At 7-4, the Cardinals camp is relatively happy with how this season is going thus far. With most of us having an eye on a potential play-off run for the Cards, it's smart to start thinking ahead to the 2014 season and the NFL Draft. With a lot of positions on the team needing a thorough evaluation this offseason, there are a number of key decisions to be made by the Cardinals hierarchy following the conclusion of the 2013 season.
For me, there are three main positions of 'need' for the Cardinals to address: quarterback, left tackle and outside linebacker.
Let's start with quarterback, and Carson Palmer. As I mentioned in a recent post, Palmer has actually been pretty good in the last month or so. Completing 71.4 percent of his passes for 1,266 yards and a 9-2 TD-INT ratio resulting in a four-game win streak, Palmer is playing his best football of the season. However, he still has roughly the same number of interceptions (15) as he does touchdown passes (16) on the season thus far, and I can confirm, this is not good. He is a 33-year old veteran guy who is showing signs of a serious decline in the coming years, which may have already begun. He is under contract next season with a $10 million cap hit, but the Cardinals have an 'out' option on that after this season, which is one I would certainly consider picking up, especially as it would have no cap implications on the 2014 season.
Drafting a young quarterback brings it's own growing pains for sure, but from a pure business outlook, it makes a lot of sense, does it not? Let's assume the Cardinals are drafting somewhere in that 15-22 range (barring a total collapse), a player selected in that range would typically get a four-year, $8-9 million deal, based on the contracts given to players selected in last year's draft in that range. That is a significantly lower cap hit than Palmer's would be, and you have a young up-and-comer to develop and call 'your guy'.
In terms of play, it'll have its ups and downs, but it'll be beneficial in the long term. There are dangers with taing a quarterback early though. As we have seen with Jacksonville and Blaine Gabbert, Minnesota and Christian Ponder and Tampa Bay with Josh Freeman, a first round quarterback doesn't always work out. We have seen as many prospects fail to meet expectations as we have seen those develop into future signal callers.
What is there in terms of talent? Well, we can safely assume that Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgwater will be taken early on in the draft. The consensus number two quarterback, Oregon's Marcus Mariota, is also tipped to be a top-five pick come April. So what are we left with? It really depends on who declares and who doesn't.
Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M is arguably the most talked about prospect in College football right now. The reigning Heisman trophy winner is renown for his escapability form the pocked and improvisational skills as a passer and runner, but the questions are there in regards to his maturity and ability to cope with the 'superstar' lifestyle. Really developing as a passer this season, he and wideout Mike Evans have flourished together and are both projected to be top-15 picks in the upcoming draft. Talked about in the same conversation as Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and RG3, Manziel is known for his rushing ability, and with the current wave of read-option offenses flooding the NFL, it appears there is a home for Manziel in the league, but is it in Arizona?
Fresno State's Derek Carr is rapidly rising up peoples draft boards. Proving to be a 'clutch' passer late in games, Carr is completing near 70 percent of his passes this season and shows great pocket presence and mobility whilst under pressure. He has a strong arm with good mechanics, and a direct blood-line to the NFL with his brother, David, who you may know from his stints with the Texans and Giants. Carr is pegged as a first round pick, but could go as high as the top-five. With Arians' big-play, passing offense, Carr appears to be a nice fit.
No college quarterback has improved their draft stock as much as LSU signal-caller Zach Mettenberger this season. Under the guidance of former Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, Mettenberger's overall accuracy, decision making and field vision has drastically improved. After leaving Georgia early in his collegiate career in favour of LSU, Mettenberger became starter in 2012 thanks to his natural talent as a passer. With the arm talent to make every throw, he stands tall in the pocket and has the size and frame to take hits from defensive lineman. He appears to be a near perfect fit for what Arians tries to do offensively, and is widely tipped as a first-round pick.
Other prospects: Tajh Boyd, Clemson. Brett Hundley, UCLA. Aaron Murray, Georgia.
Left tackle is a major area of concern heading into the offseason for the Cardinals. Trading away former first round pick Levi Brown to the Steelers purely to get his contract off the books was a sign that the team wanted to move on. With there being three offensive tackles taken in the top four picks of the 2013 draft, we are again blessed with a glut of talent at that position heading into the 2014 draft. The consensus one and two at the position, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan are tipped to be top-10 picks, and again out of the Cardinals' draft range.Here is the next tier or talent:
Alabama have produced a number of quality offensive lineman in recent years, including two first round picks last year in D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack, and Cyrus Kouandjio appears to be following suit. The projected first-round pick is one of the more athletic offensive tackles in this years draft class, and particularly excels in run-blocking, something the current Cardinals offensive line has not been able to do efficiently. A streaky player, with time comes consistency with Kouandjio, and is one of the premier talents from this draft class.
The hype surround Florida State right now led by Jameis Winston has captured the nations attention, but his success is largely down to the protection up front, and left tackle Cameron Erving. A raw talent, but again is widely expected to be selected in the first-round. Erving is strong both as a pass and run blocker but needs to continue working on his consistency and mechanics. Making sure he does the easy things well is key, but Erving has the raw athleticism to progress into a top-tier player at the position.
Along with Matthews and Joeckel in the 2013 draft class, Texas A&M has another tackle primed for an early round selection. Cedric Ogbuehi has played at guard early on at A&M and excelling, but kicked outside to tackle when Joeckel was drafted, where he has faired equally well in both the passing and run-game. The versatility to play across the offensive line is a very attractive trait for Ogbuehi, in addition to his athletic qualities to be efficient in protection.
Other prospects: Antonio Richardson, Miami. La'el Collins, LSU. James Hurst, North Carolina.
Despite their seventh overall ranked defense in the NFL and 29 sacks on the year, the Cardinals lack a real dynamic player at outside linebacker. John Abraham has been a nice acquisition, but he isn't getting any younger. The team needs someone to partner Sam Acho. The number one pass rushing prospect, South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, is expected to be a top-five pick, with UCLA's Anthony Barr not too far behind. So who is the next man up?
Look no further than Buffalo's Khalil Mack, who continues to rise up draft boards and is expected to be a top-20 pick in April. Mack can play well in all facets of the game: rushing the passer, playing the run and defending the pass, which is essential in the modern day NFL linebacker. Mack has an instinct, much like Tyrann Mathieu, to find the ball carrier and make a play. Of of the more dynamic edge rushers coming out in the draft, Mack would be a nice fit in the 3-4 defense in Arizona.
Clemson's Vic Beasley is another versatile defender coming out of college. Much like fourth-round draft pick Alex Okafor, Beasley can play defensive end and outside linebacker, which is beneficial for the current NFL as many teams play a hybrid of the 3-4/4-3 system. Known for his shirt-area quickness and explosive burst off the line, Beasley beats opponents early and makes plays beyond the line of scrimmage early and often.
Another player who can play in multiple positions is Stanford's Trent Murphy. The versatile defensive end/outside linebacker can rush the passer and drop back into coverage, and is an incredible athlete, returning an interception on David Fales to the house. A borderline first/second round pick in many peoples eyes, Murphy is one of the best defensive prospects in the draft.
Other prospects: Kyle Van Noy, BYU. Kareem Martin, North Carolina. Scott Crichton, Oregon State.
We all have our own opinions on the nations top prospects, so don't be afraid to express them! Use the comments section to bring up some of your favorite prospects and who the Cardinals should target come draft day. Which position do you think is the most in need of addressing this offseason?