This offseason will bring about change.
Lots of change.
No longer cash strapped and firmly situated with a franchise quarterback, the Arizona Cardinals expect to take a critical leap forward come 2020.
The expectations for a team headlined by the likes of Kyler Murray will be in full force. But as was apparent in 2019, Murray can’t do it alone. He’ll need help.
Lots of help.
The Cardinal front office likely faces it’s most important offseason in years, with general manager Steve Keim pulling the trigger on all things personnel.
For the first time since his tenure began in 2013, Keim has a healthy amount of cap space at his disposal.
Roughly $53 million as we sit here today.
Despite their losing record in 2019, the Arizona Cardinals became watchable again. Rookie Kyler Murray is poised for NFL stardom and first year head coach Kliff Kingsbury showed plenty of promise in the loaded NFC West.
Say what you want about Keim, (and there’s a lot to say) but he seemingly nailed the two most important elements to elongated success in this league.
Coach and quarterback.
Now Keim must pivot and focus on the continual rebuild of what still appears as a bottom tier NFL roster.
Although Murray’s arrival elevated Arizona from dead last offensively to 13th overall, the Cardinals are still lacking high end talent. The pass catching core is made up of far too many slot receivers, while the lone true X on the roster missed all of his rookie campaign.
It’s no secret Kingsbury and the Cardinal coaching staff are desperate for an alpha outside. If you don’t believe me, go back to mid August when they signed a washed up Michael Crabtree out of pure desperation.
Thankfully, this draft class boast perhaps the most talented receiving core in a decade. The likes of CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy will surely tempt Keim with his eighth overall selection.
The offensive line made strides in 2019, particularly when it came to durability. but the looming decision regarding D.J. Humphries long term status will the franchise must be resolved.
Humphries played a career high 16 games which not so coincidentally came in a contract year. At only 26, Humphries showed enough promise that if the Cardinals don’t pay him big money, someone else surely will.
The franchise tag is in play, but my guess is Keim wants to end his draught of none of his previous first rounders securing second contracts.
Regardless, Humphries contract will likely prohibit Keim from spending big dollars on any other free agent linemen ala Brandon Scherff or Jack Conklin. Which means the right side of the offensive line could and should be addressed via the draft. J.R. Sweezy played admirably in 2019 but his ceiling is limited and his contract runs out after 2020.
Right tackle is where this could become interesting. Similar to receiver, the offensive tackle class features some of the more promising prospects this year. Pairing Humphries with a high end right tackle, ala Tristan Wirfs, could be a wise investment given you’re commitment to Kyler Murray (and his health).
That brings us to running back, where Keim will likely face his most daunting task of the offseason.
Keim must find a team willing to take on at least SOME of David Johnson’s projected $14 million in 2020.
It’s no secret Johnson looked like a shell of his former All Pro self last season, but his abilities as a receiver still give him a role in this league. Perhaps all he needs is a change of scenery, similar to the likes of John Brown.
If Keim is able to swindle a deal that would ship Johnson out of town, you can expect the Cardinals to turn their attention to breakout runningback Kenyan Drake. Drake’s contract should be modest, given the glut of quality backs expected to hit the market (hello Melvin Gordon). I would imagine Arizona would be comfortable going the Tevin Coleman route, with something in the neighborhood of two years, $10-15 million.
Drake is not a make or break addition, however and Keim should proceed with caution when discussing a long term deal. He need not look further than his own mistep with Johnson’s current agreement.
While the offense needs a shot in the arm, you could argue that the Cardinal defense needs somewhat of a complete overhaul.
At least when you talk about the defensive front seven.
The secondary remains limited with the lack of a true free safety centerfielder, but the talent is there. Budda Baker is a star and Patrick Peterson should be properly motivated entering a contract year. Byron Murphy and Jalen Thompson should both improve following a full offseason in the program and Arizona does have veteran Robert Alford returning from injury.
Now back to the front seven.
You could make an argument that the Cardinals need, at least, four new starters upfront. Corey Peters enters the final year of his deal at a modest four million and is Arizona’s lone capable starter on the defensive line. Zach Allen was off to a promising start as a rookie before missing significant time thanks to a lingering neck injury.
And that’s where the talent ends.
The Cardinals need two starters upfront, and likely will need to bring back key depth such as Rodney Gunter as a rotational piece.
Keim would be wise to target several tier two DTs in free agency, rather than chasing the likes of Arik Armstead or Chris Jones (only because I doubt either see the market). In the case of Armstead, there’s word that San Francisco would prefer a tag and trade similar to that of Dee Ford last offseason. That would all but eliminate Arizona, considering it’s an indivision rival and the Cardinals don’t have enough draft capital to deal from.
Keim needs to load up in free agency with solid signings that fit the Peters mold and hope you land an impact player (at some point) in the draft.
Remember, you can’t fill every need in a single offseason.
The linebacking core is headlined by All Pro Chandler Jones, but Jordan Hicks was one of the better free agents signings from a year ago.
Kudos to Keim there.
Now the eighth year GM must do it again, this time at both ILB and OLB. Former Ram standout Cory Littleton is an obvious candidate to pair alongside Hicks. LA is cap-strapped to the point where Littleton will surely hit the market, aiming for somewhere around $15 million per season and $35 million guaranteed.
That’s a high price to pay for an ILB but Keim has shown an inability to address the position via the draft. For proof, look no further than the current placeholder at OLB, Haason Reddick. The former 13th overall selection was annoited as the next great off ball linebacker but has been a massive disappointed in the desert.
Reddick looks like nothing more than depth entering year four, and it’s more likely Keim deals him to another team rather than pick up his fifth year option.
Speaking of options, there are more than a few when it comes to free agent edge rushers. Markus Golden is a name to keep an eye on, as the front office would like to remedy his unfortunate departure from Arizona when the team shifted to a 4-3 defense under Steve Wilks.
As you can see, there’s a lot of work to be done but the tasks at hand are still doable. Unlike last off season in which there was so much uncertainty, the Arizona Cardinals know who they are now. Keim and Kingsbury have an understanding of where the gaps are and how they’d like to address them.
Fair or not, Michael Bidwill opted to keep Keim around following numerous botched offseasons and an embarrassing arrest. He did so because is also built the longest period of sustained success in Cardinal history. Keim took a middling 5-11 team in 2012 and turned it into a Super Bowl contender.
Let’s hope he can do it again.