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Which 10 Arizona Cardinals have a chance to become the next “core” players?

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Every team has core players as a foundation to build their team around—which players are or have a chance to become those core players?

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Last year in 2018, the Arizona Cardinals had their own version of “The Big Four”, aka four players who were their superstar caliber players that had made Pro Bowls or All-Pro teams.

These are the players who get circled by opposing offensive and defensive coordinators as “blue-chip” or elite players they want them to focus on. The guys who can win a game for you.

They were:

-DE Chandler Jones

-CB Patrick Peterson

-WR Larry Fitzgerald

-RB David Johnson

These four players all got rewarded with big new deals, were on all the merchandise, sold all the jerseys, etcetera.

There were many hoping that rookie quarterback Josh Rosen would eventually ascend to those ranks, or at least become a quality starter in the league.

However, that dream was dead in three swift blows: first with the terrible team surrounding Rosen, then his own lacking rookie play, and finally when the team selected quarterback Kyler Murray #1 overall in this past draft.

So while Chandler Jones is now back at linebacker and the other three Cardinals including Fitz have returned, who are the players and their chances they WILL be the blue-chip players of the future to build around on the roster?

Let’s take a look, starting with their current big four and their chances of being a future “blue-chipper”:

A. LB Chandler Jones

Blue-chip chance: 100%

Jones isn’t even 30 yet and has a chance to be the all-time sack king for the Arizona Cardinals. He’s got 3 years left with the team and is a part of the now and also the future. As long as he’s capable, he’s going to be a pass-rusher the team builds around and can even make a case for being one of, if not THE best, pass rusher in the NFL now that he’s back in a 3-4 defense.

B. RB David Johnson

Core player chance: 90%

Johnson’s still probably a top 5 running back in the league to many, though to some he’s slipped down the rankings after missing an entire season in 2017 and a lackluster 2018 in an offense that didn’t fit him and, frankly, was just bad.

He’s only 27 and is with the team for a few more years but there’s a few questions about him. Can he get back to the 2016 effectiveness? Will his body at a brutal position be able to hold up at running back? Will he ever see a season like 2016 again?

I bet he does, big-time.

If Johnson goes off in a big way this year and returns to the ranks of the running back elite, he’ll be a big-time focal point as long as he’s on the team. The only thing holding him back, of course, is just the nature of his position. And as we learned last year, that as a running back he’s far more a function of the rest of the offense, even though that’s not really his fault.

C. CB Patrick Peterson

Core player chance: 49% (currently)

I would have gone 50-50 but the suspension for PED use pushed it down slightly. Peterson previous to this last year was probably a lock as being a future Cardinal elite player, almost as much as Chandler Jones.

Then in the space of 6 months he....asked for a trade, apologized, got suspended, got upset and it’s questioned if Arizona chooses to offer him an extension if he’d prefer to hit the open market.

It’s probably 50-50 that he stays or leaves Arizona, I’d imagine, but the fact he will miss 6 games out of his remaining 32 under contract in Arizona might mean that he’s not as integral to the team as we once thought.

It remains to be seen if he’s in the desert past 2021...even if AZ wants to extend him he may want to test free agency, and then if the team wants to get something for him, it’d be 2020 or bust to make a decision on P2....

D. WR Larry Fitzgerald

Core player chance: Yeah, long as he’s on the team

I mean, this is a weird question because...at 36 years old this season, Fitzgerald seems to be in the twilight of his career, even if his numbers from 2015 on haven’t looked like it.

But with how he stays in shape, his role and how he just seems to hang around, it’s unclear if this will be his last season or if he’s got as many as 2-3 left in him.

The other question that’s rough is if you can really call him an “elite” player as a wide receiver (HEAR ME OUT) when compared to the likes of Julio Jones, Davante Adams, Odell Beckham Jr. or Antonio Brown.

He’s not the same elite destroyer who’ll take over games for multiple stretches in a season, although he’ll still put up a big game with numbers and the stats. At this point in his career it’s easy to argue he’s elite at what he DOES as a possession receiver in catching the ball, separating well enough and picking up critical first downs.

Does that=an elite player at this point?

Not sure, but as far as a player you’d want on your team...he definitely does and if you push me, I’d fully agree he still belongs on that list as a guy you build around for as long as you have him given the work ethic, character and production.

One thing you’ll notice from this list....after David Johnson between him and this past draft class there are VERY few players who are on this list that I’ve even given the chance to become one of these type of guys. (Why the Cardinals’ draft was so key in them needing young talent as they had scarcely found any outside of Chandler Jones since 2015).

So let’s take a look at the rest of the candidates and their possibility of being the next “big thing” starting with the obvious when talking about their future....

#1. QB Kyler Murray

Blue-chip chance: 85%

This one should be obvious. Arizona’s selection of Murray over Rosen is due to the fact that the organization believes that he could be a truly special QB at the next level.

Why? Some analysis as to that below:

In short, Murray’s elite athleticism + his production from such a young age means his ceiling might make him a star in the NFL.

So why only 85%? Well, there’s a lot that goes in to the factors when it comes to QB’s including talent around them, scheme, coaching, offensive line, and development. Some guys who were supposed to light up the league don’t take off, while guys like Dak Prescott fall to the 4th round, seem primed for superstardom and then slumped.

For Murray, it’s hard to bet against a smart, accurate and athletic passer who can burn you from the pocket or with his legs.

But on the off-chance that Arizona has struggles or he doesn’t quite hit the ceiling of being an MVP caliber QB (he DID only start one year in college truly) I’ll hedge the bet a little. Not because I don’t believe in Murray but because it’s one thing to be a good QB in the NFL.

It’s another to be TRULY great. I think Murray’s clearly got that shot, but he’ll have to show it first.

2. WR Christian Kirk

Core player chance: 90%

Kirk essentially produced last year despite catching passes from Sam Bradford and Josh Rosen as was pretty much the team’s top wide receiver for play all around in a run-heavy offense without other receivers.

Dude might be a 1,000 yard lock each year given the type of player he is. Might be he ends up less a Golden Tate and more Arizona’s version of Doug Baldwin as he can play outside as well.

He should go off this year if everything goes according to plan and probably moves in to Larry Fitzgerald’s slot role.

3. FS Budda Baker

Core player chance: 70%

Budda’s a guy who came in to the Cardinals with the idea of him lining up next to Tyrann Mathieu as a “second Honey Badger” who’d also be insurance if Tyrann never returned to his former self.

The latter happened and as a result...he’s been a productive and solid player who made a name on special teams and took on a big role in 2017 as a coverage guy outside the box and then was essentially a linebacker for Steve Wilks last year.

Budda’s biggest strengths has been his smarts and versatility and he’s probably the only drafted Cardinal who you can say “yup” to getting a 2nd contract with the team from the year 2016-2017. But as for becoming an ELITE player as a free safety, he’ll need to showcase the ability to take the ball away from teams through the air, something he didn’t do much in college, and still has been prone to missing some assignments.

He’s been solid, but hasn’t been tremendous or made game-changing plays like Tyrann Mathieu was doing for the Cardinals in his first two years in the league, but I do think he’s got a great shot to make it, and has proven more than anyone else on this list.

I don’t know if he makes it into the big 4 but he’s probably the closest thing they have after Kirk to a “sure thing”. And if he can start actually nabbing some interceptions for once, look out.

4. WR Hakeem Butler

Core player chance: 65% (but don’t be surprised if doesn’t go that high)

Some people think Butler can have even more success than Isabella and has the overall highest ceiling not just of the Cardinals’ draft class after Murray, but of any wide receiver in the 2019 NFL draft.

Butler’s pros are that his late breakout year came despite him not having as much football experience meaning he’ll grow and improve, as well as the fact that he can absolutely dominate guys physically or beat them with his speed and make some insane plays and game-breaking catches. It’s an elite trait to have the physical gifts he does.

Where his issues are right now, however, might limit him, even more than Isabella, as he also struggles with press coverage despite the fact he’s shown he can play outside, and had a high drop rate in addition to maybe the routes that needed the most work.

His ceiling is sky-high, however, there’s plenty of physically talented players who didn’t put it all together and it’s possible Butler becomes a great role player but never a blue-chip #1 WR you have to gameplan for week-in-and-out. That said, don’t be surprised if he, in the end, is only 2nd to Kyler Murray in that potential.

5. WR Andy Isabella

Core player chance 55%

Isabella’s got one amazing and defining trait and that’s his speed. Okay, he’s also a good route runner who’s shifty and does great with catches but he’s a fast player who you’ll hope can make a living downfield despite his small stature and coming from a small school. He and Kyler could thrive in this offense and at best, if he can become like a T.Y. Hilton as a deep threat who rounds out the rest of his game, he might end up being as valuable, or even more so, than a Christian Kirk who’s well rounded without a truly elite trait.

The issues that might prevent this for him are him overcoming some of those physical limitations at the next level, as well as some film issues. Isabella likes to catch the ball close to his body versus extending his hands...which might be a sign of lack of good radius/control or even hand size.

He also struggled to get off press coverage in college and if he’s relegated to the slot, he can still be great, but it’s difficult finding truly DOMINANT players in the NFL who you have to gameplan for. We’ll see but I’m optimistic especially given Kingsbury’s offense.

6. CB Byron Murphy

Core player chance: 50%

Why is Byron so low? His production and film was good, he was a top 5 talent on the Cardinals board and will be in a great role as a slot corner for the team to begin with.

There’s two reasons for this. The first is the fact that Murphy’s measurables might dictate that he isn’t an outside #1 cover corner guy like Patrick Peterson. (Heck, you could even argue if Peterson stays on the team that Murphy won’t ever be viewed as a blue-chip just by comparison). But the second is his speed. Most top notch NFL corners are able to top out in the 4.4’s and Murphy ran a 4.55.

Sure, it’s not a 40 yard dash all the time, but if a player like Julio Jones or a D.K. Metcalf who’s 6’3 and runs a 4.3 can torch a guy like Murphy with that height and speed, it’s possible that Murphy will never reach the esteemed blue-chip level. Pro Bowl could be a possibility however, but I don’t know if I could honestly bang the table saying he’ll be up there with Chandler Jones and David Johnson.

I think he could be integral to the team. But am not sure his shot at being a super-star caliber guy is there. Maybe I’m wrong. I think you can build with him but wanna see if you can build around him.

7. LB Jordan Hicks

Blue chip chance: 40%

Hicks might end up the quarterback of sorts of the defense, and has scored enough high grades per PFF in coverage that it’s possible that he gets his hands on a ton of balls. He’s under contract for the long haul and while Arizona’s hoping their new #58 can produce like Daryl Washington, I think he’s another solid, quality guy that you can build with, but maybe not around.

8. S D.J. Swearinger

Core player chance: 35%

Originally LB Haason Reddick was going here. And Reddick’s an interesting case. I give him a higher chance than other players lower on this list to become a blue-chip/impact player but when you don’t make an impact in the first 2 years in the league, the odds of it happening end up becoming pretty slim.

But when you look at it, he simply hasn’t produced at the NFL level. D.J. Swearinger has now twice with two different teams: Arizona and Washington. Heck he put up a pro-bowl caliber season for the ‘Skins.

Now he’s back in Arizona and while he’s on a 1-year deal, if he plays well Arizona’s got plenty of cap space to re-sign him as he’s still only 27 years old. My hesitation is that Arizona...really hasn’t committed much to a safety not named Tyrann Mathieu contract-wise, and it’s possible he’ll get way more on the free agent market, so I’m not sold just yet.

But if he returns to that form and the team resigns him so he sticks around in Arizona the next few years, the #36 could have a shot to become one of those difference-makers like he was for the ‘Skins. Just...maybe not in the same class as the truly “elite” safeties, that’s all.

9. LB Terrell Suggs

Core player chance: 33%

Suggs is rated this low for really two reasons:

A. His age

B. His sliding production.

Been a core player for years with the Ravens as a superstar pass rusher and face of the franchise. Now? He’s got basically 1 year left and that means even if he returns it’s hard to gauge him as a player you absolutely build your defense around like you used to. And secondly, it seems that his sack ability, at least from a production standpoint, is starting to slow.

Not saying he can’t have a big year, but you’ll probably never think of him as 1A and 1B with Chandler Jones over the long haul, rather than looking at him similar to a Dwight Freeney.

So why then even give him a 33% chance?

Because...if he does manage to pull a James Harrison and stick around and produce for 2-3 years, he’ll definitely be up there. I just don’t know if I can see that happening, that’s all.

10. WR Keesean Johnson

Core player chance 20%

Johnson, my goodness, what a route runner. Also, what a slow 40 time and for how late he was drafted it’ll be tough for him to be a “lock” but there’s enough positive reports about him that I do think he’s got a great shot to make an impact. There’s a plethora of guys who weren’t “burners” in the NFL and still could produce, but even someone like Larry Fitzgerald still ran at least a 4.47-4.5 at his pro day.

The comparison that Keesean would want would be an Anquan Boldin, who ran a 4.7 combine time (no one knows if he ran it injured or not) and a guy like Andre Ellington who was injured also ran a 4.6.

Thing is, Boldin was such a quality player he still went in the 2nd round. Johnson was a 6th and while I think he’ll be a valuable guy as a WR4-5, it’s not like he’ll be a true WR1 or a guy you have to gameplan your team for if you’re a defensive coordinator. Still, I’ll give him a shot to stick due to this fact:

He reportedly was in the 4.5’s or lower at his pro day. Pro Days aren’t as reliable as nearly everyone sees their time bump up, but that’s significant. If he turns out to be similar to Davante Adams (who ran a 4.56 combine run) then I’ll have underrated him along with the rest of the NFL, so I’ll give him a chance here.

Others:

Zach Allen, DL

Core player chance: 10%

This is pretty simple....Allen’s best chance I think is to become a Derek Wolfe, who’s definitely not a “build around” guy but is a solid talent. Reason why is he’s a good athlete but not maybe a legendary-caliber one like the guys in Bosa/Williams/Allen/Oliver who went high in this year’s rookie draft. Still could be solid for years to come, however.

OT DJ Humphries

Core player chance: 5%

Humphries is probably the most recognizable face on the Cardinals OL and certainly the most outspoken. I have him ranked this high for blue-chip mostly in case of a scenario in which

It’s possible that he ends up like a Russell Okung and fights off a rough career start and injuries to become a valuable addition, but I hardly see blue-chip qualities there, and his health is a concern.

Time is probably the biggest issue, as his deal is up with Arizona and he doesn’t seem likely to return to the team at this point. On the off chance he impresses and they franchise tag him and the man goes on to play for the team for a while longer, I’ve put him with any percent at all.

“So you’re saying there’s a chance?” Sure. People who hate on Humphries are over-aggressive and seem to think he’s Levi Brown. Give him more credit then that. But not more credit than he’s due, either.

OG Justin Pugh

Core Player Chance: 8%

Probably similar argument like with Humphries except he’s under contract for the next 3 years. Still his injury history and level of play means it’s probably unlikely he becomes a pro bowl caliber player at guard for the Cardinals.

S Dionte Thompson

Core player chance: 10%

Thompson might have been a great value pick in the 5th if he can stay healthy and on the field, but behind two other talented safeties and with the fact that he didn’t produce at one of the biggest SEC schools in Bama at an elite level, I think he’ll be a solid depth/starter guy at the worst and a solid starter at best. Tremendous value in the 5th.

Just maybe not “core player” value, that’s all.

RB Chase Edmonds

Core player chance: 10%

It’s hard to know with Edmonds as he’s only in his 2nd year but he doesn’t seem despite an elite 3-cone like he’s going to become a top-notch 3rd down specialist like Tarik Cohen, Darren Sproles or the like.

I’ll hole out a bit of hope with Kliff Kingsbury but, my guess is that he’s a backup RB who can do a lot of things but highly doubt he’ll evolve into a guy you’ll build around.

C/G Mason Cole

Core player chance 5%

Probably not given his athletic profile, it’s tough to see him becoming an “elite” prospect at Center or Guard, even if he spends a long time with the team. Interior offensive linemen who aren’t pro bowlers or standouts but are solid don’t often end up sniffing “blue-chip” praise.

The hope is that he can be a solid, if maybe unspectacular center or guard for a number of years for the Cardinals

Honorable Mention:

P Andy Lee

Core player chance: 100% (okay...probably not except in a perfect world)

Let’s give Andy Lee some due because if Punters were viewed like wide receivers, running backs and quarterbacks, he’d be a star.

The man was a weapon last year in his punting and will be around for quite a few more years with the team given his extension. He’s got everything you’d want in a franchise player from his performance and his ability even at an older age....he just plays a role that isn’t celebrated much.

If you’re on special teams, however, he’ll have a good reputation and honestly while he’ll never be viewed even close to the “Big Four” in Arizona, it’s worth mentioning that he’s done plenty enough, or all he can do, to at least be worthy of praise.

Maybe you could put him on one of your tickets for once in a game, huh, Arizona Cardinals? That’d be at least a bit of a start to acknowledging that yes, #PuntersArePeopleToo

What are your thoughts, Birdgang?

Sound off in the comments section!