last season and could bounce back a little bit, a year removed from the injuries, in a better situation, but wide receivers tend to lose it for good regardless of injuries around Green’s age anyway, as 1000 yard seasons drop off about 75% from age 29 to age 33. The Cardinals drafted Purdue’s Rondale Moore in the second round as a long-term successor for Green, who could be one and done in Arizona, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Moore even push Green for playing time by season’s end.
The Cardinals also used a 2nd round pick on a wide receiver in 2018, taking Christian Kirk, who many saw as the long-term successor for Fitzgerald before the Hopkins deal. Kirk hasn’t been bad in his three seasons in the league, but he hasn’t nearly been what Fitzgerald was or what Hopkins is, averaging just a 53/640/4 slash line per season on 1.41 yards per route run and earning middling grades from PFF overall, while missing 9 games in 3 seasons due to injury. Perhaps most concerning is that his best year is still his rookie year when he earned his highest grade from PFF and averaged a career best 1.72 yards per route run.
Still only going into his age 25 season, I wouldn’t rule out him breaking out in his 4th year in the league in 2021, also the final year of his rookie deal, but it doesn’t seem terribly likely. With Hopkins already making significant money opposite him, the Rondale Moore selection could also be a sign that the Cardinals don’t intend to keep Kirk long-term, unless he takes a team friendly deal. In the meantime, he’s likely to be a solid, but unspectacular #2/#3 wide receiver in this offense in 2021. The Cardinals like to spread out the defense with three and four wide receivers, so likely all of the Cardinals top four wide receivers will see at least somewhat significant action, including the rookie Moore.
With the Cardinals frequently using three and four wide receivers at a time, the tight end position is understandably not a big part of this offense, with just 48 completions going to tight ends last season, a number that is almost definitely going to drop in 2021, as Dan Arnold, who had 31 of those catches and led the position with 469 snaps played, is no longer with the team and was not replaced. Instead, the Cardinals will likely give more playing time to blocking specialists Maxx Williams (325 snaps) and Darrell Daniels (366 snaps), who have averaged just 1.08 yards per route run and 0.59 yards per route run in their careers respectively.
Daniels isn’t even much of a blocker either, though Williams is actually one of the better blocking tight ends in the league, ranking 14th among tight ends in run blocking grade last season and earning an above average grade as a run blocker in all six seasons in the league, maxing out as PFF’s highest rated run blocking tight end in 2019. The presence of DeAndre Hopkins elevates this whole receiving corps, but the swap out of Larry Fitzgerald for AJ Green might not be the upgrade they’re expecting in a group that still has questions beyond Hopkins.
The Cardinals’ offensive upgrades this off-season were primarily concentrated on their offensive line. They got solid play overall from their offensive line last off-season and had three of five starters earn above average grades from PFF, but right guard and center were positions of weakness, with right guard JR Sweezy finishing 73rd among 86 eligible guards on PFF and center Mason Cole finishing 32nd among 38 eligible centers. The Cardinals responded by finding upgrades at both spots and, with their other three starters remaining, this should be an improved unit in 2021. Their biggest addition was center Rodney Hudson, who the Cardinals acquired in a trade centered around this year’s 3rd round pick.
Hudson was weirdly almost released by the Raiders, ahead of the remaining non-guaranteed money left on his contract, but upon realizing there was a trade market for the veteran center, they opted to take that route instead and got somewhat of a premium draft pick for him. It might seem like a lot to give up for a well paid center who is heading into his age 32 season and whose former team thought about releasing for nothing, but Hudson was one of the better centers in the league in his prime, finishing in the top-6 among centers on PFF in 3 straight seasons from 2016-2018 and earning an above average grade from PFF in every season of his career in which he’s been a starter, and he hasn’t dropped off much, finishing 11th among centers on PFF in 2019 and 8th in 2020.
It’s possible Hudson’s drop off could come this season and could come suddenly, but centers tend to age a little better than other positions, so he could easily have another couple solid seasons left in the tank. At the very least, he should be an obvious upgrade on Mason Cole, but he has the upside to be one of the better centers in the league if he can continue evading father time, which would be a big boost for this offense. The Cardinals also agreed to a new 3-year, 30 million dollar deal with Hudson this off-season, lowering his cap hit in the short-term and likely ensuring he will be with the Cardinals beyond 2021.
New right guard Brian Winters isn’t as impressive, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Sweezy and he’s generally been a capable starter in his career, in 88 starts in 8 seasons in the league. Winters is going into his age 30 season and is coming off of the lowest rated season of his career, finishing 69th among 86 eligible guards across 618 snaps in 2020, so he could be on the decline, but at the very least, I wouldn’t expect him to be a downgrade from Sweezy and he wasn’t expensive, signing for 1.21 million over just 1 year. Even in the worst season of his career last year, WInters still had a better year than Sweezy.
Of their three remaining starters, right tackle Kelvin Beachum is probably the shakiest, not just ranking the lowest of the three at their position on PFF, but also going into his age 32 season. Beachum never lived up to his early career heights, finishing 10th among offensive tackles in 2014 with the Steelers, but tearing his ACL the following season and never finishing higher than 37th at his position again. He’s always been at least an average starter though, across 115 starts in 9 seasons in the league. He might drop off somewhat in 2021, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him remain a solid starter.
One concerning theme on this offensive line is most of their starters are getting to the age where they may start to decline and the same is true of left guard Justin Pugh, who ranked an above average 38th among guards on PFF in 15 starts last season, but now heads into his age 31 season. Pugh also has a concerning injury history, missing 27 games in the past 7 seasons, while playing all 16 games just once over that stretch. Earlier in his career, Pugh was one of the best guards in the league, finishing 12th and 15th among guards on PFF in 2015 and 2016, but he missed 17 of 32 games from 2017-2018 and was never the same, with his best season since those dominant early career seasons being his 21st ranked finish in 2019. He could decline further in 2021 or get hurt again, but he could also remain a solid starter.
The youngest member of this group is left tackle DJ Humphries, who is also the best of the bunch, coming off of a dominant 2020 season in which he ranked 5th among offensive tackles on PFF. Humphries was a first round pick in 2016 and is still in his prime in his age 28 season, but he’s also a one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level. Humphries showed promise early in his career, but was limited to 25 starts in his first 4 seasons in the league by injury and then in 2019, when he finally stayed healthy and made all 16 starts, he ranked just 49th among offensive tackles on PFF. It’s possible he’s permanently turned a corner as a player and it’s good that he hasn’t missed a game due to injury in two seasons, but I wouldn’t expect him to be quite as good as he was last season, even if he still is one of the better left tackles in the league.
The Cardinals have their starting five locked in, but depth is somewhat of a concern. Justin Murray is a versatile reserve who can play both inside and outside and he played 602 snaps last season, but he struggled and has never been better than middling in his career, in 19 starts in 5 seasons in the league. Josh Jones was selected by the Cardinals in the 3rd round in 2020, but struggled across just 54 rookie year snaps and is no guarantee to be better in 2021.
Lamont Gaillard, a 2019 6th round pick, remains the backup center, but he struggled across the first 217 snaps of his career last season. The Cardinals also have guard Max Garcia, who was a solid starter earlier in his career with the Broncos, but has since settled in as a reserve, playing 309 snaps over the past 3 seasons combined. They’re not bad depth options, but the Cardinals will definitely have to hope their aging and somewhat injury prone starting five offensive linemen hold up. If they do, this should be an above average group, but that’s not a guarantee.
The Cardinals lost lead back Kenyan Drake this off-season, watching him sign a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal with the Raiders. Drake was acquired midway through 2019 in a trade with the Dolphins and showed a lot of promise in his first half season with the team, rushing for 5.23 YPC and 8 touchdowns on 123 carries in 8 games, leading to the Cardinals keeping him on the transition tag and paying him 8.482 million for the 2021 season, but he did not live up expectations, averaging just 3.99 YPC with 10 touchdowns on 239 carries, so the Cardinals didn’t pay to keep him this off-season.
Drake will be replaced by free agent addition James Conner, but Conner might not see as many carries as Drake received last season, as the Cardinals seem to want to get #2 running back Chase Edmonds more involved. A 4th round pick in 2018, Edmonds has shown promise in his career, averaging 4.42 YPC on 217 carries in 3 seasons in the league. The 97 carries he had last season were a career high, but I would expect him to exceed that in 2021 and he could be something of a 1b to Conner’s 1a.
Edmonds also figures to remain the Cardinals’ primary passing down back, a role in which he saw significant usage last season, with a 53/402/4 slash line on 67 targets, a 1.32 route run average, and PFF’s 9th best receiving grade by a running back. Conner, meanwhile, will mostly be an early down between the tackles and short yardage runner, which was mostly the role he played in his first 4 seasons in the league, all with the Steelers, who selected him in the 3rd round in 2017.
In total, Conner has rushed for 4.33 YPC and 22 touchdowns on 532 carries, while averaging 1.17 yards per route run and earning slightly above average grade from PFF overall. He’s shown more promise than his overall numbers, but durability has been a concern, as he’s never topped 215 carries or 14 games in a season, missing 14 of 64 career games and being limited in countless others, which have hurt his efficiency. He has the upside to be better than his career numbers if he can stay healthy for a full season, but at this point, he probably just is who he is. Still, he was a smart, cheap (1-year, 1.75 million) addition who will pair well with Chase Edmonds and make a solid tandem.
As I mentioned earlier, I would expect the Cardinals to be better on the defensive side of the ball in 2021. Not only is defensive play much less consistent than offensive play year-to-year, but the Cardinals also should be more talented on this side of the ball. The biggest reason for that is the off-season addition of JJ Watt, a future Hall of Famer who parted ways with the rebuilding Houston Texans this off-season after a dominant 10-year stretch with the team.
Watt had some injury plagued seasons, but ultimately played in all 16 games seven times, including six seasons of more than 900 snaps played, and his production overall was off the charts, as he totaled 101 sacks, 204 hits, and a 12.9% pressure rate in 128 games, while dominating against the run, and winning three Defensive Player of the Year awards, tied for the most all-time. He also finished in the top-2 at his position on PFF in 5 seasons and, while his age is becoming a concern in his age 32 season and his 5 sacks last season was the lowest of his career in a full season, he was still PFF’s 2nd ranked edge defender in 2018, 5th in 2019 before getting hurt, and 7th in 2020, when his underwhelming sack total was largely the result of being the most double teamed player in the league on a terrible Houston defense.
Probably the best part of the Cardinals acquiring Watt is he came without draft compensation, as Watt asked out of the rebuilding Texans ahead of the final year of his contract and, rather than trying to find a taker for his 17.5 million dollar salary, they cut him outright. The Cardinals got a slight discount on an annual basis with a 2-year, 28 million dollar deal, but they also guaranteed most of his 2022 salary, suggesting they may have wanted to acquire Watt enough that they would have surrendered at least some draft compensation in a trade for him, but instead he arrives as a true free agent.
Earlier in Watt’s career, he played almost exclusively on the interior, but he was athletic enough that the Texans turned the 6-5 288 pounder into an edge defender later in his career, with the shift starting in his 4th season in the league in 2014. The Cardinals need the most help on the interior though, as they didn’t have a single interior defender earn an above average grade from PFF last season, and Watt could really benefit from a move back to his natural position.
It sounds weird to say that JJ Watt has been playing out of position for years because he’s been able to dominate regardless of where he plays, but he’s performed better in his limited action on the interior in recent years and, as he ages and starts to lose a step, he will likely find it easier to disrupt offensive lines from the interior going forward. There is always the possibility that Watt drops off completely at his age or suffers another injury, but the most likely outcome of his season is that he is one of the top interior defenders in the league, for a Cardinals team that might have had the worst interior defender group in the league last season.
Watt was their only real addition to this group this off-season though, so the Cardinals will be counting on holdovers taking a step forward around Watt. The player the Cardinals are probably most expecting to be better this season compared to last season is interior defender Jordan Phillips, who was signed on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal last off-season and proceeded to play just 266 snaps in 9 games and finish as PFF’s 99th ranked interior defender out of 139 eligible. Phillips’ contract guaranteed 4.5 million of his salary for 2021, but the Cardinals could have still saved 5.5 million by moving on from him this off-season, so they seem to have some hope he can bounce back.
That being said, Phillips’ contract was an overpay to begin with and, even if he bounces back, it won’t be to the player the Cardinals were expecting when they acquired him. Phillips had 9.5 sacks with the Bills in 2019, but that was largely the result of being in the right place at the right time on a dominant defense, as he earned just a middling grade from PFF and managed just a 7.7% pressure rate. Even that season stands out as an outlier in his career though, as he’s received below average grades from PFF in his other six seasons in the league, in which he has totaled just 7.5 sacks in 69 games with just a 6.8% pressure rate, while consistently struggling against the run. He’ll most likely continue to be below average in 2021. The Cardinals probably should have just admitted their mistake, cut their losses, and spent the money on a replacement and upgrade.
The Cardinals also have some young players they are hoping can take a step forward. Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence were both 4th round selections in 2020 and, though they both struggled in 284 snaps and 166 snaps respectively as rookies, they could still have the upside to get better going forward. Zach Allen, a 3rd round choice in 2019, is another option. He’s primarily played on the edge in his career, but the 6-4 280 pounder has also seen some action on the interior and could see more action there this season, as it seems to be a thinner spot for this defense. Allen has also been mediocre in his 649 career snaps, primarily playing as an edge defender, so he could benefit from seeing more action inside, although that isn’t a guarantee. The JJ Watt addition elevates this group in a big way, but they will need other players to step up as well.
The Cardinals lost their sacks leader from a year ago, Haason Reddick (12.5 sacks), in free agency this off-season, but they’ll get their 2019 sacks leader, Chandler Jones (19 sacks, 2nd in the NFL), back from an injury that limited him to just 286 snaps in 5 games in 2020, which could easily prove to be an upgrade. Reddick added 8 hits and a 13.6% pressure rate to his sack total last season, but he’s a one-year wonder, while Jones had been one of the more productive pass rushers in the league for years prior to last year’s injury plagued campaign. From 2013-2019, Jones totaled 90 sacks, 71 hits, and an 11.1% pressure rate, while coming off the field as infrequently as any edge defender in the league (62.7 snaps per game) and missing just 7 games total due to injury.
Jones isn’t the best run stuffer, but he earned an above average overall grade from PFF in all seven of those seasons, including four seasons in the top-23 among edge defenders, three seasons in the top-17, and a 15th ranked finish in his most recent healthy season in 2019. Jones is now going into his age 31 season and seemed to be slowing a little bit before last year’s injury, but that was such a small sample size and, even if he is on the decline after last year’s lost year, he should still remain an above average starter and one of the better edge rushers in the league. It also seems unlikely he’ll suffer another injury, given his history of durability.
Other than Reddick, the Cardinals are bringing back all their notable edge defenders from a year ago. Devon Kennard (362 snaps) and Markus Golden (416 snaps) are likely to both see rotational roles, regardless of which one is the nominal starter opposite Jones. Both players would have seen higher snap counts last season had they not been limited to 13 games and 9 games respectively, but Kennard missed three games with injury, while Golden was only acquired mid-season from the Giants after Jones’ injury.
For Golden, this is his second stint with the Cardinals, who originally selected him in the 2nd round in 2015. For the first two years of his career, Golden looked like he would form a dangerous edge defender duo with Chandler Jones for years to come, totaling 16.5 sacks, 23 hits, and a 13.0% pressure rate, while finishing 29th and 36th among edge defenders on PFF. However, Golden suffered a torn ACL after 231 snaps in 4 games in his third season in 2017, struggled mightily across just 393 snaps in 11 games upon his return in 2018, and was allowed to walk as a free agent the following off-season, when he signed with the Giants.
Golden has bounced back pretty well over the past two seasons though, totaling 13 sacks, 35 hits, and a 13.7% pressure rate, prompting the Cardinals to reacquire him from the rebuilding Giants, who were likely to lose him for nothing at the end of the season and who were strangely barely playing him (175 snaps in 7 games), despite a strong season from him the year prior. With the Cardinals, he continued his 2019 form and the Cardinals were also able to retain Golden on a very team friendly 2-year, 5 million dollar deal this off-season. Even though he’s going into his age 30 season and has always left something to be desired against the run, he should remain a valuable edge rusher for this team in 2021.
With Golden being more of a sub package player, Kennard’s role is likely to be as an early down player, which is where he fits best anyway. His 9.7% career pressure rate is underwhelming for an edge defender, while his run defense has drawn above average grades from PFF in six straight seasons. He may also decline a little bit in 2021, also in his age 30 season, but he should remain a capable early down player for this defense, focused on stopping the run.
The Cardinals also have Zach Allen, who I mentioned in the interior defender section, as an option on the edge, although his play at that position has left something to be desired and may suggest he would be best on the interior long-term. Dennis Gardeck could also be in the mix, coming off of a truly strange 2020 season. A 2018 undrafted free agent who had played just 3 snaps on defense prior to last season, Gardeck was only on the roster for special teams purposes, but ended up finishing second on the team with seven sacks last season. That alone isn’t that strange, but he did that despite hardly seeing any playing time, playing just 89 snaps total on defense.
Most of those snaps (79) were pass rush snaps, but when you add in the 3 hits and 8 hurries he had, he was still around the quarterback on 22.8% of his pass rush snaps. Despite that, Gardeck never saw any significant playing time until week 15 when he played 25 snaps and promptly was placed on injured reserve the following week with an injury he picked up in that game. Gardeck is undersized for an edge defender at 6-0 232 and would be highly unlikely to be as efficient as he was last season in a larger role and the Cardinals seem to prefer having him focus on special teams, but he’s worth mentioning as he could factor into the mix at this position. With Chandler Jones returning from injury as essentially a replacement for the departed Haason Reddick, this should once again be an above average group.
The Cardinals used their first round pick on the defensive side of the ball, adding Tulsa’s Zaven Collins with the 16th overall pick. Collins’ combination of size (6-4 259) and athleticism had many seeing him as an edge defender at the next level, but the Cardinals will keep him as primarily an off ball linebacker, which was his primary position in college. He’s actually the second straight first round pick the Cardinals have used on a player who will primarily play as an off ball linebacker, after taking Isaiah Simmons 8th overall in 2019.
Simmons is also a player who came into the league with some question about where he would play, as the 6-3 237 pounder also saw action off the edge, on the slot, and at safety in college and has the athleticism to play those positions on passing downs in the NFL, despite his size. Early on, Simmons wasn’t playing much of anywhere, even though the Cardinals invested a premium pick in him, playing just 57 snaps in the first 5 games of the season and struggling in the limited action he played, but he wound up playing 376 snaps on the season and finished as PFF’s 38th ranked off ball linebacker, while earning PFF’s 27th highest off ball linebacker grade from week 6 on, including their 7th highest grade in coverage.
Simmons was never an every down player and played almost exclusively in passing situations, with just 29.8% of his passes coming on run plays, but he showed his unique talents by lining up on the edge on 20.5% of his pass plays, as an off ball linebacker on 51.9%, and on the slot on 27.7%. He also pressured the quarterback at a 19.0% rate, while allowing just 1.16 yards per route run, including just 0.94 yards per route run on the slot.
The Cardinals obviously drafted him to be an every down player and with their top linebacker from a year ago De’Vondre Campbell (880 snaps) no longer with the team, Simmons should see a much bigger snap count in year two. His upside is very high and the way he ended last season was very much promising, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue having issues on running plays and even if he someday develops into one of the better linebackers in the league, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll have a big leap in year two.
Two off-seasons ago, the Cardinals added former Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal in free agency. Hicks had some injury issues in his first four seasons in the league with the Eagles, who selected him in the 3rd round in 2015, missing 43 of 64 possible games in those four seasons, but he played at a high level when on the field, finishing 11th among off ball linebackers in 2015, 3rd in 2016, and 13th in 2018, and looked like a potential steal for the Cardinals in free agency.
Instead, Hicks dropped off significantly, finishing 50th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2019 and 70th out of 99 eligible in 2020. Hicks has actually stayed healthy, playing and starting all 32 games over those two seasons, but it’s possible his early career injuries sapped his abilities. With the Cardinals adding off ball linebackers in the first round in back-to-back years, Hicks no longer has a starting role for this defense, and, having already taken a pay cut down to 3 million to stay on the roster this season, Hicks now reportedly wants to be traded to a team where he can start, a request the Cardinals seem to be willing to accommodate and one they’ll likely be able to fulfill, as Hicks is would still be an upgrade for several teams as a starting off ball linebacker and is not highly paid.
If Hicks happens to remain on this roster in 2021, he’ll only be a depth player, but with Simmons and Collins both having the ability to play in other spots, he could still have a situational role in this linebacking corps. Now going into his age 29 season, going on three seasons removed from his last impressive season, Hicks seems unlikely to bounce back to his old form, but even at his worst, he’s still above average depth. If he’s moved, career special teams Tanner Vallejo and Ezekiel Turner would be their top reserves, in which case depth would be a concern. Either way, with back-to-back first round picks in this group, the upside is obviously there for a big season from the starters.
The Cardinals’ secondary largely was neglected this off-season, relative to other positions of need they addressed. They added some cornerbacks, but they needed to replace a significant amount of snaps lost from Patrick Peterson (1,096 snaps) and Dre Kirkpatrick (750 snaps) and the cornerbacks they added are an unspectacular bunch. Fortunately, neither Peterson nor Kirkpatrick will be missed much, particularly Kirkpatrick, who was a massive liability last season, ranking 113rd out of 128 eligible cornerbacks on PFF.
Peterson, on the the hand, had been one of the better cornerbacks in the league throughout his 10 years with the Cardinals, after being selected 5th overall in 2011, but had earned back-to-back middling grades from PFF in 2019 and 2020 and, now heading into his age 31 season, the Cardinals were probably smart to let him walk on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal that he signed with the Vikings this off-season. Instead, the Cardinals signed Malcolm Butler to a 1-year, 3.25 million dollar deal, not only saving some money, but potentially finding an upgrade on what Peterson has been over the past couple seasons.
Butler is also in his age 31 season, but he hasn’t quite shown the decline that Peterson has. The Titans released him this off-season ahead of the final 24.55 million non-guaranteed over two seasons left on the 5-year, 61.25 million dollar deal that the Titans gave him to come over from the Patriots after the 2017 season, but that was a move driven by the Titans’ cap issues rather than Butler struggling, as his 2020 campaign was probably the best of his three in Tennessee.
In his first season, he was just middling across 836 snaps and was benched down the stretch, before an injury plagued 2019 campaign in which he played just 579 middling snaps, but in 2020, he made all 16 starts and was PFF’s 24th ranked cornerback, his best finish of his three seasons in Tennessee. Butler also finished 25th and 6th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2015 and 2016 respectively in his prime with the Patriots and, while his best days are very likely behind him, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him remain an above average starter, or at least a capable one, which is all Peterson was last season.
Butler will start opposite Byron Murphy, the 33rd overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, who has been a starter for this team since week one of his rookie year. Murphy struggled as a rookie though, finishing 122nd among 129 cornerbacks on PFF and, while he was more middling in 2020, that’s not a guarantee that he will continue improving going forward. He has the upside to breakout as an above average starter, but it’s far from a guarantee that he will do so in 2021.
Aside from Butler, none of the other Cardinals free agent additions at cornerback are guaranteed a role, so the third cornerback job is up for grabs. Darqueze Dennard was an under the radar signing, but he’s an experienced slot cornerback, averaging 627 snaps per season over the past four seasons and he’s earned average or better grades from PFF in all four seasons. Even now in his age 30 season, he could remain a capable slot cornerback if he wins the job.
The Cardinals drafted a pair of cornerbacks, but they were 4th rounder Marco Wilson and 6th round Tay Gowan, who are unlikely to factor into the mix much in year one, so Dennard’s primary competition for the #3 cornerback job is fellow veteran Robert Alford. Alford was signed by the Cardinals to a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal in free agency two off-seasons ago, but he proceeded to miss each of the past two seasons with two different season ending injuries and was forced to take a pay cut down to the league minimum this off-season.
The Cardinals couldn’t have foreseen that Alford would miss two full seasons, but that was an ill-advised contract from the start. In what is still his most recent action, Alford finished 112nd among 131 eligible cornerbacks with the Falcons in 2018 and, with Alford over 30, it was an easy decision for the Falcons to release him after that season, ahead of the final 17 million non-guaranteed on his contract over the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
However, despite Alford’s age and recent struggles, the Cardinals felt it was appropriate to essentially guarantee Alford almost the same amount that the Falcons made the easy decision not to pay him, guaranteeing him 15 million over 2019 and 2020. Even if he hadn’t gotten hurt, most of that would have probably been money down the drain anyway. Now on a minimum deal, Alford’s salary isn’t a problem, but, now in his age 33 season, he’s very unlikely to make a positive impact, two seasons removed from his last playing time and three seasons removed from his last above average season from PFF in 2017.
The best member of this secondary is safety Budda Baker, who finished last season as PFF’s 10th ranked safety. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Baker also finished 39th at his position as a rookie and 33rd in 2019 and, still only going into his age 25 season, he could keep getting better going forward. He’s been better against the run than in coverage, finishing in the top-17 among safeties against the run on PFF in all 4 seasons in the league, including 3 seasons in the top-7, but his coverage ability also has improved in every season in the league, leading to above average coverage grades in back-to-back seasons. At the very least, he should remain the player he’s been, but he has the upside for more.
Baker locks down one safety spot, but the other safety spot is up for grabs, as it was for most of last season, with Chris Banjo (436 snaps), Deionte Thompson (332 snaps), and Jalen Thompson (232 snaps) all seeing action. All three players remain and will compete for the starting role. Jalen Thompson was the best of the bunch last season and, though that came in very limited action, he also held his own across 607 snaps (9 starts in 12 games) as an undrafted rookie in 2019.
Thompson’s limited action last season was also mostly the result of injury and he likely would have gotten an extended chance to start and play every down had he not gotten hurt. He’s a projection to a season long starting role and it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if the former undrafted free agent didn’t develop into a capable full-time starter, as most undrafted free agents don’t, but he’s probably the favorite for the starting role this season if he’s past last year’s injuries.
Chris Banjo wasn’t bad either last season, but the 9-year veteran is a career special teamer, never surpassing 193 defensive snaps in a season prior to last season. Now going into his age 31 season, it would be a surprise to see him suddenly become a defensive starter. Deionte Thompson probably is more likely than Banjo to challenge for the starting role, but the 2019 5th round pick has been mediocre across 584 snaps in his career and he would need to take a big step forward to hold up as a starter.
The Cardinals did make one addition in free agency this off-season, signing veteran Shawn Williams, who had previously spent the first eight years of his career with the Bengals. Williams used to be a solid starter, but he finished 88th among 99 safeties on PFF in 2019 and subsequently lost his starting job for 2020, playing just 87 snaps total. Now going into his age 30 season, he would likely struggle again in a starting role, but he could be in the mix to start at a very unsettled position. This isn’t a bad secondary overall, but there are weak spots.
The Cardinals should once again have one of the top offenses in the league, led by budding young quarterback Kyler Murray and an improved offensive line. If their offense continues playing at a high level, they should win more games in 2021 even without defensive improvement, as both their schedule adjusted first down rate differential (+1.39%) and their point differential (+43) suggest they should have won another game or two, but their defense should also be improved as well, due in large part to the addition of JJ Watt.
Teams with talented quarterbacks on rookie deals are always a candidate to go on a long run as they have the ability to spend significantly more around the quarterback than teams with highly paid veterans, which is why 20 of 27 Super Bowl winner since the start of the salary cap have had their quarterback accounting for less than 10% of their cap and more than half (14 of 27) have had their quarterback account for less than 7%.
The Cardinals, who have been aggressive in adding talent around Murray over the past couple off-seasons, definitely fit the mold. They haven’t always spent their money in the best ways, but this is still a legitimately talented roster with a quarterback who has the upside to be one of the best in the league this season. They rank 7th in average annual salary, which correlates heavily with winning, and that is despite having a quarterback making significantly less than market value.
One thing that hurts them is they are in the toughest division in the NFL in the NFC West, where all four teams are legitimate playoff contenders (and more), but the Cardinals have as much upside as any team in that division and, whether they get into the post-season as a wild card or a division winner, they could go on a run that sees them win a couple playoff games and contender for a Super Bowl. They might be a year away, but their upside is up there with some of the best. I will have a final prediction for the Cardinals at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.