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Not done yet: Biggest remaining questions for the Cardinals this offseason

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With the offseason hoopla dying down, it’s time to consider what questions still remain about this team heading into the 2020 season. Here are five of them.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals-Training Camp
Is injury case Marcus Gilbert the answer at RT this season for the Cardinals?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve hit a weird—and unprecedented—stretch in the NFL calendar. Free agency and the draft are in the rearview, but we don’t know when the rest of the usual offseason activities will take place—nor what form they will take. Minicamps, OTAs, training camp, preseason… it’s anyone’s guess what those will look like in a very off-kilter 2020.

But just because we don’t know when we will see the Cardinals on the field in some capacity doesn’t mean we can’t ask questions about this new-look team. And I have a few. Now that the 2020 roster has mostly taken shape, here are five of the biggest questions remaining after free agency and the draft—two on offense, two on defense, and one on special teams.

1. Who is going to start at center and right tackle?

If and when there is a training camp and preseason, the battles for these two positions will be the most important on the team. We already know the guys who will be duking it out for these jobs—Mason Cole and Lamont Gaillard at C, and Justin Murray, Marcus Gilbert, and Josh Jones at RT. The C job figures to be Cole’s to lose—he played every regular season snap at the position as a rookie in 2018—but Gaillard could be ready to make a leap in Year 2. GM Steve Keim elected to not make a veteran addition here (yet?), so he clearly has confidence in these two young players.

At RT, it’ll likely come down to Murray and Gilbert. The rookie, although highly regarded, will probably take a redshirt year and develop behind the two veterans—and hopefully enter the 2021 season as the starter. Murray started most of last season—and played admirably—after trade acquisition Gilbert went down in the preseason with a torn ACL. But I suspect the longtime Steelers starter will be given every opportunity to earn the starting gig if (IF) he’s healthy. Either way, the team should have a steady starter here in 2020.

2. Which young WR will step up behind the top three?

The top three wideouts on this team are unquestionably DeAndre Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald—no, he’s not a TE ;-)—and Christian Kirk. That’s one of the most enviable trios in the league (admittedly, mostly because of Hopkins). But there’s a glut of young WRs who will be vying to snag the coveted fourth WR spot in the 10 personnel Kliff Kingsbury likes to run.

It’s a long list: last season’s trio of draft choices Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler, and KeeSean Johnson, veteran Trent Sherfield, UDFA JoJo Ward, and a host of lesser names. Isabella probably has the inside track—he’s the highest draft choice, has speed to burn, and made a couple big plays last season. I’d love to see him become the go-to deep threat on this team with Kyler Murray taking a couple shots his way every game. Butler is a true wild card coming back from injury, Johnson is probably on the roster bubble at this point, Sherfield has made more of an impact on special teams, and Ward has more than a whiff of potential. If we get anything like a normal preseason, this will be a really fun position to watch.

3. Where will Isaiah Simmons play?

Cardinals fans were unanimously excited to land Isaiah Simmons—one of the most electric and versatile defenders in college football last season—in the first round of the draft. But he comes to the Cardinals without a clear position and no obvious place in the starting lineup. Could he be Jordan Hicks’s running mate at ILB? We signed De’Vondre Campbell to do just that earlier in the offseason. Is he a safety at the NFL level? Jalen Thompson looked pretty decent at one spot as a rookie last season, and Budda Baker isn’t going anywhere at the other. Edge rusher opposite Chandler Jones? Devon Kennard is supposed to be that guy.

So where does that leave the potential Defensive ROY? He’ll probably get plenty of snaps at each of the above-mentioned positions, whether just spelling or simply supplanting the guys mentioned above. I imagine he’ll take snaps from Thompson and Kennard more than anyone—they’re just the most replaceable—and he’ll probably take Thompson’s spot in the starting lineup in Week 1. But perhaps the actual question is whether Vance Joseph is the defensive coordinator best equipped to get the most out of Simmons. I’ve mentioned my concerns about him before. That actually segues nicely to my next question…

4. How long will it take the defense to jell?

More than half of the starting defense in Week 1 could be new faces: Jordan Phillips and whoever wins the job opposite him at DE, Campbell at one ILB spot, Kennard at one OLB spot, Robert Alford at CB, and potentially Simmons at S. And there are plenty more new faces on the two-deep. That’s a ton of new personnel for Joseph to integrate into his system—and we already know the offseason routine is going to be compromised.

Even in a normal offseason this would be a concern—remember how bad this unit was last season? But with what is likely going to be a condensed/nontraditional offseason routine, it may take longer than usual for this unit to jell. How will the linebacking corps come together? What will the D-line rotation look like? Can Alford just slide into the starting lineup without any hiccups? Can Joseph adequately take advantage of Simmons’s versatility with fewer offseason reps? This unit might be just as bad as last season’s —at least for the first several weeks of the season. Hopefully Joseph can get everyone on the same page before too long. And if he can’t, he might not make it through the season.

5. Who will return punts and kicks?

Pharoh Cooper was the predominant return man for the Redbirds last season, handling 17/24 of the team’s punt returns and 25/36 of the kick returns. But he’s a Carolina Panther now. Who will take over those duties in 2020?

Christian Kirk handled the other 7 punt returns last year, and it seems logical that he’d take over as the primary punt returner—he held that job as a rookie in 2018 as well. But what about kick returner? Andy Isabella handled five kickoff returns last year, and Chase Edmonds has some experience there as well. Isabella’s speed seems like it would be a good fit there, so he probably has the best shot at opening the season as the kick returner. The team would probably try a few UDFAs out here in a normal offseason, but I’m not sure I see that happening this offseason.

Final Thoughts

If the NFL season begins as scheduled, the team has a little over four months to answer most of these questions. Here’s hoping for as normal an offseason routine as possible.

Your turn, Redbirds fans. Any other questions lingering in your mind? Care to offer your answers to these five? Let us know in the comments.