Look for Arizona Cardinals to address these 5 questions in NFL Draft
Arizona has had an interesting offseason.
The team also lost its best receiver from last season and the franchise’s all-time sacks leader.
Sure, there was some good news, too. New free agent acquisitions Will Hernandez should start at guard, while linebacker Nick Vigil should at the very least provide depth at inside linebacker.
And there were a few “boom or bust” moves. Does re-signed receiver A.J. Green have anything left in the tank? And can new cornerback Jeff Gladney regain the form that made him a 2020 first-round pick before legal troubles cost him?
That was just the lead-up to the draft.
Arizona has eight picks in the draft, including three of the top 90 picks. However, after the Cardinals’ pick at No. 87 overall in the third round, the team doesn’t pick again until No. 202. Overall, five of Arizona’s picks are in the sixth (two) or seventh (three) rounds.
Do the Cardinals have enough draft ammunition to become Super Bowl contenders? Here are five questions the team should address in the draft.
1) Does Arizona need another starting defensive lineman?
While the Cardinals lost Chandler Jones, J.J. Watt is still very much in the plans. Cards Wire’s Jess Root speculated recently that Watt could be used inside in the team’s 3-4 base front and on the edge in sub-packages, where he would pair with Markus Golden.
But what happens to the rest of the line in those sub-packages?
Zach Allen, a 2019 third-round pick out of Boston College, starts at one defensive end spot, while 2020 fourth-rounder Rashard Lawrence of LSU starts at nose tackle.
The backup defensive ends are Michael Dogbe, taken in the seventh-round out of Temple in 2019, and Leki Fotu of Utah, a 2020 fourth-rounder who can play either DL spot. Collectively, those two combined for 1 sack, but don’t let those numbers fool you. Instead, the only two numbers that should count are 635 and 20. The latter is the number of combined snaps Dogbe and Fotu logged on defense last season, which says they play a valuable role for this team. But the former was Arizona’s ranking last season in rushing yards allowed.
In other words, defensive line is a position that could be addressed in the draft.
Purdue’s George Karlaftis is a player often linked to the Cardinals. The 6-foot-4, 266-pound junior might be a tad light as a defensive end in Arizona’s 3-4 defense, so he’d likely play opposite of Golden at OLB. However, that would likely keep Watt on the inside, where the wear-and-tear of the position could be troublesome, as the 33-year-old has played in every game just twice in the past six seasons.
However, both come with question marks. Davis hasn’t logged a lot of snaps during his time with the Bulldogs, partially because of his conditioning but also because of Georgia’s depth along the line. His teammate, Wyatt, is generally seen as a first-rounder but character concerns could knock him down a round.
2) Are the Cardinals satisfied with their offensive line?
Arizona has a veteran offensive line.
The newcomer is UTEP right guard Will Hernandez, drafted in the second-round in 2018 by the New York Giants. Three of the other starters also got their starts for other teams: LG Justin Pugh, center Rodney Hudson and RT Kelvin Beachum. The lone home-grown talent is left tackle D.J. Humphries, a 2015 first-round pick out of Florida.
Collectively, Arizona’s offensive line ranked No. 15 overall by Pro Football Focus.
The weakest link along the OL, Josh Jones, was replaced in the starting lineup in the offseason by Hernandez.
But Pugh, Hudson and Beachum are all on the wrong-side of 30, without many great options behind them.
It would be hard to pass up on a player like Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning if he were to fall to Arizona at pick No. 23 overall. Another player who makes sense for the Cardinals is Texas A&M’s versatile lineman Kenyon Green, who literally played every OL position last season except for center. He’s a natural left guard who can fill in at tackle if needed.
3) Should the team really take a WR in the first round?
So, even if one of the veterans misses time next season, taking a receiver on Day 1 seems more like a luxury than a need.
However, chances are good that one of the top receivers is still available at No. 24 overall. What if a player like USC’s Drake Jackson or Alabama’s Jameson Williams falls to the Cardinals? It’s hard to imagine Arizona passing on either receiver.
What happens if the soon-to-be 30-year-old Hopkins or the 33-year-old Green can’t hold up for a full season?
And do you really want Moore handling return duties full-time if he’s a starter on offense?
Drafting Williams, who is still recovering from an ACL tear suffered in the title game loss to Georgia, would give the team options, as Williams is also seen as a potential elite returner. Any other receiver drafted in the first would presumably bump Moore down to the fourth receiver and full-time returner.
Another option would be to draft a player like Memphis’ Calvin Austin III in the third round. Austin, like Moore, is a relatively small (5-foot-8, 170-pounds) but explosive playmaker who could return punts or kicks. He ran a 4.32-second 40 at the Combine but will likely fall in the draft due to his size.
4) Is Arizona comfortable with its secondary?
Byron Murphy, a second-round pick in 2019 out of Washington, will start at one outside corner position. But the other starting outside corner position remains a bit of a wildcard, as 2021 fourth-rounder Marco Wilson had an up-and-down rookie year. Wilson led all Cardinals rookies in snaps with 748 on defense, but he also allowed a 70.3 percent completion percentage and gave up the ninth-most TDs in the league at 6. He also had a 120.8 opposing passer rating.
And then there’s Gladney, the No. 31 overall pick in 2020 by Minnesota. He’ll likely get a shot at the starting slot corner position, but no one really knows what to expect after he missed all of last season.
Arizona doesn’t have those types of questions at safety.
All-pro safety Budda Baker received the second-most defensive snaps on the team last season (1,037) and remains one of the best in the game. Arizona’s other starting safety, Jalen Thompson, a fifth-round pick in the 2019 supplemental draft, led the team in tackles (121) and was fourth on the defense in snaps (987).
However, it’s anyone’s guess as to who would start should Baker or Thompson get hurt. Deionte Thompson, a 2019 fifth-rounder out of Alabama, finished a distant third in snap count among the safeties with 71, and 2021 seventh-rounder James Wiggins of Cincinnati saw even less time on the field.
Therefore, it’s not out of the question for Arizona to add another safety in the draft, likely with one of its final picks.
The ideal situation would be for Arizona to draft a cornerback who can play either outside or inside.
That way, if Gladney doesn’t pan out, the Cardinals would still have options on the inside.
Roger McCreary of Auburn would seem to fit the mold. He’s a 5-foot-11, 190-pound senior who played on the outside as a press-man corner for the Tigers but who projects as a slot corner at the next level due to his arm length.
At safety, Arizona probably doesn’t need to address the position until the sixth or seventh rounds. Players like Auburn’s Smoke Monday, UCLA’s Quentin Lake and Texas A&M’s Leon O’Neal are among a solid group of late Day 3 safeties who would give the Cardinals more depth while contributing immediately on special teams.
5) Why not take a running back?
There likely won’t be a running back (or a tight end) drafted in the first round.
James Connor signed a three-year, $21 million contract last season after spending his first four years in Pittsburgh, then led Arizona with 752 yards and 15 touchdowns. However, his 3.7-yards-per-carry average was tied for the third-worst in the league.
Rachaad White of Arizona State might be an option if he can make it to the sixth round.
Otherwise, there are always running backs in the back half of the draft to rookie free agency. Regardless of the round, it will be hard to find an RB that can duplicate Connor’s 15 TDs last season, so any runner taken on Day 3 will likely have to compete with Eno Benjamin for playing time, with the runner-up potentially headed to the practice squad.
Which direction will Arizona go in the first round? Find out in Fanspeak’s latest Cardinals mock draft.
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