Free Agency and the NFL Draft are like Christmas and your Birthday. On Christmas you get that hot new toy, or game, or the big thing you really wanted, similar to Free Agency. Whereas on your Birthday, sometimes you got a savings bong. Those take time to mature, and ultimately, if your parents love you, it blossoms into something special, similar to a raw prospect coming out of college.
To be perfectly honest, I am super proud of that analogy. But I digress.
As I mentioned last week, the Cardinals need to improve in 2016. There's a number of players that are scheduled to hit the market as of now, and many will be sought after come free agency. I came at this with the salary cap in mind, It is projected to be 154 million. which would put the Cardinals at roughly 16 million to use. Obviously that is to change with potential re-signings and cuts, but 16 million is the number I am keeping in mind as we look at possible options.
As noted in my previous article, I detailed some of our weaker positions. Center, Guard, Tackle, and Pass Rush come to mind, I used PFF's grades, as well as some fan input on a number of options I looked at. So without further ado, let General Manager Alex Mann show you some of our options.
2015 Starter(s): Lyler Sendlein, AQ Shipley
2016 Options: AQ Shipley, Alex Mack, Stefen Wisniewski, Manuel Ramirez
Shipley was the scheduled starter for 2015, but after he struggled throughout camp, Bruce Arians made the decision to re-sign the recently cut Lyle Sendlein. Lyle wound up winning the job, and played in all but one game in 2015. Shipley replaced him in that game, and David Johnson had one of the biggest games by a Cardinals runningback in franchise history. Shipley is likely the teams starter for 2016, but if they decide to see what the market may hold there are three players who could hold some value.
Alex Mack is expected to void his contract with the Cleveland Browns, and will be one of the hottest sought options. He is scheduled to make eight million this season, and up to 10 million in 2017-2018. However, he has said in the past a winning team is important to him. We have all seen how the Browns have struggled with that, and it makes sense he will hit the open market. I would see Seattle being the biggest threat to sign him, simply because they have a good amount of cap space (roughly 24 million) and they have to improve their offensive line.
Mack is the most expensive option on this list, but by far the most talented. It's unlikely Arizona uses up their 16 million to get him, but Keim has made veterans take less to come to the desert. Manuel Ramirez is the next best option. PFF graded him their fourth best center in 2015. The Lions traded for him to add depth to their offensive line, but after injuries decimated it, he was forced into the lineup. At 32, he's a cheaper option and adds versatility to the offensive line that Keim and Arians look for so often.
Lastly, a guy I have been a fan of since last season, Stefen Wisniewski. Wisniewski was rated the 19th best Center by PFF, but graded out the sixth best in the league for pass blocking. He's not been known as a run blocker, because he lacked the power even before his shoulder injury in 2014. With Arians knack for throwing the ball deep downfield, Wisniewski comes as an interesting option for Free Agency.
2015 Starter(s): Jonathan Cooper/Ted Larsen
2016 Options: Jonathan Cooper, Earl Watford, Jeff Allen, Michael Harris
Jonathan Cooper finally earned the starting job, two years after a horrendous knee injury in the third preseason game of his rookie year. Cooper graded out as the 44th Guard in 2015... Out of 81. He showed obvious signs of rust, and a knee in the middle of the season ultimately cost him his job for Larsen.
Larsen fared no better however, as he and Sendlein were beat consistently on rushes up the middle. In fact, Larsen graded out much worse than Cooper, for a rank of 72nd. Larsen is a free agent in 2016, and it seems unlikely the team re-signs him.
Earl Watford started his first two NFL games at Right Tackle, in place of the suspended Bobby Massie (Watford will show up again later). He was put on IR late in the season after hurting his hand in practice. Watford definitely has all you want in an offensive lineman. He's big (6'3, 300), and powerful. He was solid in his two starts, and will likely earn a chance to get a starting job in 2016.
Jeff Allen is another Cooper. He's often injured, but when he plays he excels. He was PFF's 10th best guard in 2015. He helped open holes for the Jamaal Charles 'less Chiefs, despite playing in only 12 games. He'll come as a relatively high reward, moderate risk player, who could be a cheaper option due to his injury past.
Michael Harris is the last option for the Guards list. He's perhaps the most average player that will be named on this list, but that's good. He was a middle of the road graded player in both pass protection and run blocking. Even an average option will help upgrade our weaker side of our offensive line.
2015 Starter(s): Earl Watford/Bobby Massie
2016 Options: Mitchell Schwartz, Earl Watford, Joesph Barksdale, DJ Humphries
As mentioned earlier, Watford started in place of Massie the first two games of 2016. His performance was to be expected. A guy who was getting his first starting role should struggle. He did, yet he performed well. He finished un-ranked by PFF simply for the lack of snaps, but graded out with an 81.4 in run blocking. His pass protection grade was a 36.5, which is to be expected for someone with no playing experience. When he returns healthy, he should be a viable option to fight for the starting role.
Mitchell Schwartz is a guard, converted to tackle. He held up well in the brutal, albeit weakened AFC North pass rushers. PFF graded him out as their sixth best tackle for 2015. He is more a pass blocker than run blocker, but his 79.0 run blocking grade still put him in the top half of the league. With Mack likely to opt out of his deal, the Browns will likely make Schwartz one of their bigger priorities.
Joseph Barksdale had no suitors in free agency in 2015. He spent two months on the market, until the Chargers signed him to a one year deal. He graded out as the 12th best pass blocking tackle, which is huge since Rivers was sacked 40 times last season. Barskdale allowed only seven on 739 drop backs. That's 10 more than Jared Veldheer played in. After a second strong year, Barksdale will likely be looking for more money than he got last season.
Another option I nearly forgot to add, was DJ Humphries. Last years first round pick was labeled a disappointment by much of the fan base, until many pointed out he was young, and needed a year to get accustomed to the NFL game. BA voiced confidence in the young player recently, saying he was confident enough to use Humphries during the second half of the season if needed. He's likely the guy to get the job.
2015 Stater(s): Alex Okafor, Dwight Freeney, Markus Golden, LaMarr Woodley
2016 Options: (Take into account that BA and Keim have said it's unlikely the pursue one in Free Agency)
Olivier Vernon, Jason Pierre-Paul, Von Miller
Okay so the three named are going to be big numbered contract players, and Arizona has enough cap space to sign a handful of guys, but they are the only three who are worth a look. Vernon had a big season, recording 7.5 stats, and graded out as PFF's #2 pass rusher, and #3 edge rusher overall. He struggles in coverage, so that would be his weakness. He recorded 11.5 sacks in his second season, before a drop off to 6.5, and ultimately his 7.5 sack campaign this past season.
Von Miller is the biggest pipe dream Cardinals fans have had since the possibility that Peyton Manning could sign in Arizona. Miller will be franchise tagged by Denver, but if for some odd reason that does not happen, Miller will draw a lot of suitors. Arizona would likely be the first team calling, which shows their need for a pass rusher. Again, unlikely, but Arizona can dream.
The last option is JPP. Pierre-Paul may likely be limited for the rest of his career, due to his horrific hand injury last season. Paul racked up 12.5 sacks in 2014. The Giants franchised him for 2015, but the hand injury limited him to only eight games and one sack. If he goes somewhere else but New York, it will likely have to be an incentive laden contract, something Keim specializes at.
That's all the guys to keep your eye on as we near Free Agency. The draft is obviously the way to go, so we shall examine that in the next few days, to see what players are options to fill some of our needs.