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Roster Decisions: Factoring The Future

NFL: Arizona Cardinals-Minicamp Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I am always fascinated with how head coaches and GMs determine the 53 man roster. Living within 2 miles of Gillette Stadium, I have long studied the way Bill Belichick and the Patriots make their roster decisions. One of the reasons why the Patriots are a championship caliber team year after year (other than QB Tom Brady) is that they always factor the future into their drafts and roster decisions.

The way to start the process is to write down the number of current players who are in the last year of their contracts in order to determine how many of them will likely be playing somewhere else next season.

In the Cardinals’ case this year:

RB David Johnson

WRs Larry Fitzgerald, J.J. Nelson

G Mike iupati

C A.Q. Shipley

FB Derrick Coleman

DE Markus Golden, Benson Mayowa, Arthur Moats, Jacquis Smith, Cap Capi

LB Deone Bucannon

CB Bene Benwikere

S Tre’ Boston

K Phil Dawson

Who are the potential core players on this list?

RB David Johnson (potential franchise tag)

WR Larry Fitzgerald (has said he would only play in Arizona)

DE Markus Golden (has to have a strong bounce back year)

LB Deone Bucannon (has to prove he was worthy of the $8.7M 5th year option)

S Tre’ Boston (has to prove he is worthy of a long-term contract)

  • Most likely every other player on this list will be playing somewhere else next season. The question is—-do the Cardinals have comparable younger players on the roster whim the team can control contract-wise for 3-4 more years?

Let’s take a look:

WR J.J. Nelson—-Trent Sherfield

G Mike Iupati—-no younger player comparable

C A.Q. Shipley—-Mason Cole

DE Markus Golden—-no younger player comparable

LB Deone Bucannon—-perhaps Jeremy Cash; Chris Gardeck

CB Bene Benwikere—-Chris Campbell; Deatrich Nichols

S Tre’ Boston—-perhaps Rudy Ford

K Phil Dawson—-Matthew McCrane

Yesterday, I proposed trading WR J.J. Nelson, QB Mike Glennon and K Phil Dawson. The thought of being able to have Trent Sherfield, Charles Kanoff and Matthew McCrane under contract for the next 4 years was a driving force.

  • Sherfield is a stronger all-around receiver, blocker and STs player than Nelson and he is almost as fast. He’s a better system fit in Mike McCoy’s Patriots’-style offense and Jeff Rogers’ physical style of special teams.
  • Having the tandem of Josh Rosen and Charles Kanoff for the next 4 years is a potential roster bonanza, talent-wise and cap-wise. The Cardinals have a 2019 option on Sam Bradford, as well. And who knows? Maybe Bradford likes it so much in Arizona that he stays at a reduced salary to be Rosen’s backup for a few years. He already said he’s like to finish his career in Arizona.
  • Having a talented young kicker like the Eagles have in Jake Elliott for the next 4 years (and more) in Matthew McCrane (whom I believe has better leg strength and accuracy than Elliot) would now solidify the kicking game for the next several years, with P Andy Lee already signed to an extension. Yesterday in practice while Phil Dawson had the day off, McCrane made 24/25 FG attempts, 7/8 in the team portion. He converted one from 55 yards.

In recent years, the Cardinals have been doing a stronger job of drafting the heir-apparents to veteran players who were and are likely to move on. Cases in point: QB Josh Rosen (Palmer, Bradford), RB Chase Edmonds (K. Williams), C Mason Cole (Shipley), Ts Will Holden/Korey Cunningham (A. Smith), DT Robert Nkemdiche (Campbell), LB Haason Reddick (Dansby), CB Chris Campbell (J. Taylor), S Budda Baker (Mathieu).

Trying to stay ahead of the roster is exactly what the perennial winners like the Patriots and Steelers do. And what the Pats and Steelers are often willing and eager to do is play their rookies as early as game one.

For example, one of the players the Patriots drafted in the Chandler Jones deal was G Joe Thuney of North Carolina St. Thuney was inserted as a rookie at LG and has started every game his first two years, including starts in the last two AFC Championship games and Super Bowls.

The bottom line is—-if you can get younger and more cap-friendly at a position without a major drop-off in production—-you are probably wise to do it—-especially if you can get trade value for the veteran players you are replacing.