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J.J. in the house: “Watt’s” next for the Cardinals defense

Well, we got Watt. That’s a step in the right direction for this defense. But “Watt” other needs remain?

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals
A decision on Haason Reddick should be one of the next big offseason dominoes to fall for the Cardinals.
Billy Hardiman-USA TODAY Sports

First off, no, I’m not apologizing for that pun.

Second, I’d like to say I predicted the J.J. Watt signing—but really, I was just throwing the idea out there as a possibility. I was as surprised as anyone when the signing actually happened.

But now that we’ve all had some time to pick our jaws up off the floor and celebrate, it’s time to consider what happens next. The offseason has only just begun. So let’s take a look at each position group on the Cardinals’ defense and see what might be in store for the rest of the offseason.

Defensive Line

Let’s start up front with Watt’s new home. After the season, I identified the D-line as one of the team’s biggest needs, and Watt goes a long way to addressing that need—but even a future HOFer isn’t quite enough on his own. Watt will probably play all along the D-line this season but will spend most of his time at one of the DE spots opposite (presumably) Zach Allen, with last season’s free agent bust Jordan Phillips in between them at DE. Depth behind them is… not optimal, with unproven youngsters Michael Dogbe, Leki Fotu, and Rashard Lawrence the only other bodies of note. Angelo Blackson, Domata Peko, and stalwart Corey Peters are all free agents and could come back at the right price. But I expect Keim to add more budget options here via free agency, the draft, or both, especially at DE, where Blackson especially would be a nice depth piece. The team also can’t be confident at all in Phillips, nor in Fotu/Lawrence, so a starting-caliber DT would be a huge boon as well. But this unit is already much-improved with Watt on board.

Edge Rushers/Linebackers

This group might have even more questions now than it did before the Watt signing—especially as far as the salary cap is concerned. Devon Kennard seems almost certain to be gone, but Dennis Gardeck (restricted), Markus Golden, and Haason Reddick are all free agents. The team will obviously bring Gardeck back, and consensus seems to be growing that Reddick will return as well—but how much will both players cost? (Golden is probably a fallback option if we can’t retain Reddick.) And then there’s Chandler Jones’s contract to consider. A restructuring seems likely—and is probably necessary to clear some cap space to bring back Reddick and address other needs. If—and that’s a big IF—the team can trot out Jones, Reddick, and Gardeck at OLB with Watt at DE, that’s about all they’ll need at pass rush. They’ll need to add at ILB, however, with Isaiah Simmons the only sure thing on the roster. De’Vondre Campbell won’t be back, and there’s question about Jordan Hick’s future with the team, as his salary isn’t commensurate with his production at this point. Could the team address ILB in the 1st round two years in a row if Micah Parsons is there for the taking? I wouldn’t be opposed to it.

Secondary

I don’t anticipate the team making any real moves at safety outside of hopefully bringing back special teams studs Chris Banjo and Charles Washington. But cornerback is obviously a black hole right now, with only Byron Murphy and something called a “Robert Alford” on the roster. We still don’t know what we have with Murphy, and Alford is probably just dead weight after two seasons lost due to injury—but it’s clear that neither of them are a CB1 (or likely even a CB2). It was seeming increasingly likely that our erstwhile CB1, Patrick Peterson, wouldn’t be returning to the team… but perhaps the Watt signing would make both parties more amenable to working out a deal—maybe even for just one season if big money isn’t out there due to the depressed salary cap? But we’d still need at least another decent corner or two even if Peterson came back. Keim will need to be aggressive in free agency and the draft to bolster this unit. I expect the team to invest a Day 1-2 draft pick and mid-tier FA into the position—whether or not Peterson returns.

Final Thoughts

Even with Watt in the fold, there is a lot of work to be done on defense. Here’s the TL;DR version:

  • The D-line still needs several rotation pieces, as depth is precarious behind the three presumed starters. Be on the lookout for budget options here—perhaps even a Keim Time signing or two later in the offseason.
  • Expect the team to restructure Chandler Jones and try to bring back Haason Reddick (or Markus Golden if not). Don’t expect much outside investment in the pass rush.
  • Inside linebacker is an interesting position. They could stand pat with Isaiah Simmons and Jordan Hicks, or try to upgrade on Hicks if the opportunity presents itself.
  • Safety is set (aside from backups/special teamers), but cornerback is the biggest remaining question on this team. I wouldn’t be surprised if Patrick Peterson comes back, but there will be several new faces at this position next year either way.

How are you feeling about the defense at this point, RoTBers? Any names in free agency or the draft you have your eye on to plug any of the several remaining holes? Give us some names or your worst Watt puns in the comments!