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Target practice: A tier-by-tier analysis of potential Cardinals free agent signings

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With the official start of free agency just around the corner, let’s take a look at how GM Steve Keim might approach the different tiers of free agents.

Cincinnati Bengals v Los Angeles Chargers
The Cardinals have a need at WR. Could Tyrell Williams be a free agent fit?
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

With the league year set to start on March 13, free agency chatter will be building steadily for the next three weeks or so. MMQB added to the buzz earlier this week when they released their list of the top 100 NFL free agents.

Although the Redbirds have already added a few players (Robert Alford, Brooks Reed, Charles Clay), GM Steve Keim is far from done with this free agent class, especially given the team’s many needs—O-line, D-Line, LB, WR. With that in mind, let’s go through the MMQB list and see which players he could be targeting.

Note: While it’s easy to say we should try to sign all the top players—Jadeveon Clowney! C.J. Mosley! Nick Foles! (kidding)—that’s not how free agency works. Rather, I’ll pick one player from each tier who would be a good target—one from the top 20, one from the top 40, etc. For fun, I’ll list a secondary target in each tier as well.

Let’s start with the top tier of free agents. (The number in parentheses is the player’s rank on the MMQB list.)

Target #1: WR Tyrell Williams (#17)

The majority of the top free agents this season are defensive players. Our defense did underperform in 2018, but there is still a lot of talent here, and we’ll trust that Vance Joseph can get the unit playing at a high level again in 2019. No need to break the bank on defense (although we will address it later).

Instead, our top priority in free agency should be surrounding Josh Rosen with more talent. After rookie Christian Kirk went down last season, the WR corps was a joke around Larry Fitzgerald—especially outside. Enter Tyrell Williams, who’s 6’4”, has a 1,000-yard season on his resume, and has a career 16.3 YPC. And he’s just 27. He won’t come cheap—ESPN’s Bill Barnwell has him in the 4 year/$50M range—but we need a receiver who can step in and draw coverage now, not a rookie or an older, slower free agent, so the money would be well spent. Time to make a splash, Keim.

Secondary Target: G Roger Saffold (#20). Not as young as you’d like at 30, but we need to stabilize the middle of the O-line badly, and Saffold is the top guard on the market. (What about Mosley at LB? I’d rather not sink top FA dollars into a LB.)

Target #2: OT Trent Brown (#26)

Although guard is arguably our biggest O-line need, we need help along the entire line. Brown is the best tackle available and can play on either side—important given that D.J. Humphries’s future with the team is still somewhat up in the air. (I think he’ll be back for his fifth season.) The last time Keim spent money on a top OT, it worked out pretty well. Let’s see if he can do it again.

Secondary Target: OT Donovan Smith (#29). If we miss out on Brown, Smith is the next-best option at tackle—and he’s a year younger than Brown. Rosen’s protection simply has to be better in 2019, and Joe Barksdale, Korey Cunningham, and John Wetzel aren’t going to cut it at starting tackle. (Most of the rest of the players in this tier are either going to be pricey or aren’t at positions of need.)

Target #3: G Quinton Spain (#54)

Spain is the second-ranked free agent guard and would be a massive upgrade over anyone on the current roster, including last year’s free agent signing, Justin Pugh. Improved guard play would allow Rosen to step up in the pocket more and would make C Mason Cole’s job easier as well. Spain would be a nice get, but there are several guards in this general range who we should be looking at as well (Jamon Brown, James Carpenter, A.J. Cann).

Secondary Target: LB Jordan Hicks (#51). Hicks should be enough cheaper than Mosley to make up for the (smaller than you think) talent disparity. Although the Eagles play a 4-3, Joseph, who has coached both 4-3 and 3-4, should be able to plug him into the middle of our defense without any issues.

Target #4: DL Henry Anderson (#70)

With the switch back to a 3-4 under Joseph, the team is suddenly thin at 3-4 DE. Anderson had a breakout year for the Jets there in 2018, racking up 7 sacks and holding up well against the run. At 6’6”, 300 lbs, Anderson can also play inside and would add some much-needed beef to the front seven—especially if UFA Rodney Gunter (#62 on this list) walks.

Secondary Target: WR Jermaine Kearse (#64). Another former Jet, Kearse would be a solid fallback option if we miss out on Tyrell Williams. He can play outside with his 6’1” frame, although would not be a long-term option at 29 years old. He would come significantly cheaper though. He’s an under-the-radar name to keep an eye on.

Target #5: LB Brandon Marshall (#89)

Marshall is a name who’s been talked about here already, and he’d seem to be a good fit as a veteran LB who is already familiar with Joseph’s schemes—provided he’s healthy. Like Kearse above, at 29 he’d be more of a stopgap option than the younger (but more expensive) likes of Mosley and Hicks. (Denzel Perryman is another interesting option in the previous tier at #75.)

Secondary Target: DL Angelo Blackson (#95). Keim will undoubtedly be keeping an eye out for affordable rotational 3-4 defensive lineman, and Blackson—as well as Texan teammate Christian Covington at #98—fits the bill. Cardinals fans can expect a lot of new faces in the front seven in 2019 with the likes of Gunter, Markus Golden (#34 on this list), and Deone Bucannon (#44) perhaps on the way out and new talent like Reed and (likely) our top draft pick coming in.

Final Thoughts

The Cardinals are still in decent salary cap shape with over $40M available, even after the Alford, Reed, and Clay signings. I expect Keim to be more active than usual early in free agency—he saw what happened last year after not bringing in the right players for his new coach. It likely nearly cost him his job. He won’t make the same mistake in 2019—or else it will cost him his job in 2020.

So what do we think of these potential free agent signings, Cardinals fans? Any other names on the MMQB list catch your eye? Let’s talk free agency in the comments.