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Arizona Cardinals Free Agency Primer: Defense

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Looking at the free agents on the defensive side of the football for the Arizona Cardinals.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

On paper, the Cardinals’ defense already has a number of key palyers and some respectable depth. It has been reported that the Cardinals would like to re-sign CB Tramon Williams, LB Josh Bynes and DE Kareem Martin. All three players appear to fit the mold of Steve Wilks’ defense. Williams is a physical zone CB, Bynes is an athletic playmaker at LB and Martin is a solid run stuffing 43 type DE.

Should those three signings occur, the Cardinals could address the depth at LB, CB and DE in the upcoming NFL Draft.

However, the Cardinals are facing two rather significant salary cap decisions regarding the contracts of DB Tyrann Mathieu and LB Deone Bucannon. If the Cardinals elect to pay both of them what they are scheduled to make this season, they would count $23M versus the cap. That’s roughly 13% of the $177M allotment.

Compounding the matter is the questions of just how well Mathieu and Bucannon fit in Steve Wilks’ defense. Wilks doesn’t start 3 safeties the way James Bettcher did, and thus with Budda Baker and Antoine Bethea the starters at SS and FS, Mathieu would be on the field 67% of the time as the team’s nickel CB. Does that role justify a 2018 cap figure north of $14M?

As for Bucannon, LBC Larry Foote has said that Bucannon will be the leader of the defense and will be give the green dot and in-helmet transmitter. But, where does Bucannon play and should he be a 3 down LB? If Wilks is playing his version of the 43, which role does Bucannon most naturally fit----Shaq Thompson’s, Luke Keuchly’s or Thomas Davis’? Is Bucannon stout enough to play the middle, and is he fast or sticky enough to excel in pass coverage on the perimeter? Thus, paying Bucannon $8.7M in light of such uncertainty would appear to be a gamble. Furthermore, how can the Cardinals sign him to a long-term deal, if they aren’t certain how he fits in the new scheme?

If the Cardinals re-sign Josh Bynes, perhaps he could play the middle. A strong argument can be made that Bynes was the most aggressive and rangy ILB the Cardinals had last year.

Thus, let’s start at LB and see what options the Cardinals might have in free agency:

Option A: Nigel Bradham (Eagles)---a superb fit for Thomas Davis’ role. Haason Reddick is tailor made for Shaq Thompson’s role. Now we need a MLB.

Option B: Trade for ILM Mychal Kendricks (Eagles)---3 down MLB with range and pass coverage smarts.

Option C: Tahir Whitehead (Lions)---coming off a 110 tackle season for Lions, Whitehead is versatile and has recently improved in pass coverage, Could play inside, but might be best on the outside.

Option D: Jon Bostic (Colts)---if the Cardinals can’t trade for Kendricks, ILB Bostic is coming off a team leading 97 tackles season with the Colts. He would have to pass his physical as he injured his knee in Week 15.

Other UFA LB options with ties to Cardinals’ coaches: Todd Davis (Broncos), Avery Williamson (Titans), Christian Jones (Bears).

Sleeper: Corey Nelson (Broncos)---excels in pass coverage.

DT:

The Cardinals have depth and talent at DT with the quintet of Corey Peters, Robert Nkemdiche, Olsen Pierre, Rodney Gunter and Xavier Williams. Given Wilks’ style of defense, a strong, quick penetrator like Pasoni Tasini could make a 2nd year splash.

If the Cardinals want to add a UFA to the mix at DT, here are three possibilities:

Option A: Star Lotulelei (Panthers)---big, strong run stuffer who has yet to maximize his talent, but might have a price tag---which would require a back-loaded contract.

Option B: Jay Bromley (Giants)---quick motored disrupter who could be a very good rotation player.

Option C: Tenny Palepoi (Chargers)---spark plug, well known by OC Mike McCoy and DLC Don Johnson.

DE:

While Chandler Jones is a fit at 43 DE in Wilks’ defense, the question is whether Markus Golden is a fit on the other side. In the 4 man rush on passing downs, Golden is golden. But, in a base 43? This is why the Cardinals would like to re-sign Kareem Martin for depth and possibly to play on running downs. Josh Mauro is another 43 DE fit, but the Cardinals have to decide whether his $3.2M cap figure is warranted. If the Cardinals want to explore other DE options, here a few:

Option A: Mitch Unrein (Bears)---Unrein brings the physicality that Wilks covets. And he can be used as an interior pass rusher in the nickel.

Option B: DaQuan Jones (Titans)---earned an 80.8 PFF grade this past season and has is emerging as a productive defender.

Option C: Charles Johnson (Panthers)---coming off a so-so season, but could be hungry accept a prove-it deal to earn himself a new contract in 2019 by virtue of a big bounce-back year in a defense he knows.

Sleeper: Devon Kennard (Giants)---coming off a 41 tackle, 4 sack season with the Giants and might come highly recommended by David Merritt.

CB:

Steve Wilks likes size, speed and physicality in his CBs. Patrick Peterson could take his game to a whole new stratosphere under Wilks, as Josh Norman tweeted when Wilks was hired. The Cardinals want to re-sign Tramon Williams and would like to see Wilks and Merritt develop Lou Young, C.J. Goodwin, Brandon Williams and Ronald Zamort. If the Cardinals are unable to re-sign Tramon Williams or want to add another CB, then here a quartet of options:

Option A: Ross Cockrell (Giants)---Cockrell was one of the lone bright spots at CB for the Giants last year, earning an 81.6 PFF grade. He posted 50 tackles, 3 interceptions and 11 pass breakups. It wouldn’t be a surprise if David Merritt has been pushing for the Cardinals to make signing Cockrell a priority.

Option B: Bashaud Breeland (Redskins)---one of the more physical CBs on the market, Breeland registered 50 tackles and 1 interception last year.

Option C: Rashaan Melvin (Colts)---Melvin is coming off one of his best seasons (36 tackles, 3 interceptions). He’s 6-2, 194 and appears to be coming into his prime at 28.

Option D: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Giants)---would be fascinating to know what David Merritt thinks of DRC. In recent years, DRC has become much more physical at CB and has always relished making splash plays. Could a return to Arizona rejuvenate him?

Sleepers: Sherrick McManis (Bears)---STs ace under Jeff Rodgers. Darryl Harris (Giants)---versatile DB who can play in the slot and thrive on STs.

S:

The question here is depth, particularly if the Cardinals release Tyrann Mathieu. If they hang on to Mathieu (sure hope they do), then what the Cardinals need is another Cover 2 FS who can provide range and playmaking ability at the top of Wilks’ zones. Rudy Ford has the speed, but it’s not clear just yet whether he has the instincts to play deep safety. He might be more of a nickel CB.

The Cardinals might surprise here---and if they do, there is one safety they have long liked---Eric Reid (49ers). At 6-1. 213, Reid is an imposing player. He has the size and speed to cover TEs and bigger WRs. A change of scenery could do him well.

Another intriguing option could be Tre’ Boston (Chargers)---who struggled to get his feet under him with the Panthers, but came into his own with the Chargers this past season, earning an 81.4 PFF grade. If David Merritt gets his hands on Boston, he could be a prized addition.

Other UFA safeties with ties to Cardinals’ coaches: Tyvon Branch (Cardinals), Jarius Byrd (Panthers), Quintin Demps (Bears), Nat Berhe (Giants).

P/LS:

The Cardinals are ready to go with punter Andy Lee (picked up option) and long snapper Aaron Brewer (signed to 4 year contract) at LS. Good to see the Cardinals address the STs before the start of what could be a zany few weeks of free agency.