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System upgrades: A position-by-position look at the Cardinals’ roster improvements

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The Cardinals roster has gone through a lot of turnover this offseason. Is the roster in better shape now than it was at the end of last season? We’ll take a look at each position group to find out.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals-OTA
Kyler Murray comes to the desert with a lot of promise. Is it a matter of if or when that he proves to be an upgrade at the QB position?
Arizona Republic-USA TODAY NETWO

Earlier this week, ESPN NFL guru Mike Clay put together a list of the 25 biggest position upgrades this offseason (note: Insider subscription required). At the top of the list were big-ticket acquisitions like Antonio Brown to the Raiders, Le’Veon Bell to the Jets, and Odell Beckham Jr. to the Giants.

Did the Cardinals make the cut? Well, they didn’t make the top 25, but signing Jordan Hicks to replace Josh Bynes did earn an honorable mention. I guess Clay wasn’t as high on the Kevin White signing as some Cardinals fans seem to be.

But on a more serious note, Clay’s article got me thinking about the Cardinals roster as a whole. Is the team truly “upgraded” from last season after all the roster turnover—about half the active roster—this offseason?

To find out, let’s go through each position group and determine whether it is upgraded from last season. We’ll start with one “position” group that Clay did not include in his analysis.

Coaching Staff

Key Additions: Head coach Kliff Kingsbury, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph

Key Departures: Head coach Steve Wilks, offensive coordinators Mike McCoy and Byron Leftwich, defensive coordinator Al Holcomb

Although he only lasted one season, Wilks might be remembered as the worst head coach in Arizona Cardinals history. Just about anyone would be figure to be an upgrade. Although Kingsbury is still an unknown quantity, he already has Cardinals fans and league observers alike buzzing, and his system figures to be an automatic upgrade over the prehistoric offense installed by the fired Mike McCoy last season. Joseph has had success in the past as a DC and has head coaching experience to boot.

Upgrade from 2018? Too soon to tell. Although Joseph would seem to be a huge upgrade over Holcomb on the defensive side of the ball, Kingsbury and his offense are still big unknowns, so you can’t definitely say that this staff is an improvement until the games start. But at the very least, this staff is likely to be addition by subtraction at worst—with the potential to be a massive upgrade at best if Kingsbury’s system successfully translates to the NFL and Joseph’s 3-4 returns the defense to the cusp of the top 10.

Quarterback

Key Additions: Kyler Murray, Brett Hundley

Key Departures: Josh Rosen, Sam Bradford, Mike Glennon

We won’t rehash 2018 too much here, but it’s undeniable that the Cardinals had one of the worst QB situations in the league last season with Rosen and Bradford—if not the very worst. But Rosen was shipped to Miami and Bradford is on his way to retirement, making way for #1 overall draft pick Murray. Murray is dynamic and exciting and will be one of the most-watched players in the entire league this season. But is he an upgrade over Rosen? As far as the backup situation goes, Hundley is probably a slight downgrade from Glennon, despite what articles like this say.

Upgrade from 2018? Too soon to tell. The answer to this question is all but certain to prove to be “Yes,” but the reality is that we just don’t know yet and a bit of pragmatism is needed in the context of this discussion. We traded one unproven young QB for another and we downgraded at the backup spot as well. Whether or not Murray proves to be an upgrade over Rosen—and I think he will be just that, as I’ve been saying all along—will determine the fate of the Cardinals in 2019.

Running Backs

Key Additions: None

Key Departures: None

The Cardinals will return the same 1-2 punch of David Johnson and Chase Edmonds in 2019. The third RB may be a familiar face (T.J. Logan? D.J. Foster?) or a new name (we signed several UFDAs), but they won’t figure to have much of a role on offense anyway.

Upgrade over 2018? No change. Now, hopefully Kingsbury knows how to use these guys better than McCoy/Leftwich did last season…

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Key Additions: Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler, KeeSean Johnson, Kevin White, Charles Clay

Key Departures: J.J. Nelson, Jermaine Gresham

Outside of Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk when he was healthy, the Cardinals pass catchers were among the worst in the league in 2018, and guys who had sizable roles down the stretch last season like Trent Sherfield, Chad Williams, and Jalen Tolliver could soon be joining the “Key Departures” list with Nelson and Gresham (good riddance). But replacing them are a trio of exciting rookies in Isabella, Butler, and Johnson, and a couple vets in White and Clay. This unit needed a massive influx of talent, and it looks like we got it this offseason—certainly in quantity, and hopefully in quality as well.

Upgrade over 2018? Yes. You figure we’ll hit on at least one of the rookie receivers, but each of them has a chance to be a contributor as soon as this season. It will be fascinating to watch them grow with Murray. Who knows what to expect from White (I’m not expecting much), but he at least has more upside than the practice squad guys we were rolling out at the end of the season. Finally, Clay has been a steady contributor throughout his career and should form a solid TE tandem with Ricky Seals-Jones.

Offensive Line

Key Additions: Marcus Gilbert, J.R. Sweezy, Max Garcia, Lamont Gaillard

Key Departures: Andre Smith, Mike Iupati , John Wetzel, Joe Barksdale, Oday Aboushi

Like QB and WR, the Cardinals O-line was one of the worst in the league last season. Of course, that’s what happens when your entire starting O-line winds up on the IR. But it’s not like the original starting group was even halfway decent, not with washed-up guys like Smith and Iupati playing prominent roles. Say what you will about the new additions (they’re injury-prone, for one), but you can’t say any of them are washed up. This unit has a chance to at least be league-average, something you couldn’t say about last year’s squad.

Upgrade over 2018? Yes. If not exactly a major upgrade. This was a hot topic of debate earlier in the offseason, but this unit does look improved. As improved as it could have been? As improved as it probably needed to be? The answer is probably “No” to both questions, but that’s not the purpose of this discussion. The starting group has more potential and the depth is better than last season. Now, we just need to ward off the injury imp somehow…

Defensive Line*

*Note: I slotted departures from last year’s 4-3 defense for both DL and LB into where they’d fit in the 3-4 the team is running this year.

Key Additions: Darius Philon, Terrell McClain, Zach Allen, Michael Dogbe

Key Departures: Benson Mayowa, Olsen Pierre, Zach Moore

Defensive line was one of the biggest needs of the offseason, and it took GM Steve Keim distressingly long to add pieces. First, he signed promising young DT Philon, then he resigned Rodney Gunter before drafting Allen and Dogbe. Finally, rotational DT McClain was recently signed. Will these additions be enough to replace Mayowa (not a fit in the 3-4), Pierre (steady contributor), and Moore (useful depth)? Keep in mind that Robert Nkemdiche is recovering from a torn ACL and can’t be counted on this season.

Upgrade from 2018? Yes. Another slightly upgraded unit. I still think this unit needed more attention than Keim gave it (like the O-line), but Philon was a really nice get and Allen already has people raving. They alone should be an upgrade over what Mayowa, Pierre, and Moore gave us last year—admittedly a somewhat low bar. If McClain and/or Dogbe can contribute anything it’ll be a bonus.

Linebackers/Edge

Key Additions: Jordan Hicks, Terrell Suggs, Brooks Reed

Key Departures: Josh Bynes, Gerald Hodges, Markus Golden, Deone Bucannon

Once upon a time, losing guys like Golden and Bucannon would have stung. But they weren’t the players they used to be in 2018 due to injury and struggles to adapt to new roles/schemes. It’s hard to say they’ll really be missed. Ditto unexciting vets like Bynes and Hodges (although I wouldn’t mind bringing Bynes back in a backup role). Taking over in the middle of the defense is Keim’s lone splashy free agent signing, Hicks, one of the best ILBs available on the market. Outside, Suggs and Reed will tag-team the position opposite Chandler Jones. It might be a decade and a half later than fans would have liked, but T-Sizzle is finally a Cardinal. He should be able to contribute as a situational pass rusher while Reed plays on running downs.

Upgrade over 2018? Yes. The departures were all eminently replaceable, and the guys Keim brought in to do so are big upgrades, especially Hicks, who should be the rangy QB of the defense the Redbirds have sorely lacked in recent seasons. He’s a bit of an injury risk, but his talent can’t be denied.

Defensive Backs

Key Additions: Robert Alford, Byron Murphy, Tramaine Brock, D.J. Swearinger, Deionte Thompson

Key Departures: Antoine Bethea, Tre Boston, Bene Benwikere, Jamar Taylor

The secondary was already a strength (#4 in pass defense in 2018), but is it possible that it’ll be even better in 2019? Although the Cardinals lost two of their top four leading tacklers (Bethea at #1 and Boston at #4), neither were notable playmakers and they should be more than adequately replaced by former Cardinal Swearinger and 5th-round rookie Thompson. And although Benwikere and Taylor both played a ton of snaps, they both were ineffective enough to get cut before the season was over. Although I’m not huge on either Alford or Brock, they should both be better than those two, and Murphy was one of the more talented corners in the draft who should make an impact in the slot right away.

Upgrade over 2018? Yes. But the obvious question mark here is whether the corners can hold up during Patrick Peterson’s six-game suspension to start the season. If not, things could get ugly for the defense as a whole in a hurry. Don’t be surprised in Keim adds another name during training camp.

Special Teams

Key Additions: None

Key Departures: None

The Cardinals seem set with kicker Zane Gonzalez, long snapper Aaron Brewer, and punter Andy Lee. The return game remains a question mark (Pharoh Cooper? T.J. Logan?), but special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers figures to make this unit a strength again in 2019.

Upgrade over 2018? No change. Who will be returning punts and kicks figures to be the only storyline here the rest of the offseason.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps I’m looking through rose-tinted glasses, but it looks like most of the positional groups are upgraded from last season. Some of the upgrades appear minor (O-line, D-line, secondary), while a couple groups look upgraded in a big way (WR/TE, LB/Edge). Only a couple groups show no change due to limited turnover (RB, ST). Certainly no group appears to be obviously worse—although that’s easy to do given the poor product the team put on the field last season.

Of course, the Cardinals’ 2019 season will hinge on the two units with the most uncertainty: coach and QB. While Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray *appear* to be upgrades over Steve Wilks and Josh Rosen, neither of them has any experience at this level, so you can’t say for sure that they *are* upgrades. At least not yet.

That said, I’m betting they’ll definitively prove to be upgrades sooner rather than later.

Are you?