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Should they/Will they: A final look at the Cardinals’ free agents

With free agency about to begin, let’s take one last look at our free agent class and ponder their futures.

Arizona Cardinals v New York Giants
Haason Reddick had 5 sacks in this game against the Giants. But will he be back in the desert next season?
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

With the new NFL league year less than a week away, the roster moves are going to start coming fast and furious. The Cardinals have already made a few themselves—you may have heard we signed J.J. Watt. There was also the non-franchise-tagging of Haason Reddick, the release and re-signing of Robert Alford, and the re-signing of Tanner Vallejo.

But that’s just the beginning. Today, let’s take a look at the bigger names in the Cardinals’ free agent class (mostly skipping over the backups and special teamers) and discuss if we should re-sign them, and take a guess at whether we will. Let’s start on offense, going in (mostly) alphabetical order.

(Note: Age is as of the start of the 2021 season.)

Offense

TE Dan Arnold (Age: 26, 2020 salary $750,000)

Should they: Yes—although it depends on whether or not they bring in a starting-caliber TE via free agency or the draft. Maybe they’ll take a look at a guy like Jonnu Smith? What if Kyle Pitts falls to #16? In a scenario like these, Arnold would not be brought back.

Will they: Yes. I don’t think TE is an important enough position in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense to merit a serious upgrade given other needs elsewhere, and Arnold is young enough that we probably haven’t seen his ceiling yet. I think he’ll be back—and productive—in 2021.

RB Kenyan Drake (Age: 28, 2020 salary: $8.5M)

Should they: No. I’ve addressed this a couple times now. There are only a few RBs in the league worth paying up for, and Drake isn’t one of them. Even an average RB like Drake can produce in Kliff Kingsbury’s system, so no reason to pay him like he’s anything but.

Will they: No—at least not for his 2020 salary. I can see a scenario where no one offers Drake what he’s looking for, so he comes back to the desert on a discounted 1-year deal to build up his value for a 2022 offseason where teams will have more money to spend. But more likely is that he finds another home and the Cardinals enter 2021 with Chase Edmonds as the starter.

WR Larry Fitzgerald (Age: 37, 2020 salary: $11M)

Should they: No. I’m already on record (see above) as saying I don’t think the Redbirds should bring Fitz back, at least at anywhere approaching his 2020 salary. You can argue he wasn’t used properly last season, but he sure didn’t look like he had much left and he’d be a year older in 2021. Even the greatest careers have to end, and it might be best if 2020 was Fitz’s last hurrah. Sometimes, the truth hurts.

Will they: Yes. If Fitz was retiring, you’d think he’d have announced it already… right? The only reason he’d come back is if the Cardinals were a contender, and the Watt signing definitely signals that they’re going all-in. I think he’ll be back in 2021 at a salary about half of his 2020 rate.

T Kelvin Beachum (Age: 32, 2020 salary: 1.2M)

Should they: No. Beachum played well enough in 2020 to merit a raise, and the Cardinals should be fine at tackle in 2021 with Josh Jones likely stepping into a starting role (and Marcus Gilbert coming back from his opt-out year, for whatever that’s worth). They should let Beachum seek greener pastures.

Will they: No. Beachum played much better than expected, and might be able to find himself a starting gig somewhere in 2021. Someone will offer him more than the Cardinals will want to pay for a swing tackle.

G J.R. Sweezy (Age: 31, 2020 salary: $5M)

Should they: No. Sweezy was among the worst guards in football last season when healthy and was the weak link on the interior of the O-line, which was the weak link of the overall O-line. The team badly needs to upgrade his spot in 2021.

Will they: No. Sweezy wasn’t a very popular signing prior to the 2019 season. Although he was mostly serviceable that season, he cratered last season and his time in Arizona is mercifully at an end.

Defense

S Chris Banjo (Age: 31, 2020 salary: $1.2M)

S Charles Washington (Age: 29, 2020 salary: $825,000)

Should they: Yes. These two players are very similar, so let’s discuss them both here. Both Banjo and Washington are valuable special teams contributors, and both played well on defense when they were on the field (with Banjo making 4 starts). These guys bring experience and production and are the kind of players winning teams value.

Will they: No/Yes. I suspect some team will like what they saw out of Banjo last season to make him a larger offer than the Cardinals do (assuming they do so at all). Washington is more likely to be back, though, and could play the exact same role Banjo played last year.

DE Angelo Blackson (Age: 28, 2020 salary: $910,000)

Should they: Yes. Even with the Watt signing, the Cardinals still need pieces along the D-line, and Blackson was one of the better performers on an otherwise dismal line last season. He should still be affordable, and he knows the defense. Seems smart to bring him back.

Will they: Yes. Blackson won’t be a high priority, but I imagine he quietly re-signs sometime this offseason to fortify the depth at DE behind Watt and Zach Allen. But Blackson won’t be the only other fortification there, either.

ILB De’Vondre Campbell (Age: 28, 2020 salary: $4M)

Should they: No. Campbell played well to start the year, but by the end of the season he was regularly exploited and wound up grading out as a below-average player (49.0 PFF grade). There’s no reason the Cardinals should bring Campbell back and should instead insert Isaiah Simmons into the starting lineup next season.

Will they: No. Campbell is as good as gone. He’ll probably find a gig on a rebuilding team as a cheap starter as the Cardinals move on from this underperforming player. Expect Keim to add another player at ILB, though.

OLB Dennis Gardeck (Age: 27, 2020 salary: $750,000)

Should they: Yes. Gardeck, always a consummate special teamer, was nothing short of phenomenal as a part-time pass rusher last season, finishing second on the team in sacks (albeit in a season largely without Chandler Jones). The team would be crazy not to bring The Barbarian back.

Will they: Yes. Gardeck is a RFA, so expect the team to tender him, giving him a sizable raise with the expectation that he’ll continue to be a standout special teamer and contribute as a pass rusher—as long as he fully recovers from his ACL surgery.

OLB Markus Golden (Age: 30, 2020 salary: $2.65M)

Should they: Depends. The fates of many of the free agents on this list are tied to what other moves the team makes. But Golden’s fate is tied to one player specifically: Haason Reddick. Simply put, if Reddick comes back, Golden won’t. If Reddick moves on, Golden’s chances of coming back skyrocket.

Will they: No. I think I’m in the minority on this, but I really think the team finds a way to bring back Reddick (see below)—I don’t think not franchising him means he’s automatically gone. So that means I don’t think Golden will be back. But if the team indeed moves on from Reddick, Golden isn’t a bad consolation (I’ll stop short of calling him a prize).

CB Dre Kirkpatrick (Age: 31, 2020 salary: $1M)

Should they: No. Kirkpatrick was one of the worst CBs in football last year (105/121 per PFF), and even a CB-needy team like the Redbirds should take a hard pass on bringing him back. Although it’s a very low bar, they should be able to do better than this at CB2 in 2021.

Will they: No. Did you read what I said above? Kirkpatrick was the latest in a long line of “stopgap” solutions at CB2 and will not be brought back given his poor play in 2020. Just about anyone would be better in 2021.

DT Corey Peters (Age: 33, 2020 salary: $3.5M)

Should they: Yes. But it depends on what other moves Keim makes on the D-line. Peters looks like he still has a bit left in the tank (he was our only D-lineman with a PFF grade over 60.0) and brings tons of experience and leadership. But do we want a 33-year-old coming off injury as our starter at NT? And if he isn’t starting, would he be willing to take a pay cut?

Will they: Yes. I think Keim will find a way to bring Peters back to the desert for one more season. He’s fantastic in the locker room and D-line is still a weak point, especially DT. But Peters and Jordan Phillips (disappointing though he was) is a lot of beef in the middle.

CB Patrick Peterson (Age: 31, 2020 salary: $13.2M)

Should they: No. I’ve already said my piece on Peterson several times—see the links under the Kenyan Drake section. Peterson’s play has long since stopped being worth his pay, and his credibility is nowhere near what it once was. A parting of the ways will be mutually beneficial.

Will they: No. Peterson still has name-brand recognition, so some team will undoubtedly overpay for his services this offseason. Could he thrive in the right system? Certainly, but that system isn’t Vance Joseph’s here in Arizona.

OLB Haason Reddick (Age: 26, 2020 salary: $2.3M)

Should they: Yes. I get the hesitation on the part of some Cardinals fans—Reddick had done squat in his first four seasons, and he’s not going to come cheap. But he just notched 12.5 sacks as the team’s main pass-rushing threat. Just imagine him with Chandler Jones and J.J Watt on the field at the same time. The team needs to find a way to bring him back.

Will they: Yes. I might (probably will) look stupid in a week or two, but I really think Reddick will be back in the desert in 2021. He wants to get paid, yes, but from everything I’ve heard he really likes it in Arizona, and the team is on an upswing—that means a lot. A 3-4 year deal worth ~$10M annually wouldn’t break the bank and might be doable. I hope Kiem can make it happen.

Special Teams

K Zane Gonzalez (Age: 26, 2020 salary: $3.26M)

K Mike Nugent (Age: 39, 2020 salary: $1M)

Should they: No. Let’s cover both our 2020 kickers together. Gonzalez was great in 2019 but missed several big kicks and seemingly lost all his confidence—and the fans and team seem to have lost confidence in him as well. Nugent was solid after replacing Gonzalez down the stretch, but it was a small sample size (7/8 FGs, 7/7XPs) and his longest kick was 43 yards. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we found a solution at kicker for 2021.

Will they: No. Fans might revolt if Gonzalez was brought back, and Nugent was nothing more than a temporary fix. I wouldn’t be surprised if either or both got a tryout over the summer, but Keim should be able to do better than a choke artist and a nearly 40-year-old journeyman (another low bar).

P Andy Lee (Age: 39, 2020 salary: $2M)

Should they: No. Lee has long been one of the most reliable punters in the league, but it was evident he was in decline last year, finishing in the bottom half of the league in punting average and PFF grade. It’s time for Lee to move on—perhaps into retirement.

Will they: No. I think the team would consider bringing Lee back at a discount if he doesn’t retire, but I imagine Keim will be scouring the free agent pool and scouting potential UDFAs to bring in a new punter in 2021. The Cardinals can get younger and cheaper—and, likely, better—at punter.

Final Thoughts

That’s a lot of guys they shouldn’t bring back. This team will probably look quite different in 2021. But if the Watt signing is any indication of the team’s offseason plans, I’m excited to see what the finished product looks like.

Any thoughts on these players, Cardinals fans? Give us your thoughts in the comments.