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Depth perception: Grading the Cardinals’ depth for each unit

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With the Cardinals’ roster picture starting to become more clear, a big problem is coming into focus: a lack of quality depth. Let’s break it down, unit by unit.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Kansas City Chiefs
TE Ricky Seals-Jones has both intrigued and frustrated Cardinals fans in the past. Now, he’s one of our strongest backups. What does that say about the rest of our roster depth?
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the long and strange draft season is over (all that’s left is signing the contracts), we finally have a clear idea of what next season’s Arizona Cardinals team will look like. Over the past few weeks, GM Steve Keim addressed the last remaining holes in the starting lineup—DE, WR3, CB3—with Rodney Gunter and (likely) Andy Isabella and Byron Murphy, respectively.

Looking at our own Andy Kwong’s 53-man roster prediction, it looks like we have either a competent veteran or promising young player at every position in the starting lineup, including the now critical “starting” positions of slot WR/CB.

Your mileage may vary concerning some of the veteran starters, particularly on the O-line, but I consider a “competent” starter to be anyone who has been at least a league-average player at some point in his recent career. What I mean is that there doesn’t appear to be any glaring weak spots in the starting lineup like, say, RT (Andre Smith) or WR2 (Chad Williams) last season.

However, a look beyond the first-team players at each position reveals a concerning trend: the Arizona Cardinals have a depth problem.

If we were guaranteed 16 starts out of all of our starters, I think we’d easily blow by the 5 wins Vegas has us pegged for. But as anyone who watched this team last year knows, the NFL isn’t like Madden where you can turn injuries off. Guys are gonna get hurt. Or suspended. Or benched. Or traded. You get the picture.

In short, we’re going to need our depth guys to contribute this year. And looking at the back end of the roster, I’m not sure we have guys who are ready to do that—especially at a few key positions. So, let’s take a look at the notable depth on the current roster, position by position, and see where we stand. Spoilers: This ain’t gonna be pretty.

Let’s start with the obvious position.

(R) = rookie

* = coming off IR

Quarterback

Projected Starter: Kyler Murray (R)

Notable Depth: Brett Hundley, Charles Kanoff

Obviously, Murray is the key to the season. But given his diminutive stature (5’10”, 207 lbs), concerns about his durability are warranted. If he were to miss any extended time, the current backup situation is among the worst in the league. The last time Hundley saw the field, he took a 4-1 Packers team out of playoff contention with a 3-7 record and horrendous stats (5.8 YPA, 9:12 TD:INT ratio). And that roster was significantly more experienced and talented than this Cardinals squad. Third-stringer Kanoff has never thrown an NFL pass and might wind up on the practice squad. If either of these guys see more than mop-up duty this season, we might wind up picking #1 again in 2020.

Depth Grade: D-. The only thing saving this group from a failing grade is Hundley’s starting experience and rushing ability (270 yards, 2 TDs, 7.5 YPC in 2017). If I were Keim, I’d be keeping a close eye on the next round of roster cuts to upgrade this group.

Running Back

Projected Starter: David Johnson

Notable Depth: Chase Edmonds, T.J. Logan, D.J. Foster, Xavier Turner (R)

Edmonds was a somewhat buzzy player coming into the 2018 season, but he got caught up in the morass of the Mike McCoy offense and didn’t really make an impact outside of a few plays in the Packers upset. It’s far too early to give up on him, but it’s hard to have much confidence either. Hopefully new coach Kliff Kingsbury can make better use of the 2nd-year back. Behind him is an erstwhile return specialist (Logan) and a little-used receiving specialist (Foster). Perhaps UDFA Turner can… turn some heads in the preseason? Either way, this is a very unproven group behind DJ.

Depth Grade: C-. I’m still somewhat bullish on Edmonds, but he needs to show us something this preseason. Logan and Foster are what they are at this point, and Turner is new blood. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Keim make another addition here before the offseason is over.

Wide Receivers

Projected Starters: Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk*, Andy Isabella (R)

Notable Depth: Hakeem Butler (R), KeeSean Johnson (R), Kevin White, Trent Sherfield, Damiere Byrd, Pharoh Cooper

The WR3 job is far from locked down, but I expect Isabella to be starting sooner rather than later. Whoever winds up starting, the depth behind last year’s top two WRs (Fitz and Kirk) is much more intriguing than the likes of Chad Williams (please god can we cut him soon) and J.J. Nelson. Butler’s ceiling is sky-high, and Johnson’s floor also seems impressively high. White still has a whiff of potential as a former high draft pick and exciting college player, but you have to think that the injuries have taken their toll (I don’t expect him to make the regular-season roster). Sherfield, Byrd, and Cooper are all potentially useful depth guys who will be fighting with White for roster spots. This group has been dramatically infused with talent, turning a weakness into a potential strength.

Depth Grade: B-. I’d go higher, but that’s *a lot* of rookies and otherwise unproven players. That said, chances are we hit on at least one or two of these guys. The future of the WR position in the post-Fitz desert is suddenly looking a lot brighter.

Tight End

Projected Starter: Charles Clay

Notable Depth: Ricky Seals-Jones, Maxx Williams, Caleb Wilson (R)

This unit has also seen an infusion of talent—RSJ is the only returning name on the depth chart. He still looks the part of a receiving TE, but he has struggled with drops and mental errors, forcing Keim to add a veteran starter like Clay. RSJ could theoretically flourish in Kingsbury’s offense—Kingsbury recruited him to Texas A&M—but he needs to show he can consistently produce. Hard to do in a part-time role. Perhaps he can be a red zone weapon in 2TE sets? Behind him, Williams is a blocking TE who could help in the run game if he sticks, and Wilson is a developmental player and practice squad candidate.

Depth Grade: B. RSJ and Williams are both known quantities and should be able to fill in passably for Clay were he to miss time. If Wilson flashes in the preseason and makes the regular-season roster, all the better.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: D.J. Humphries*, Justin Pugh*, Mason Cole, J.R. Sweezy, Marcus Gilbert*

Notable Depth: Korey Cunningham*, Max Garcia*, A.Q. Shipley*, Lamont Gaillard (R), Will Holden

This is where it starts to get pretty ugly. Look at all the asterisks—that’s six of our top offensive lineman who are coming off the IR. We all know what happened last season with the O-line injuries. I certainly hope we aren’t headed for a repeat scenario, but you have to be prepared for the worst. In that regard, I think we’re a little better off than last season, depth-wise. Cunningham was at least playable down the stretch, Garcia and Shipley have plenty of starting experience, and Gaillard is a promising rookie. But these guys all have warts, be it durability, previous subpar play, or rawness. Although I don’t quite share Walter’s optimism for our starters, I think we can all agree that the less the backups have to play, the better. (And the depth behind these guys is even uglier, for what it’s worth.)

Depth Grade: D+. The addition of Gaillard and the starting experience of Cunningham, Garcia, and Shipley almost nudges this group into passing territory, but the glaring lack of depth at tackle could prove fatal. Does Keim have another Keim Time signing in his back pocket? (And why didn’t we bring back John Wetzel again?)

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Darius Philon, Corey Peters, Rodney Gunter

Notable Depth: Zach Allen (R), Cameron Malveaux, Robert Nkemdiche*, Michael Dogbe (R), Vincent Valentine

I’m excited about Allen’s potential and he should be able to contribute this year, but he’s still a rookie. Beyond him… yikes. Who knows when (if?) Diche will be back, Malveaux and Valentine are just bodies, and Dogbe is a 7th-round pick. The lack of proven depth here is especially concerning given that neither Philon or Gunter played 60% of the defensive snaps last season—and Peters only played about 65%. So these guys are going to need to play. I think we can get by at DE with a liberal dose of Allen and Malveaux/Dogbe chipping in as needed until Diche comes back, but Valentine is the only other true DT on the roster. Are we really going to play him a third of the defensive snaps? Depth problems in the trenches could be *the* major concern for the Redbirds in 2019.

Depth Grade: D-. This is the thinnest group on the roster right now—as it has been for the entire offseason. Keim had better not be done adding players here. Does anyone know what Dan Williams is up to these days?

Linebackers

Projected Starters: Chandler Jones, Jordan Hicks, Haason Reddick, Terrell Suggs

Notable Depth: Brooks Reed, Vontarrius Dora, Tanner Vallejo, Zeke Turner, Dennis Gardeck

Reed is really solid depth behind Suggs and will likely play near-starter’s snaps (and he could also potentially play some DE if we need him to, which helps). But there’s not much behind him—Vallejo is a JAG, Dora probably isn’t even that, and Turner and Gardeck are predominantly special teamers. Given Suggs’ age and Hicks’s injury history, this group likely needs one more pass rusher and some more competition at ILB. If I have one qualm about Keim’s draft class, it’s that he didn’t address this position at all. Maybe one of the UFDAs sticks?

Depth Grade: D+. It’s only this high because of Reed—I don’t think we can count on any of the other guys right now. There are some available free agents that could potentially help—I like Andy’s suggestions of Shane Ray and familiar face Josh Bynes—but it’s clear that Keim needs to add a body or two at this position.

Secondary

Projected Starters: Patrick Peterson, Budda Baker, D.J. Swearinger, Robert Alford, Byron Murphy (R)

Notable Depth: Tramaine Brock, David Amerson, Josh Shaw, Deionte Thompson (R), Rudy Ford

Secondary is the lone defensive unit where depth isn’t a major question mark—the dropoff here isn’t nearly as pronounced as it would be at DL or LB. Backup corners Brock, Amerson, and Shaw are all capable and experienced, if not the most talented (although all three probably won’t make the roster). At safety, if Thompson is healthy he might force his way out of a backup role before you know it. He’ll be an interesting player to watch this preseason. Ford is more of a special teamer, but you could do worse as a depth safety. There aren’t any major concerns here.

Depth Grade: B-. No world-beaters here, but these guys are all solid. The backup corners aren’t too far off Alford’s level (although that probably says more about what I think of Alford), and Thompson was a gift in the 5th round. This unit seems pretty set heading into OTAs.

Final Thoughts

Of the eight units listed above, the final results were three grades in the B range, one in the C range, and four in the D range. Using a traditional college grading scale (and I should know, as I’m a college professor when I’m not writing about the Redbirds), that comes out to about a D+ overall grade for the Cardinals depth. That sounds about right to me. It’s clear that Keim still has work to do in building this team—especially in the trenches.

So what do you think, Cardinals fans? Were my grades too harsh? (I’ve had that complaint before.) Any units you think are stronger than the others? Any units you’re more concerned about? Let’s discuss depth in the comments.