Believe it or not, the start of the 2020 NFL season just four weeks away, as the Texans travel to Kansas City to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs on September 10. (This is, of course, assuming the start of the season isn’t delayed at all.)
The Cardinals enter the season with plenty to play for: their first winning season since 2015, a possible shot at the playoffs, maybe even a shocking worst-to-first story.
Some Cardinals have more to play for than others. We have a lot of young players who are still proving themselves, as well as veterans who have already done so. But we also have a large group of players whose contracts are up after the season. These guys are playing for a chance to return to the team next year, or to show other teams what they’ve got, or even for their very livelihoods.
Below, I’ve grouped each Cardinal on the last year of their deal (according to Spotrac) into a few different tiers. Let’s go through each and see what these guys are playing for in 2020.
Bottom of the Roster
- Kentrell Brice, Miles Brown, Dylan Cantrell, Trevon Coley, Jalen Davis, Johnnie Dixon, Sam Jones, Andre Patton, A.J. Richardson, Duke Thomas.
These guys are all practice squad, UDFA-type players. It’s quite likely most (or all) of these players fail to make the regular season roster. Sure, there’s a chance one of them rises from obscurity and takes advantage of an injury or other random circumstance to make a name for themselves, but the chance is so remote it’s not worth spending much time discussing. Moving on.
Special Teamers and Notable Backups
- Dan Arnold, Chris Banjo, Kelvin Beachum, Darrell Daniels, Kylie Fitts, Max Garcia, Dennis Gardeck, Marcus Gilbert, Brett Hundley, Chris Jones, Kevin Peterson, Trent Sherfield, Zeke Turner, Tanner Vallejo, Charles Washington, Ryan Winslow.
The names in this group are likely much more familiar to Cardinals fans (and especially RotBers). Banjo, Gardeck, Sherfield, Turner, Vallejo, and Washington are all excellent special teamers. Arnold showed promise as a pass catching TE last season, and Daniels is a capable backup and special teamer. Beachum, Garcia, and Gilbert are all experienced O-line depth. Fitts, Jones, and Peterson are solid defensive depth pieces. And, finally, Winslow could very well be the team’s punter in 2021 if Lee retires after the season (see below). Several of these guys will be back next season, and most of the rest should find a landing spot elsewhere in the league.
Let’s See What Happens
- Jonathan Bullard . Bullard is probably the least consequential name in this tier, but he’s very much in the mix for a starting DE gig—although the team is probably hoping 2nd-year player Zach Allen earns the gig. But what if he doesn’t and Bullard has a solid season in the starting role? He’d definitely earn consideration for a new deal at that point.
- De’Vondre Campbell. Campbell’s future in the desert is very hazy—heck, so is his 2020 season. He signed a 1-year/$6M deal at the beginning of April, but then Clemson star Isaiah Simmons fell into the Redbirds’ lap at the draft. The team seems set on playing Simmons at ILB, where Jordan Hicks is already entrenched in one spot. I think Campbell will still play at ton, but probably not as much as he was expecting when he signed. He’ll likely be auditioning for other teams when he’s in the field this season—unless Simmons sticks at another position.
- Kenyan Drake. Most of you were probably expecting to see Drake’s name in the final tier, but I’m not so sure I’d call him a “Big Name.” He did set the fantasy world on fire in the second half of last season, but he found the free agent market lukewarm and settled for the 1-year/$8.5M transition tag tender. He’ll be looking for a long-term deal after the season, but my hope is that GM Steve Keim learns from his mistake of shelling out big bucks to David Johnson and lets Drake walk if he has a strong season. RB is the most fungible position in the league, and it’s likely that Kliff Kingsbury’s system can get production out of cheap young players and castoffs.
- Zane Gonzalez. Gonzalez is “just” a kicker. But he also just had a Pro Bowl–caliber season, is still just 25, and is a hometown hero (Go Devils!). The team shouldn’t exactly be backing up the Brinks truck for him, but Gonzalez is probably due a pay raise at this point. That said, all but the most elite kickers can fluctuate a lot from year to year, so I can see Keim holding off until after the season to resign Gonzalez—although it might wind up costing the team some money if he has another strong season.
- Justin Murray. Since Marcus Gilbert opted out, Murray is likely the team’s starting RT again in 2019. He was much better than expected in the role last season, but he was still league-average at best. If he falters this season, there’s probably no reason to keep the 27-year-old around for another season. If he improves, the team would probably bring him back. But what if he simply delivers another season of adequate RT play? That’s the real question for Murray in 2020.
- Corey Peters. Peters has been the team’s rock on the D-line since he came to the desert in 2016. His play hasn’t dipped noticeably even now that he’s on the wrong side of 30, but he’ll be 33 by the time next season starts and the team just drafted two promising DTs in Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence. I’d be surprised if one of those two wasn’t the starting DT going into 2021. Would Peters come back as a backup? Would that team want to bring him back in that role? My guess is that this is Peters’s last season as a Cardinal.
- J.R. Sweezy. Sweezy is also getting to be up there in years—he turned 31 this offseason, meaning he’ll be 32 by the time next season rolls around. He was surprisingly solid after coming over from the Seahawks last season, although no one would ever confuse him with an elite NFL guard. But unlike Peters above, the Cardinals have absolutely no quality prospects at guard to replace him next season. So it’s likely that if Sweezy is solid again in 2020 that the team brings him back on a short-term deal while working on finding his eventual replacement.
Veterans Near the End
- Larry Fitzgerald. There are more questions with Fitz than you’d think. The obvious one is whether he retires. If the team takes a step forward and makes the playoffs, I suspect he won’t. So if he doesn’t, and his production remains stable, will he want the usual $11M? Or if his production slips with DeAndre Hopkins as the new WR1, will the team want him back for that price? Or would he take less? But whatever happens, I think if Fitz wanted to come back, the team would find out a way to make it work.
- Andy Lee. Lee is nowhere near Fitz’s caliber as a player or a Cardinal, but he’s been one of the best punters in the league for virtually his entire career. (Which started the same season as Fitz’s, coincidentally.) Lee did deal with some brief injury issues last season, but otherwise he’s been as steady as they come. But the team does have a capable replacement in Winslow waiting in the wings (as long as he isn’t poached off the practice squad by another team). Perhaps they’d pivot to Winslow next season to save some money? It’s a situation worth monitoring.
The Big Defensive Names
- Budda Baker. The two players in this tier are in very different situations. Baker’s is much simpler—he’s a young, Pro Bowl defensive cornerstone and should be rewarded with a rich extension as soon as possible. You might not realize it given the poor performance on the field the past couple seasons, but the Cardinals are actually laying the foundation for an exciting secondary with Byron Murphy, the Thompson Twins, and Baker. (And remember that Isaiah Simmons can play a little DB as well.) Hopefully Keim can lock up Baker soon.
- Patrick Peterson. Pat Pete almost could have been in a tier of his own—that’s how unique his situation is. We all know the backstory by now. The trade request. The suspension. The (very) inconsistent play when he returned. But this is still a future Hall of Fame CB at the end of his prime. He might not be “elite” anymore, but he probably has at least two good seasons left in him after his contract is up. The question then becomes what kind of deal a 30-year-old CB of his caliber is looking for. The obvious comparison would be longtime NFC West rival Richard Sherman, who signed a 3-year, $39M contract with the 49ers a few weeks shy of his 30th birthday. That’s in line with what Spotrac estimates Peterson’s market value to be (about 3 years, $34M). I’d be fine with a deal like that. But would Peterson? Keim and his agent might be having that very conversation right now. (If he’s not too busy talking with DeAndre Hopkins’s agent.)
There are a lot of names on this list, but only a few of any major consequence. Still, it will be interesting to see how this weird 2020 season—and what effects it might have on the 2021 salary cap—affects these free agents to be.
What contract-year players area you keeping an eye on, Cardinals fans? Which of these players are a must to resign, and which do you think we should let go?