Ever since Bruce Arians’ hubris got the better of him when he called out Jeff Fisher and the Rams for being an “8-8 team at best”, the Cardinals have become what the Rams were, and the Rams are now the toast of the NFC West.
In 2016 the Cardinals were considered one of the top Super Bowl contenders, but fumbled and bad snapped their way to a 7-8-1 record. Meanwhile the Rams in 2017 fired Jeff Fisher, hired then 31 year old Sean McVay as head coach and Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator---and now under GM Les Snead they have built a veritable All-Star team on both sides of the ball.
The main question for the Arizona Cardinals is---how can they combat the Rams, who won the NFC West last year going 11-5 and have now added the likes of CB Marcus Peters, CB Aqib Talib and DT Ndamukong Suh to their already formidable defense and to set the table for an offense that features QB Jared Goff, RB Todd Gurley, LT Andrew Whitworth, C John Sullivan, TE Gerald Everett, WR Cooper Kupp and WR Robert Woods?
The first thing that comes to mind is that the Cardinals need to get stronger up the middle. The Cardinals would like to counter-punch the Rams with a young QBOF of their own. And if there is one way to beat the Rams, it is going to be to stifle Todd Gurley in the running game and to rattle QB Jared Goff who is not very mobile and who has a tendency to throw off his back foot.
With those purposes in mind---here is a plan for the rest of free agency and a detailed plan for the 2018 NFL Draft.
Let me start with the foirst 2 picks of the draft first---because then it actually can make it clearer which free agents the Cardinals should pursue prior to the draft.
Round 1: QB
Good news. In a year where the Cardinals would like to draft their QBOF, even sitting at #15, they are going to be able to draft one of the top 6 QBs. In terms of the 4 highest ranked QBs: Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield, the Cardinals would likely have to trade up to select one of them. In a year where the Cardinals need all of the draft picks they can get, it would be tough to give up a number of their picks, but for the right QB, it might be well worth the effort.
However, at #15, the odds are very strong that Lamar Jackson and/or Mason Rudolph will be available. There is no way that 6 QBs will be off the board by the #15 pick. 4, yes. 5, maybe. But not 6.
In my way of thinking, because I like Jackson and Rudolph in many respects just as much as the top 4, I believe the Cardinals can stay at #15, hold on to all their picks, and draft Jackson or Rudolph.
Round 2: C
Getting stronger up the middle on offense, particularly against the interior of the Rams’ defensive line with Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers and Ndamukong Suh, will require a change and upgrade at center.
The great news is the Cardinals were able to get Mike Iupati to take a pay cut and were able to sign RG Justin Pugh to a 5 year deal. Now the Cardinals need a strong player in the pivot between Iupati and Pugh.
Have to love the effort and commitment A.Q. Shipley makes, but he is not athletic enough or quick enough to finish off blocks or blitz pickups. Evan Boehm is too heavy footed. Max Tuerk is too angular and not strong enough. Daniel Munyer lacks size, although he is the quickest and most athletic of the bunch, which is why I believe he could be the backup this year. Munyer can also play guard if need be, so he would be a good C/G backup.
The great news is that this draft features 4 stud center prospects: James Daniels (Iowa), Billy Price (Ohio St.), Isaiah Wynn (Georgia) and Frank Ragnow (Arkansas).
The odds are very good that at least one of those 4 will be on the board at pick #47.
Look, the Vikings took Pat Elflein on day 2 of the draft last year and he helped galvanize the Vikings’ revamped offensive line. The Eagles boast one of the best centers in the NFL in All-Pro pivotman Jason Kelce. The Cardinals need to acquire one of their own.
It might be possible to trade up in Round 2 (giving up their 2nd round pick and one of their 3rd round picks) to select Daniels or Price.
Seeing as the draft works very well for the Cardinals at these two critical positions (QB and C), it behooves the Cardinals to make key free agent acquisitions at WR, TE, CB and DL.
Thus…here are some of the top UFA choices:
WR: Jordan Matthews, Jeremy Maclin, Brice Butler, Kendall Wright, Eric Decker
TE: Brett Celek, Antonio Gates, Mercedes Lewis, Julius Thomas, Levine Toilolo
CB: Bashaud Breeland, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Delvin Breaux, Robert McClain, Marcus Williams
DE: Junior Galette, Commor Barwin, Charles Johnson, Robert Ayers, Lamarr Houston, Elvis Dumervil.
Round 3A: CB/S
What the Cardinals need is a Tyvon Branch like combo CB/S who can cover TEs and taller WRs in man coverage and who can play over the top in the nickel and dime packages as a Cover 2 free safety.
There are some very athletic combo CB/S prospects who could be on the board at pick #79. They are: Marcus Allen (Penn St.), Rashaan Gaulden (Tennessee), Tony Brown (Alabama), Isaac Yiadom (Boston College), Jeremy Bates (Wake Forest), Anthony Averett (Alabama), Armani Watts (Texas A&M), Kyzir White (West Virginia).
Round 3B: WR
At pick #97, the Cardinals have some WR prospects here with considerable upside: Anthony Miller (Memphis), Simmi Cobbs, Jr. (Indiana), Deon Cain (Clemson), Dante Pettis (Washington), Equanimeous St. Brown (Notre Dame), Michael Gallup (Colorado St.), DaeSean Hamilton (Penn St.), Tre-Quan Smith (UCF), J’Mon Moore (Missouri), Trey Quinn (SMU), Marcel Ateman (oh=klahoma St.), Cedrick Wilson (Boise St.), Daurice Fountain (Northern Iowa).
Some favorite choices from here:
Round 4: Shaquem Griffin, LB, UCF
Round 5: Tyler Conklin, TE, Central Michigan
Round 6: Ryan Nall, RB/FB/HB, Oregon St.
Round 7: Chad Kanoff, QB, Princeton
Yesterday on NFL Network, David Carr and Victor Cruz were asked whether the Seahawks were still the second best team in the NFC West. They said it’s close, but both agreed that the 49ers have passed the Seahawks. The Cardinals were never even mentioned. OK. Game on. Steve Wilks and his staff will have something to say about that. Now is the prefect time for the “revenge of the birds.”