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Back to the drawing board: A blueprint for the Cardinals offseason

The Arizona Cardinals have a lot of issues that need fixing this offseason. Here’s a blueprint they should follow to become a contender next season.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams
Steve Keim and Michael Bidwill have a lot of work ahead of them this offseason.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no doubt about it—this house of Cards needs some serious repairs. After beginning a major rebuild after the 2018 season, plans looked ahead of schedule at times this season. But the second half of the season revealed some concerning cracks in the foundation. The team now needs to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to fix things.

Okay, enough of the belabored construction metaphor. GM Steve Keim and the Cardinals front office has a lot of work ahead of them over the next several months to ensure this team ends its postseason drought next season—which they should have done this season.

Below is a blueprint the team must follow to become a legitimate contender in Kyler Murray’s third season. This isn’t going to be a list of players this team should add or remove, or a list of rookies and free agents to target. Rather, this is meant to be a high-level look at key areas the Cardinals need to shore up this offseason.

But first, we’ll start with the things we don’t need to fix.

In Good Shape

  • Offensively, we’re clearly set at QB with Kyler, who flashed MVP potential and made the Pro Bowl in his second season. DeAndre Hopkins is our WR1 for the next several years. We’re looking good at tackle with D.J. Humphries on the left side and likely Josh Jones on the right (or another year of a serviceable stopgap player like Kelvin Beachum). I don’t think it matters who we have at RB—whether it’s Kenyan Drake or Chase Edmonds or Rookie/Free Agent X. We’ll have a solid running game either way. As is tradition, TE doesn’t seem to be a big part of our offense, but the guys we have are solid enough. (And, no, I don’t think we should draft a TE in the 1st round.)
  • On defense, we have an outstanding safety duo in Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson. We have… something in Isaiah Simmons. He showed exciting potential in a number of different roles as a rookie, but I suspect he’ll be one of the starting ILBs come Week 1 next season. Our pass rush is in a state of flux with Chandler Jones coming back from injury and Haason Reddick, Dennis Gardeck, and Markus Golden all free agents. But whoever we line up on the edge next season, we should have an above-average pass rush—that’s one thing Vance Joseph has done well in his two seasons as DC. Speaking of which, he looks like he’ll be back for another season—and while he’s never been my first choice, he performed capably enough with a flawed unit. I don’t think we’ll ever have an elite defense under Joseph, but the unit can be good enough to compete under his stewardship.

Blueprint Item #1: Find This Team’s WR2… and WR3

Centering this rebuild on Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury was a clear signal that this team’s identity is meant to be on the offensive side of the ball. As such, bringing in more WR talent should be this team’s top priority in the offseason. That was a priority last offseason as well, and Keim pulled off the heist of the century in bringing Hopkins to the desert. But as good as Hopkins was, he’s only one man and the WR depth behind him floundered this season, preventing the offense from reaching its lofty potential. To put it another way, Hopkins’ season line was 115/1,407/6 TDs. The five WRs not named Hopkins combined for 143/1477/9 TDs. Not good enough. Imagine this offense with another 1,000-yard WR—hell, or even 800 or 900 yards. We need to add both another capable outside receiver and quick slot receiver. The team should move on from Larry Fitzgerald and should not count on anything from Andy Isabella moving forward. Maybe try moving Christian Kirk to a full-time slot role if they can bring in another capable outside wideout? No matter what, the front office should consider spending another early pick on a wideout and take a long look at the middle tier of free agent options to make Kyler’s life easier and really open this offense up.

Blueprint Item #2: Find Two Capable Starting Corners

I know, I know—easier said than done. But this CB group was a mess this season, with Patrick Peterson having the worst season of his career, Dre Kirkpatrick being one of the worst corners in the league, and Byron Murphy not really making a tangible leap. I can’t imagine Kirkpatrick coming back at this point (he’ll be going into his age-32 season), and Murphy will have a significant role as he enters the final year of his rookie deal. But everything hinges on Peterson. I advocated for letting him leave in my last article, and I stand by that. Maybe he still has something left, but he’s not a fit in Vance Joseph’s system (or is it the other way around?), and Joseph doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, for better or worse. If he comes back, he’ll be the team’s CB1—and he can’t be worse than this season, right? And there’s also the possibility that even a declining Peterson is better than anyone we could bring in. Shudder the thought. But if he doesn’t come back… who replaces him? Probably not Murphy, who doesn’t look like he has a CB1 ceiling at this point. Like WR, Keim should be looking at early-round CBs and the best free agents the team can afford. Lots of questions about this position group, and no easy answers.

Blueprint Item #3: Fortify the Trenches

Like I said above, I think we’re okay at offensive tackle. But that’s the only position I feel confident about along both lines—this team needs a lot of new big bodies going into next season. On the offensive line, Mason Cole sure doesn’t look like a long-term answer at center—and maybe not short-term either. But is Lamont Gaillard ready to take over? Call me skeptical. J.R. Sweezy did not have a good year and probably (hopefully) won’t be back. The team tried out Justin Murray at guard and the results were underwhelming. Justin Pugh was solid at the other guard spot but might wind up being a cap casualty. Can the team really replace all three interior linemen? The story on the defensive line is even worse, with only the injured and aging (and free agent) Corey Peters grading above 55 per PFF. That’s just brutal. Guys like Zach Allen and Angelo Blackson could be acceptable rotation pieces, but not starters. The jury is still out on rookies Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence, who both missed several games as rookies and failed to make an impact. Jordan Phillip’s $10M/yr contract already looks like an albatross. Again—can this team afford to basically rebuild the defensive line? The young guys are really going to need to step up, and Keim is going to need to do a much better job finding affordable options here.

Blueprint Item #4: Stabilize the Offensive Coaching Staff

Something definitely wasn’t right on the Cardinals sidelines this season. Even when we were winning games early on, poor preparation, playcalling issues, and game management gaffes plagued the team. Everything came to a head in the second half of the season when the Cardinals plunged from the division lead to all the way out of the playoffs, and I believe coaching was the main culprit. I liked the Kliff Kingsbury hiring at the time, but I’ve become a vocal critic this season and I don’t think he’s the right coach to lead us to contention. The only problem is that Keim and Michael Bidwill seem to think otherwise and all signs so far indicate they’re going to run it back with only minimal changes to the offensive coaching staff. Out are passing game coordinator/QB coach Tom Clements (retired) and WR coach David Raih (fired) and in are new QB coach Cam Turner (promoted) and new WR coach Shawn Jefferson (formerly of the Jets). Hopefully Turner and Jefferson will be improvements over their predecessors, but even if they are that probably won’t fix the main problem—that we have no offensive coordinator. I just don’t think Kliff can be an effective playcaller *and* manage the game correctly at the same time. He just hasn’t show that he can do it. I truly think we need another seasoned voice on the offensive coaching staff who can help with this, even if they’re not a de facto OC—either someone to call plays (unlikely) or someone to help with the game management burden. I don’t think that person is on our current staff. If we enter next season without any further big changes to the offensive coaching staff, I think we’ll be doomed to another frustrating season.

Quick Hits

The four areas above are the main parts of this blueprint. There are a few smaller details I want to mention, however.

  • Starting RB: As mentioned above, there is a bit of uncertainty at this position. Does Drake come back, and for what kind of money if he does? Is Edmonds ready to be a full-time player? I’m not sure about that. Do we try to find the next Drake on the cheap?
  • Backup QB: I don’t think Chris Streveler is the answer. We’d have been better off with Brett Hundley, although he’s far from an ideal backup. My hope is that Keim invests a bit more money into this position next season just in case.
  • Inside Linebacker: Both Jordan Hicks and De’Vondre Campbell made plays at times this season, but struggled as the season went on and look to be below average players at this point (both graded right around 50 per PFF). Campbell was on a 1-year deal and probably won’t be back, but Hicks still has two years left on his big-money deal. I’d like to be able to replace both, but we’ll probably see Hicks and Simmons play most of the snaps next season.
  • Kicker/Punter: Zane Gonzalez is likely done in the desert, but I don’t think Mike Nugent is a long-term answer either. Hopefully Keim can upgrade this position. Andy Lee is always solid, but he’s almost 40 and might retire. We could be looking at two new specialists next season.

Final Thoughts

There’s clearly a lot of work to be done this offseason. But I think if Keim and Bidwill hit the main points of this blueprint—bring in WR talent, solve the CB problem, strengthen both lines, and bring in a new voice on the offensive coaching staff—we’ll be in a position to deliver on the promise this team showed in the first half of the season. (If only it were that easy.) The rest are minor details to me.

What do you think of this plan, Cardinals fans? Do you have another blueprint you think the team should follow? Tell us how to fix this team in the comments.