The NFL draft is one of the sport's most difficult things to predict, grade or even quantify at times, but any way that you look at the Arizona Cardinals 2008 class, they've been a resounding success. Entering their second seasons as professionals, there are two guaranteed starters, with the possibility of a third, and a couple others should play significant roles as reserves. So why were the Cardinals so successful last April? Was it luck or an ingenuous draft philosophy?
Obviously a large part of the draft process is speculation based on an ugly word called potential but assuming it wasn't just luck that brought the Cardinals a very good draft class in 2008, could it have been a thought process based on the teams 'future' needs? Head ball coach Ken Whisenhunt said they approached the 2008 draft with a 'best player avaliable' approach but I wonder if it was a bit more than that. Their approach in April of 2008 seemed to fill needs on the roster before they were actually needs (ok, are you confused as I am right now). For example, it's possible that the coaching staff and front office didn't expect much from Eric Green going into the season and understood that he was a free agent after the season. Those two factors might have led the Cardinals brass to put corner back as their primary need heading into the draft. With the same thought process, it's possible that they assumed that Antonio Smith would play himself out of the Cardinals budget in his final year under contract, meaning that they'd have to draft a player capable of starting in his second season. These two possible scenerios led to the drafting of Dominique Rodgers Cromartie and Calais Campbell. Similar arguments could have been made with the contract situations of Edgerrin James and Anquan Boldin, leading to the selections of Tim Hightower and Early Doucet. Hopefully the argument I'm trying to make it a bit more clear now. With this (possibly flawed) logic in place, could the Cardinals employ a similar strategy in this upcoming draft and if so, what would be the biggest needs?
When we identified the Cardinals biggest needs heading into the off season, running back and outside linebackers topped the list with corner back and offensive line coming in a distant third and fourth, respectively. The Cardinals have obviously filled the need at corner with the signing of Bryant McFadden so we'll assume that the corner position drops at least a couple of rungs on the 'need ladder' for now. Lets take a look at the other top needs and a few other positions that we might have over looked:
Running Back: The Cardinals currently have three backs under contract but every time Edgerrin James' phone rings he's praying that Rod Graves is on the other end with news that he's been released. He's got one foot and his heart out the door but Tim Hightower is still under the franchise's for another three years and Jason Wright signed a two year deal less than a month ago. While it's possible the team could roll into the 2009 season with these three on the depth chart, it's almost a guarantee that they'll use a pick, preferably in the early rounds, on a running back. If all else fails and Edge is a part of the 2009 squad, they'll need a back to step into a significant role in 2010.
Outside Linebacker: With four warm bodies filling two positions, the Cardinals seem to have solid depth on the outside but two of the four (Okeafor and Berry) will be free agents next year and Travis LaBoy is the only one under the age of 32. The Cardinals must infuse this position with some youth and I'd expect at least one draft pick to fit this role with the possibly of a second pick. An undrafted free agent to sit on the practice squad for a year wouldn't be a big surprise either.
Offensive Line: The Cardinals offensive line might be the most dividing force among fans. Some feel the unit is one more season away from greatness while others feel that both tackles should be guards, both guards are backups and the center is just an undersized weakling. The truth more likely is somewhere in the between and considering that three starters are still 25 years old or younger, there is still quite a bit of room to grow and develop. That doesn't necessarily mean that the offensive line should be forgotten about this April though. Mike Gandy, Deuce Lutui and Elton Brown (two starters and top backup) will all be unrestricted free agents after this season and Lyle Sendlien and Elliot Vallejo will be restricted free agents. With so much possible turnover, it seems unlikely that the offensive line won't be addressed with at last one pick.
Tight End: We've certainly spent some time talking about the tight end position over the past year and even discussed the possibility of Brandon Pettigrew falling to the 31st pick in the first round. Regardless of your feeling about our current 'full hand' of tight ends, it's worth knowing that all five will be some form of free agent after the 2009 season. Leonard Pope, Stephen Spach and Anthony Becht will be unrestricted free agents and Ben Patrick and Alex Shor will be restricted free agents. Considering the history of those five (both injuries and flat out ineffectiveness), a draft pick on a tight end wouldn't be a surprise at all.
Nose Tackle: The big uglies in the center of the defense is a position that we haven't addressed much this off season because they appear solid with Gabe Watson as the starter, Alan Branch as the underachieving backup and Bryan Robinson as the emergency fill-in. Before we all get too comfortable though it's worth mentioning that Watson and Robison are free agents after this season and the idea of relying on Branch in 2010 is a.....umm.....less than promising idea. While I can't see using an early round pick on a big gap plugger, a middle round pick on a wide bodied nose tackle wouldn't be terrible idea.
Other possibilities depending on contract situations: It pains me to say it but if nothing changes between now and next February (not likely but I'm just saying), the Cardinals could be on the verge of losing their two defensive leaders. Both Karlos Dansby and Adrian Wilson stand to be free agents after this season and even though the front office is said to be committed to both players, no progress has been made to this point. Losing one or both players would leave a significant gap in a defense that would seriously lack veteran leadership without A-dub or Dansby.
So that a pretty convoluted way of looking at the upcoming draft but maybe it sheds some light on some positions that we might have overlooked, namely nose tackle. While it still very possible that the Cardinals could retain Gabe Watson, the possibility, ever slight it may be, of entering the 2010 season with Branch and a rookie might scare the front office enough into using a pick on a nose tackle. What other positions could we be overlooking? Does any of this change the order of needs in your mind?