Cardinals’ GM Steve Keim is a planner. When his starters enter their contract years, Keim often looks to the draft as an opportunity to employ a “next man up” insurance policy.
In 2015 when starting RT Bobby Massie was in his contract year, Keim used his 1st round pick on T D.J. Humphries. The plan was for Humphries to take over for Massie---although curiously in 2016 Keim made a last ditch offer in free agency to re-sign Massie who was then closing out a deal with the Bears.
Last year, Keim traded up in the second round to select S Budda Baker, which was partially in anticipation of not being able to work out a restructured deal with S Tyrann Mathieu. Keim did offer Mathieu an $8M a year contract to stay, but as we know, Mathieu declined and is now a Texan.
This year heading into the draft the Cardinals have 11 key players heading into contract years:
QB Sam Bradford (2018 Cap Hit: $10.6+ game incentives). The Cardinals have a team option in 2019 to retain Sammy Sleeves @ $20M, but essentially this is a one year prove-it deal. If Bradford has a good, healthy year, chances are pretty strong that he will remain the 2019 starter at QB. If the Cardinals do not pick up Bradford’s 2019 option, he would count $5M in dead money on next year’s cap.
RB David Johnson ($2.1M---up from $760K thanks to the proven performance escalator). As we know, this is a big year for Johnson and the Cardinals. If Johnson stays healthy and has a productive year, the Cardinals will offer him a top 3 RB contract. If negotiations are slow, the Cardinals will likely place the franchise tag on him.
LB Deone Bucannon ($8.7M). The Cardinals appear to be in a holding pattern with Bucannon. Clearly, by picking up his $8.7M 5th year option the Cardinals have elected to pay Bucannon a higher salary than what he has earned on the field in the hope that he responds with a big year, which then could open up talks on a lucrative multi-year extension.
K Phil Dawson ($3.5M). Some fans have rightly questioned whether Dawson should be retained, particularly at $3.5M following a substandard 2017 season. But, this year Dawson could be like Dominos Pizza and deliver.
WR Larry Fitzgerald ($16.9M). Despite the coaching and QB changes, Fitz decided to return and remains in heavy pursuit of becoming the 2nd leading all-time WR in yards, a goal that he should be able to attain with ease should he be healthy.
DE Marcus Golden ($1.2M). Like David Johnson , Golden was coming off a stellar season in 2016 when he was injured and placed on the IR during the early part of the 2017 campaign. Golden knows that a bounce back year is going to pique the interest of King Midas.
DT Rodney Gunter ($800K)---this would be a great time for Gunter to emerge as a key cog in the defensive line rotation, particularly if he ever wants to be viewed as a bona-fide NFL starter.
T D.J. Humphries ($2.8M). The Cardinals have yet to decide whether they are going to offer Humphries his 5th year tender. While they are still very high on his potential, question marks remain about his durability. If Keim drafts an offensive tackle with one of the top 3 picks, there’s a chance that the Cardinals will not offer Humphries his tender and thus he can qualify as a 2019 UFA.
G Mike Iupati ($6.7M). Coming off a year on the IR, Iupati agreed to a pay cut. He needs a good bounce back year to warrant the final year of his contract in 2019. If not, and the cardinals release him, he would count $1.7M in dead money on next year’s cap.
WR J.J. Nelson ($2.0M). As with David Johnson, Nelson qualified for the proven performance escalator (for 3rd-7th rounder picks who play a shade over 40% of the snaps in the first 3 years). Nelson remains a deep threat, but needs to prove that he is can be a reliable pass catcher in all areas of the field.
C A.Q. Shipley ($2.4M). Early indications are that Shipley will remain the starter at center, even though Keim drafted Evan Boehm in 2016 to be the heir apparent. As was the case with Humphries and Massie, Keim offered Shipley a contract extension last year when it would have made sense to hand the keys over to Boehm. Boehm was tried at guard instead and did not impress.
These 11 players count for $57.7M of the team’s 2018 salary cap.
With 8 draft picks, Keim is not going to be able to address every position…but let’s for a minute try to prioritize the Cardinals’ immediate and long-term needs.
While none of these players are CBs…there currently is an immediate need for a starting RCB. Steve Wilks has played rookie CBs before as he did in Carolina with James Bradberry and Daryl Worley.
Therefore, I think we can safely assume that Keim must draft a CB with one of the first three picks, most likely with pick #47, unless Denzel Ward or Minkah Fitzpatrick were surprisingly available at #15.
The hope is that Marcus Golden bounces back strong and can be re-signed to a long-term deal. But, given the uncertainty of that and the fact that there currently is very little depth at DE, the need to add two Des is high. The Cardinals have met with UFAs Connor Barwin and Benson Mayowa, but neither has been signed. Should one of them be signed prior to the draft, then the immediate need at DE is not as imminent.
Sam Bradford’s injury history makes drafting a QB one of the top priorities. But who knows? Steve Keim has great confidence in Mike Glennon. Plus, Byron Leftwich is very intrigued with Alek Torgersen, whom the Cardinals just claimed off waivers.
It is unclear at this point whether Deone Bucannon is the good fit in Wilks’ defense. There is not much depth behind Bucannon, Josh Bynes and Hasaan Reddick (although keep an eye on recently claimed LB Jeremy Cash). LB is a need---maybe not the most pressing one---but a reasonable one.
WR is a need. Adding Brice Butler and Cobi Hamilton may have slightly mitigated the urgency to draft a WR early in this draft, but what the Cardinals still lack is a speedy playmaker over the middle, which would make D.J. Moore and Christian Kirk very attractive.
RB is a need. John Gambadoro recently reported that the Cardinals are showing great interest in 4 RBs: Nick Chubb (Georgia), Sony Michel (Georgia), Kerryon Johnson (Auburn) and Mark Walton (Miami). Could Keim pick one of these RBs at #47? Chances are very strong that all of them (beside Walton) will be taken prior to pick #79.
C is a need. If Evan Boehm is no closer today to beating out Shipley, that means the Cardinals need to re-address the position. There are 4 blue chip centers in this draft: James Daniels (Iowa), Isaiah Wynn (Georgia), Billy Price (Ohio St.) and Frank Ragnow (Arkansas).
TE is a need. But with all the other pressing needs, can the Cardinals afford to draft a TE with one of the first 4 picks?
S/slot CB is a big need now that Mathieu is gone.
Plus, drafting a K is possible need, if one of the kickers Keim loves is available at a reasonable spot. He can save $3 M on the cap by releasing Dawson sand have the KOP&F on board.
So many needs…and so few picks.
This is what can happen when well over 20 free agents leave for other teams over the course of two seasons.
Thus the Cardinals’ and Steve Keim’s refrain in this draft, like the acoustic band America’s, who have “been to the desert on a horse with no name,” wrote: “ I need you, like the flower needs the rain, I need you, guess I’ll start it all again.”