The Cardinals’ Pro Bowl CB Patrick Peterson has apologized to the fans for requesting a trade last season and has avowed, “Arizona, I am here to stay.”
Peterson has a great deal to be happy about these days. The Cardinals’ defense, now in the hands of Vance Joseph, is going to back to its bread and butter pressure defense, which means that much of the time, Peterson will be back to shadowing the opponent’s #1 WR.
To Peterson’s credit, he graded well in 2018 despite playing in a defensive system that did not maximize his strengths. For a while, Peterson showed a slightly keener interest in offering run and screen support, although that waned noticeably once he asked for his trade.
I have been saying this for many years now—-if Peterson starts balling in all aspects of his job, the Cardinals’ defense is going to climb to the upper echelon. Balling is contagious; but then again so is shying away. And double standards can erode the morale of a football team. Was it pure coincidence in 2017 that both Deone Bucannon and Tyrann Mathieu started shying away from tackles they would normally make? How and why did they think they could get away with that?
Or—-there is one other way for the Cardinals to avoid the perception of double standards and that is for the coaches to tell the players that they want to treat Peterson like the QB of the defense. They do not want to risk getting him injured, so that means everyone else has to have his back and beat him to tackles. This is an unorthodox approach, but getting it out in the open eliminates any ambiguities and it highlights expectations.
Peterson is also happy about the fact that for the first time in years, the Cardinals have signed a free agent #2 CB early in the off-season. In adding Robert Alford, the Cardinals now boast two of the fastest CBs in the NFL. Alford was hampered by a high ankle sprain last year and that’s like playing on a flat tire. Alford has shined in other years, as he did running back a pick six versus Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. He tends to get a little too handsy at times, so he is going to have to keep his coverage clean. It will help that he will be assigned to the #2 WR.
On the current roster, the Cardinals have the following depth at CB:
Brandon Williams—-heads into his contract year still underdeveloped as a CB, but is a solid contributor as a gunner on STs.
David Amerson—-brings size and average cover ability, but is not particularly flexible or physical.
Deatrich Nichols—-has perhaps the greater chance to make the 2019 roster because he’s more aggressive than Williams and Amerson and he can play the slot.
Because their depth is thin at CB, the Cardinals are not finished adding to the position. Ideally they need to add a slot CB and the first free agent to come to mind is Alford’s teammate with the Falcons, Brian Poole (61.7 PFF).
Three other mid-range free agents who may draw the Cardinals’ attention are Bradley Roby (Broncos, 59.8 PFF), Darqueze Dennard (Bengals, 68.2 PFF) and Buster Skrine (Jets, 57.3 PFF). Roby’s connection to Vance Joseph, Marcus Robertson and Greg Williams could be a strong selling point.
Mike Clay currently grades the Cardinals’ CB unit as an 8...and it would be higher if there was an obvious #3 CB who could play outside or in the slot.
With the switch back to the 34, Budda Baker now becomes the full-time strong safety. Playing him in the box, maximizes his unique talents. Baker can double as a slot CB in the nickel, but preferably the Cardinals will add a slot CB via free agency or the draft. That would allow Baker to blitz more and to stick to covering TEs and RBs.
The return of D.J. Swearinger to free safety comes at a time when the Cardinals need to rediscover their mojo as a defense. Swearinger commands the attention of any WR or TE who tries to catch a ball over the middle. His leadership can help turn this defense into one of the most feared defenses in the NFL. Swearinger is a swizzle stick who takes the romance out of the skinny post. And if you are not doing your job, he tells you about it.
As for safety depth, the Cardinals have Antoine Bethea, who remains one of the best tacklers on the team, but who also is making starter’s money and thus might be asked to take a pay cut. Some wonder if Bethea is contemplating retirement.
Rudy Ford brings speed and aggression, but thus far looks raw in his understanding of coverage and pursuit angles. Zeke Turner is a top tackler on STs who brings length and bang to the SS position. And 2018 UCFA Jonathan Owens was drawing praise from last year’s coaches before he landed on the IR.
I think the Cardinals would like to bring back Tre Boston (74.1 PFF) to be one of their nickel safeties. Last year the free agent market for safeties was surprisingly slow and that could be the case again this year, which could allow the Cardinals to make a deal with Boston. Boston is well liked in the locker room. In fact, Larry Fitzgerald thinks Boston is one of the more engaging and hilarious teammates he’s had in recent years. Boston battled through some injuries, but he showed toughness and grit in run support and middle/deep safety coverage.
Two free agent safeties who might be of interest to the Cardinals are FS George Iloka (Vikings, 68.0 PFF) and SS Jordan Richards (Falcons, 65.2 PFF).
Mike Clay gives the Cardinals a 9 grade at safety, molto bene!
On Day 3 of the draft, the Cardinals will likely select at least one defensive back and possibly two. A few of the prospects who would seem to fit the Vance Joseph style of defense are S Will Harris (Boston College), S Andrew Wingard (Wyoming), CB Isaiah Johnson (Houston), S Darnell Savage (Maryland), CB Michael Jackson (Miami), CB Justin Layne (Michigan St.), CB Montre Hartage (Northwestern), CB Myles Bryant (Washington) and S Mike Bell (Fresno St.).
Please mention any free agents or draft prospects whom I missed and are ones you like. This is a ROTB team effort. The discussions have been excellent, thanks to all of you.