In 2015, the Cardinals were one of the best teams in the league. They finished 1st in first down rate, 9th in first down rate allowed, and 1st in first down rate differential at +8.45%. in 2016, they were not all that much worse, finishing 6th in first down rate, 5th in first down rate allowed, and, while their first down rate differential of +5.92% was lower than the season before, they still finished 1st in the NFL in that metric. However, after winning 13 games and making the NFC Championship in 2015, the Cardinals fell to 7-8-1 in 2016, despite not playing all that much worse on either side of the ball.
The problem was their special teams swung more than a few games. They missed a game winning field goal against New England. They allowed a long punt return to set up the winning score against the Rams. They had a blocked punt and a number of missed field goals in the tie against the Seahawks. They allowed a kickoff return touchdown in a 6-point loss to the Vikings. And against Miami, in a 3-point loss, special teams cost them 7 points on 3 plays with a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a blocked extra point that was returned for 2 points. They could have been 12-4 if not for those screw ups. Even if that’s a bit of a stretch, it’s hard to argue they wouldn’t have been a playoff team without league average special teams.
In 2017, the Cardinals went 8-8, but their season was derailed by injury and it took a lot of close wins to even get to 8-8, as they had a 6-2 record in games decided by a touchdown or less and finished with a -66 point differential. Despite that, they finished 14th in first down rate differential at +0.14%. They were not a bad team inside the 20s, but had major issues in both red zone, scoring a touchdown on just 41.67% of red zone opportunities (30th) and allowing a touchdown on 58.70% of red zone opportunities (25th). If those improve and they are healthier after having the 5th most adjusted games lost to injury, the Cardinals could be a surprise team in the NFC.
One of their biggest injuries last season was the loss of quarterback Carson Palmer for the final 9 games of the season with a broken arm. In the first 6 games of the season, they moved the chains at a 34.32% rate. Over the next 10 games, including the one in which the injury occured, they moved the chains at a 30.28% rate. Palmer had underwhelming passing numbers, completing 61.4% of his passes for an average of 7.41 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions on 267 attempts, but his backups Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton were noticeably worse.
Gabbert completed 55.6% of his passes for an average of 6.35 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions on 171 attempts. Stanton completed 49.7% of his passes for an average of 5.62 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions on 159 attempts. Palmer decided to retire this off-season, ahead of what would have been his age 39 season and the Cardinals have completely revamped their quarterback group. Both Stanton and Gabbert were allowed to leave in free agency, to the Browns and the Titans respectively, and at one point this off-season the Cardinals did not have a single quarterback on their roster.
They addressed the position in free agency by signing Sam Bradford and Mike Glennon. Glennon only got 8 million on a 2-year deal and is a backup caliber player, but Sam Bradford is a starting caliber quarterback if he’s healthy. If he’s healthy is the tricky part. Now going into his 9th year in the NFL, the 2010 1st overall pick has played more than 10 games just 4 times in his career. He missed 6 games with an ankle injury in 2011, 9 games with an ACL tear in 2013, the entire 2014 season with a second ACL tear, and then all but 2 games last season with a re-aggravation of that same knee, which has been described as degenerative.
The Cardinals clearly believe in him, giving him a 2-year deal worth a maximum of 40 million with 15 million fully guaranteed. He can earn another 5 million in per game roster bonuses in 2018 and the Cardinals have a team option for another 20 million in 2019. Even with his knee problems, it’s not hard to understand why the Cardinals are giving Bradford a chance. He’s earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in his last 4 healthy seasons, finishing 10th among quarterbacks in 2015 and 11th in 2016, and played one of the best games of his career week 1 last season, before the knee injury. He completed 27 of 32 for 346 yards and 3 touchdowns. Only going into his age 31 season, Bradford should have some good football left in him if his knee holds up and above average quarterbacks do not grow on trees.
In addition to bringing in Glennon as insurance, the Cardinals also moved up for quarterback Josh Rosen when he was sliding in the draft. Originally considered a candidate to go #1 overall, concerns about his character dropped him a little bit in a strong quarterback class. The Cardinals were picking at 15 and pounced on the chance to only have to trade a 3rd round pick to move up to 10 to grab him ahead of the Miami Dolphins.
Character issues aside, most agree he was the most NFL ready quarterback in the draft, after spending 3 seasons (30 starts) as the starting quarterback in a pro style offense at UCLA. He’ll have to compete with two experienced quarterbacks, but he is a candidate to start week 1 with a good off-season and would likely be their first option if Bradford goes down. The ideal situation for the Cardinals is Bradford staying healthy, making 16 starts, Rosen developing behind him, and then trading Bradford for a draft pick in 2019 and making Rosen the starter long-term. For 2018, the Cardinals should have better quarterback play than last season, barring a catastrophe.
Another big injury was David Johnson, their do everything feature back who went down for the season with a broken wrist week 1, after just 17 touches. In 2016, Johnson was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back. Not only did he rush for 1239 yards and 16 touchdowns on 293 carries, he also added 80 catches for 879 yards and 4 touchdowns through the air. In his absence, the Cardinals finished 31st in the NFL in yards per carry with 3.39 and no player other than Larry Fitzgerald topped 33 catches. He’s obviously a welcome re-addition.
The other big issue with Johnson missing basically all of last season is that it complicates his contract situation. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Johnson did not become the starter until the final 5 games of his rookie season. Between that and his lost 2017, Johnson is going into the final year of his rookie deal with relatively little experience (22 career starts). Committing large amounts of money to running backs is a risky proposition to begin with because of how often they get hurt, but Johnson more or less being a one-year wonder makes things even riskier. Johnson also entered the league as an older rookie, so he’ll be in his age 28 season in 2019 and may begin to break down 2 or 3 years into an extension.
The Cardinals may be able to get him to sign a below market value extension this off-season because he’s coming off of an injury, but he’s more likely to want to bet on himself because with another strong season he’ll have a strong case to be paid similarly to Le’Veon Bell, who is looking for 14-15 million annually on a long-term deal. Even a below market extension would likely have to pay him at least 10 million annually for him to even consider it. The Cardinals will have the option to franchise tag him next off-season, but the franchise tag was worth 11.866 million for running backs this year and will undoubtedly be higher next year, so that’s not exactly a financially friendly option either.
The Cardinals also don’t have much depth behind Johnson, as evidenced by their struggles running the ball without him last season. Adrian Peterson and Kerwynn Williams led the team with 129 and 120 carries respectively and averaged just 3.47 YPC and 3.55 YPC respectively. Neither are with the team anymore. The Cardinals did use a 4th round pick on a running back, taking Fordham’s Chase Edmonds. He gives them long-term insurance behind Johnson and will compete for the #2 job immediately. Their other options are Eli Penny, a 2016 undrafted free agent who averaged 4.00 YPC on 31 carries last season, after spending his rookie year on the practice squad, and TJ Logan, a 2017 5th round pick who missed his rookie year with a dislocated wrist. Penny is a bigger back at 6-2 234, while Logan is a 5-9 196 scatback. They obviously need Johnson to stay healthy.
Johnson will once again have to play a big role in the passing game because the Cardinals remain thin behind Larry Fitzgerald. JJ Nelson (29/508/2), Jaron Brown (31/477/4), and John Brown (21/299/3) were their leading wide receivers behind Fitzgerald last season and now both John and Jaron Brown are gone. Neither will really be missed, but the Cardinals still have uncertainty at the wide receiver position. JJ Nelson remains and will compete with 2017 3rd round pick Chad Williams, rookie 2nd round pick Christian Kirk, and veteran journeyman Brice Butler, who was added in free agency.
Kirk and Williams are expected to get the first shot at roles in 3-wide receiver sets, despite their lack of experience. Williams caught just 3 passes as a rookie last season, but the Cardinals still are high on his upside. They’re obviously high on Kirk’s upside as well and their competition is very underwhelming. Nelson is an undersized deep threat at 5-10 160. The 2015 5th round pick has a career 18.6 yards per catch average, but has caught just 45.7% of his targets and has just 74 catches in 3 seasons in the league. He’s nothing more than a situational deep threat. Brice Butler, meanwhile, is going into his 6th season in the league and has never had more than 21 catches in a season.
The Cardinals are obviously hoping that Larry Fitzgerald can continue being a #1 caliber receiver. That’s not a guarantee at his age, going into his age 35 season, but he hasn’t really shown much sign of decline. He doesn’t have the same burst he had in his prime, averaging just 11.0 yards per catch over the past 6 seasons, but he’s topped 100 catches in each of the past 3 seasons and has finished in the top-8 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 3 of those seasons.
A future first ballot Hall of Famer, Fitzgerald ranks 3rd all-time in both catches with 1,234 and receiving yards with 15,545 and is within striking distance of #2 all-time behind Jerry Rice in both categories.The 3rd overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, Fitzgerald has been everything you could hope for out of a high pick. He’s missed just 6 games in his entire career and has played in all 16 games in 11 of 14 seasons in the league. With a lack of other options around him, Fitzgerald should have the opportunity to catch 100 passes again in 2018, but his age is concerning. He might not quite be the same player and could opt to retire after the season when his contract expires.
The Cardinals are also thin at tight end as well. Jermaine Gresham (749 snaps) and Troy Niklas (414 snaps) were their top-2 tight ends last season, but neither did much in the passing game, posting 33/322/2 and 11/132/1 slash lines respectively. On top of that, Niklas is now with the Patriots, while Gresham is questionable for the start of the season after tearing his achilles in week 17 last season. He’ll be just 8 months removed from the injury by the start of the season.
That will give 2nd year tight end Ricky Seals-Jones an opportunity. As an undrafted rookie, Seals-Jones played just 1 snap in the Cardinals’ first 9 games, but flashed as a receiver in the final 7 games, catching 12 passes for 201 yards and 3 touchdowns on just 67 routes run. RSJ isn’t much of a blocker, but has always had upside as a receiver. He had an underwhelming college career at Texas A&M, but was a 5-star wide receiver recruit out of high school. He should have a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league and has some breakout potential. Bruce Arians’ offense never featured tight ends much in the passing game, but new head coach Steve Wilks brought Mike McCoy with him as offensive coordinator, who runs a different scheme. Sam Bradford has always liked throwing to tight ends as well.
Gresham has never been much of a receiver. He’s gotten negative grades for his pass catching from PFF in 7 of 8 seasons in the league. He hasn’t topped 500 yards in a season since 2012 and is unlikely to get better in his age 31 season, coming off of a major injury. The 6-5 260 pounder is a solid run blocker, but that’s about it. He also had a position leading 11 penalties in 2017 and finished 49th out of 72 eligible tight ends on PFF.
Behind Gresham and Seals-Jones on the depth chart, the Cardinals don’t have a single tight end who has caught a pass in the NFL and they did not use a draft pick on the position. They will have to hope they get good years from young pass catchers Chad Williams, Christian Kirk, and Ricky Seals-Jones and that Larry Fitzgerald continues playing at a high level because this is a thin receiving corps. David Johnson could easily finish as their #2 receiver again.
The Cardinals also had major injuries on the offensive line. Left guard Mike Iupati missed the final 15 games of the season with an elbow injury, while two injuries to the same knee limited left tackle DJ Humphries to just 204 snaps in 5 games. If healthy, they could form a talented left side of the offensive line for a team that had major issues on the offensive line last season. They allowed 52 sacks, 3rd highest in the NFL, and were a big part of the reason why they never got anything going on the ground. Humphries was the only Cardinal offensive lineman to earn a positive grade from Pro Football Focus.
A first round pick in 2015, Humphries is still a bit of an enigma. He didn’t play a single snap as a rookie and struggled at right tackle in 2016, but looked on his way to a breakout year in 2017 before the injury. Still only going into his age 25 season, he still has a high upside and the Cardinals showed confidence in his health by picking up his 9.6 million dollar 5th year option for 2019, which is guaranteed for injury. He could easily pick up where he left off prior to the injury, but he’s unproven for a 4th year player.
Iupati is also far from a guarantee, as he heads into his age 31 season, coming off of a lost season due to injury. He had to take a 3 million dollar pay cut down to 5 million in order to stay on the roster. He’s earned positive run blocking grades in all 8 seasons in the league and finished 13th overall at his position on PFF as recently as 2015, but his pass protection has slipped in recent years, even before the injury. Going into the final year of his contract, Iupati could be entering his final season with the Cardinals.
The Cardinals also should be better at right guard this season, after signing ex-Giant Justin Pugh in free agency. A first round pick by the Giants in 2013, Pugh played a lot of right tackle in 5 seasons with the Giants, but guard has always been his best position and that appears to be where he’ll play with the Cardinals. About a league average offensive tackle in his first 2 seasons in the league, Pugh flipped to left guard before the 2015 season and made 23 starts there between 2015 and 2016, finishing 15th and 14th respectively at his position on PFF in those 2 seasons.
In 2017, struggles at right tackle made the Giants decide to move Pugh back there and he was not the same player as he was at guard. He also struggled through a back injury that ended his season after 8 games. Still only going into his age 28 season, Pugh has obvious bounce back potential as long as he’s healthy. He did not need surgery on his back and is available for the full off-season. The Cardinals are clearly confident in him returning to 2015-2016 form, giving him a 5-year, 45.025 million dollar deal to fill a major position of need. He’s the 9th highest paid guard in the NFL.
The Cardinals still have problems at center and right tackle though. Center AQ Shipley played every single snap in 2017, but was one of the worst centers in the league, finishing 35th out of 38 eligible on PFF. Shipley was better in 2016, but prior to that he was a career backup with just 22 starts in his first 7 seasons in the league. Now going into his age 32 season, Shipley is an underwhelming starting option, but figures to remain the starter for lack of a better option. His biggest competition will be 3rd round rookie Mason Cole. Cole played more left tackle than center at the University of Michigan, but he spent 2016 at center and his lack of size and arm length make him a better fit at the pivot in the NFL. It’s possible he pushes for playing time down the stretch, but he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade.
At right tackle, the Cardinals got rid of right tackle Jared Veldheer this off-season. Veldheer made 13 starts in 2017, but he finished 58th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles and was not worth his 7 million dollar salary in his age 31 season in 2018. The Cardinals likely were going to outright release him, but they managed to get a 6th round pick from the Broncos in a trade for him. The problem is they lack an obvious replacement.
John Wetzel is their top internal option, but he’s a swing tackle at best. Wetzel has made 19 starts over the past 2 seasons, 9 at left tackle, 8 at right tackle, 1 at left guard, and 1 at right guard, but he’s struggled mightily wherever he’s played. He finished 57th out of 76 eligible offensive tackles in 2016 and then finished 80th out of 83 eligible in 2017. The Cardinals brought in veteran free agent Andre Smith, but he’s unlikely to be much of an upgrade.
Smith is plenty experienced, with 85 starts in 9 seasons in the league, but he’s gotten negative grades from PFF in each of his last 4 seasons and finished last year 60th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles on 7 starts with the Bengals. Going into his age 31 season, he’s unlikely to improve. His contract, 8 million over 2 years, suggests he has a good chance to start, but only out of desperation, as Wetzel is not a starting caliber player. Even with holes at right tackle and center, this offensive line should be significantly better in 2018.
Even though their offense was statistically a lot worse without Carson Palmer, they actually went 5-4 in the 9 games he missed, as opposed to 3-4 in the 7 games he started. That’s because their defense got significantly better as the season went on. After allowing opponents to move the chains at a 34.12% rate in the first 7 games of the season, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a mere 29.55% rate in the final 9 games of the season. That would have been the second best rate in the league last season, only behind Jacksonville, and they finished 6th in the NFL overall on the season at 31.68%.
The Cardinals were a good defensive team in 2015 and 2016, but how well they performed defensively last season was still a surprise. They lost 4 starters in free agency last off-season, most notably defensive end Calais Campbell and safety Tony Jefferson, and they also dealt with a lot of injuries on defense. One of those injured Arizona defenders was edge defender Markus Golden, who tore his ACL after 230 snaps in 4 games. A 2015 2nd round pick, Golden had 12.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits in his first season as an every down player in 2016, but he managed just 3 hits with no sacks before getting hurt last season.
The Cardinals are moving to a new defensive scheme under new head coach Steve Wilks. Bruce Arians’ defensive coordinator James Bettcher ran a base 3-4 defense, but Wilks comes from a 4-3 background with the Panthers and brings linebacker coach Mike Holcomb with him from Carolina to be his defensive coordinator. Golden played in a 4-3 defense in college, so the scheme change shouldn’t affect him negatively, but he’s a question mark coming off of the injury and the Cardinals have thus far not prioritized locking him up long-term, going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2018. Like David Johnson, Golden is also a one-year wonder coming off of a major injury.
Another reason why the Cardinals may be hesitant to lock Golden up long-term is that fellow edge rusher Chandler Jones is already locked up long-term on a big deal worth 82.5 million over 5 years that he signed last off-season after being franchise tagged. Jones was the Cardinals’ best defensive player in 2017, finishing 7th among 3-4 outside linebackers. He also finished 5th at his position in 2016 and has 64 sacks and 73 hits in 6 seasons in the league, including 17 sacks (most in the NFL) and 18 hits last season. He’s also part of reason why Golden was able to put up big numbers in 2016, as he created disruption opposite him. Going into his age 28 season, Jones is still in the prime of his career and has experience in both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses. He’s one of the highest paid defensive players in the league, but he’s worth it.
In Golden’s absence, Kareem Martin, Haason Reddick, and Josh Mauro split snaps opposite Jones, who led all 3-4 outside linebackers with 1042 snaps (all but 16 snaps). Golden is an upgrade over all of those players, but Martin and Mauro followed ex-defensive coordinator James Bettcher to the Giants as free agents, while Reddick is expected to be more of an every down linebacker in 2018 in the new scheme, which leaves them thin behind Golden and Jones.
Benson Mayowa was signed in free agency and seems likely to be the #3 defensive end. Mayowa has been mediocre as a rotational defensive end over the past 4 seasons with the Raiders and Cowboys, but earned the first positive grade of his career on 381 snaps last season in Dallas. He’d be a liability if he ever needed to start, but both Jones and Golden should be every down players, so Mayowa will probably have a limited role. Their lack of depth at the position is a concern though.
One player the Cardinals are hoping benefits from the scheme change is Robert Nkemdiche. A first round pick in 2016, Nkemdiche had obvious upside as a prospect out of the University of Mississippi, but has barely been on the field in 2 seasons, playing just 334 underwhelming snaps. Injuries have been part of it, as have concerns about his work ethic, but playing in an unfamiliar 3-4 defense after spending his college career in a 4-3 may have had something to do with it as well. Now in a 4-3 with a new coaching staff that is willing to give him a fresh start, Nkemdiche has his best chance to become a meaningful contributor.
Frostee Rucker led all Cardinal interior defensive linemen with 606 snaps last season, but he’s no longer with the team, so there are plenty of snaps up for grabs. Rucker was not bad last season, but he’s going into his age 35 season and was not retained as a free agent this off-season with a new coaching staff coming to town. Corey Peters and Olsen Pierre, who ranked 2nd and 3rd on this team in snaps by an interior defensive linemen with 441 and 351 respectively, both were better than Rucker on a per snap basis.
Peters missed 4 games with injury, but played about 55% of the snaps when he was in the lineup and should be somewhere around there again in 2018. He’ll likely be one of the starters. A 8-year veteran, Peters has made 81 starts in 98 games in his career. He’s not much of a pass rusher, but has earned a positive run stuffing grade in 4 straight healthy seasons (excluding 2015, when he missed the season with injury) and earned the first positive pass rushing grade of his career in 2017. Last season was probably the best season of his career overall, as he finished a career best 33rd among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Going into his age 30 season, Peters may not repeat his career best season in 2018, but he should still be a capable player in a defensive tackle rotation. He has experience in both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses in his career.
Pierre, meanwhile, finished last season 13th among 3-4 defensive ends, despite a limited snap count. The 2015 undrafted free agent is unproven, as last year was the first action of his career and he still didn’t play all that much, but he earned positive grades both as a run stuffer and a pass rusher and has earned a bigger role in 2018. Rodney Gunter is also in the mix, but he’s been underwhelming on 950 snaps in 3 seasons in the league (317 snaps per season), since going in the 4th round in 2015, and shouldn’t have much bigger of a role in 2018. This is not the best defensive line in the league, but they should transition to a 4-3 defense well.
As I mentioned, Haason Reddick should be more of a true linebacker in 2017, after moving to edge rusher when Markus Golden got hurt last season. That should be a good thing for him, as he managed just 2.5 sacks, 5 hits, and 9 hurries on 218 pass rush snaps last season. The 13th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Reddick played defensive end in college, but is not big enough at 6-1 235 to consistently matchup one-on-one against offensive tackles. He was originally drafted to be a true every down linebacker, only rushing the passer on 16 snaps in 3 games before the Golden injury, but, when Golden got hurt, they decided to give Reddick a shot as an edge rusher, which proved to be a mistake. He may develop into an above average blitzing linebacker, but his future is as a true linebacker, stuffing the run and dropping into coverage, two things he did reasonably well as a rookie. In a role he fits better, Reddick has obvious breakout potential in his 2nd season in the league.
Deone Bucannon should be the other every down linebacker. He’s a former first round pick as well, going 27th overall in 2014. A collegiate safety, Bucannon struggled as a rookie, but then was converted into a linebacker before his 2nd season in the league in 2015. At 6-1 211, Bucannon has predictably had issues against the run and has missed 41 tackles over the past 3 seasons, but he earned positive coverage grades in both 2015 and 2016, finishing 6th among middle linebackers in coverage grade on Pro Football Focus in both seasons.
In 2017, however, Bucannon struggled mightily, both against the run and in coverage, finishing as PFF’s 50th ranked middle linebacker out of 52 eligible. An ankle injury is likely to blame for most of that. He only missed 3 games after off-season ankle surgery, but it seemed to affect him once he returned. He especially struggled in his first 5-6 games back, before improving in the second half of the season, part of this team’s strong second half play. Assuming he’s over his issues, he should have a rebound season in 2018. The Cardinals kept him on the roster despite a 8.718 million dollar salary in the final year of his rookie deal and may seek to extend him long-term this off-season if they feel he’s all the way back.
Karlos Dansby actually led all Arizona linebackers with 920 snaps last season. He wasn’t all that bad, but was not brought back this off-season, ahead of his age 37 season. Unless Dansby is brought back, Josh Bynes figures to be the 3rd linebacker. A natural middle linebacker, he’ll likely play inside in base packages with Bucannon and Reddick outside and then come off the field for a 5th defensive back when they go to sub packages, with Bucannon and Reddick staying in. Bynes is a capable run stuffer, earning a positive run stuffing grade from PFF in 5 of the last 6 seasons, and is not completely lost in coverage either. This has the makings of a solid linebacking corps if everyone stays healthy.
Along with Marcus Golden, the Cardinals also lost talented safety Tyvon Branch for the season with a torn ACL. Branch’s season lasted a little longer and he was one of their best defensive players through the first 9 games of the season prior to the injury. He was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked safety when he went down. However, despite those injuries, the Cardinals got significantly better on defense as the season went on. I mentioned Deone Bucannon’s improvement, but the biggest reason for their defensive improvement was their secondary, which played very well down the stretch even without Branch.
Their second half surge in the secondary was led by Budda Baker and Tramon Williams. The 36th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Baker played just 40 snaps in the first 8 games of the season, but he took over as an every down player week 10 when Branch tore his ACL and was one of the best safeties in the league over that time period, finishing with PFF’s 2nd highest grade from week 10 on. Tramon Williams, meanwhile, finished 3rd among cornerbacks over that same time period. That’s pretty shocking considering he was a 34-year-old who did not sign until June and played just 6 snaps in the first 5 games of the season. He allowed just 49.2% completion for 341 yards on 63 targets on the season.
With Tyvon Branch unsigned, Budda Baker should be an every down safety in 2018 and has a very bright future, still only going into his age 22 season. He’s undersized at 5-10 195, but has 4.45 speed, a nose for the football, and does a great job of turning speed into power. He doesn’t play like his size. He can play safety or play closer to the line of scrimmage as a slot cornerback or coverage linebacker. Williams, on the other hand, signed with the Packers this off-season, which could prove to be a big loss.
The Cardinals also lost hybrid slot cornerback/safety Tyrann Mathieu this off-season. The Cardinals had Mathieu under team control through 2021, but cut him rather than pay him 11 million in 2018, despite signing him to an extension with a 15.5 million dollar signing bonus less than 2 years ago. Mathieu was PFF’s #3 ranked cornerback as a 3rd round rookie in 2013 and their #1 ranked cornerback in 2015, but both of those seasons ended with torn ACLs and he also missed 6 games with a shoulder injury in 2016.
Mathieu played all 16 games for the first time in his career in 2017, playing all but 4 snaps on defense (696 of which came as a slot cornerback), but he was not the same player he was in 2013 or 2015, finishing 45th among cornerbacks on PFF. Only going into his age 26 season, Mathieu had bounce back potential another year removed from the ACL tear, but the Cardinals did not feel he was worth his salary and let him go when he refused a pay cut. Along with Tramon Williams, he will be missed.
#1 cornerback Patrick Peterson fortunately remains. He had a bit of a down year last year, finishing 54th among cornerbacks on PFF, but he finished 5th in 2015 and 11th in 2016 and has earned positive grades in 5 of the last 6 seasons, with the lone exception coming in 2014 when he had undiagnosed diabetes. The 5th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Peterson has made 112 of 112 starts in 7 seasons in the league and is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season. He should have another strong season in 2018. If he’s at his top form, it should help offset some of the loss of Mathieu and Williams.
The Cardinals also acquired veteran cornerback Jamar Taylor from the Browns for a 2020 6th round pick. A bust of a 2nd round pick in 3 seasons with the Dolphins, Taylor developed into a capable starter in 2 seasons with the Browns, earning positive grades from PFF in both seasons. Despite that, he was let go this off-season during the Browns’ secondary re-design. He should be a capable starter opposite Peterson in 2018, though he’ll likely be a downgrade from Williams.
Slot cornerback is the big weakness. The Cardinals used a 3rd round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft on Brandon Williams, but he struggled on 240 snaps at cornerback as a rookie and then played just 1 snap on defense in 2017. Perhaps he’ll have a 3rd year leap, but he may never develop into the player the Cardinals thought he would be. The only other cornerback on the roster with NFL experience is free agent acquisition Bene Benwikere.
Benwikere showed promise as a 5th round rookie in 2014 with the Panthers, but struggled in 2015 and 2016 and was waived after one particularly bad game during the 2016 season. He then bounced around from the Dolphins to the Packers to the Bengals to the Cowboys before signing with the Cardinals this off-season. With the Cowboys, he played just 11 defensive snaps in 2017. Still only going into his age 27 season, Benwikere has theoretical upside, but is a long shot to develop into a useful player.
The only draft pick they used on a defensive back was their 6th round selection of Penn State’s Christian Campbell, so they figure to have significantly worse slot cornerback play this season with Mathieu gone. The Cardinals could still bring back Tyvon Branch, who remains unsigned. That would allow them to use more 3 safety sets and line up either Branch or Baker as a slot cornerback. However, there is no indication they are going to do that and Branch is going into his age 32 season with a huge injury history. He’s missed 44 games with injury in the past 5 seasons and is now coming back from a torn ACL. Without Branch, Rudy Ford is penciled in as the 3rd safety. He did not play a defensive snap as a 6th round rookie in 2017.
Meanwhile, Antoine Bethea is the other starting safety opposite Baker. He was not quite an every down player in 2017, entering the game in sub packages when Mathieu would move to the slot, but he still played 741 snaps and ranked 11th among safeties on PFF. Unless Branch is brought back, he’ll be an every down player in 2018 with Mathieu gone. He’s plenty experienced, with 168 starts in 12 seasons in the league, but he’s going into his age 34 season and struggled in both 2015 and 2016 before arriving in Arizona last off-season. At his age, he’s not a sure thing. As a whole, this secondary is not as good as it was to finish last season, with Williams and Mathieu gone and Bethea getting up there in age. This is still a solid unit though, led by Patrick Peterson and the emerging Budda Baker.
The Cardinals are expected by many to be one of the worst teams in the league, but I think they’ll be competitive. They were not a bad team last year, despite a terrible injury situation. This year, they get feature back David Johnson back from injury. They should have better quarterback and offensive line play. On defense, they may not be quite as good as they ended last season, but they’re still a capable unit that gets Markus Golden back from injury to give them another edge rusher opposite Defensive Player of the Year candidate Chandler Jones.
The big question mark with them is the new coaching staff. Bruce Arians was known for getting the most out of his offensive players and his defensive coordinator James Bettcher did a great job coordinating this 3-4 season over the past 3 seasons. Ex-Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks takes over as head coach and brings in Mike McCoy, an experienced offensive play caller and former head coach, to run the offense.
Wilks was only the defensive coordinator for one season in Carolina though and there may be some growing pains as they implement new schemes on both sides of the ball. Arians’ deep attack will be replaced by more of a west coast offense that features more underneath throws and the defense will switch to a 4-3 base. The NFC is tough and they play in one of the tougher divisions in football in the NFC West, so they’re probably not a playoff team, but they won’t be a weak opponent. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.
Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC West