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Unfinished business: Position battles after free agency and the draft

As the 2021 roster picture starts to become clear, let’s take a look at the few position battles that are still to be decided.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams
Has former 4th-round draft pick Chase Edmonds earned the opportunity to be a starter in 2021?
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Believe it or not, it’s May already. The main free agency period and the draft are behind us, meaning that the 2021 roster is looking fairly set. There will obviously be a few additions here and there (our GM is Steve Keim, after all), and there is a certain retirement situation everyone is keeping an eye on, but most of the starting lineup seems set. Here are the positions that seem to have clear starters to me.

Offense

QB: Kyler Murray

WR: DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk (slot)

T: D.J. Humphries (LT), Kelvin Beachum (RT)

G: Justin Pugh (LG)

C: Rodney Hudson

Defense

DE: J.J. Watt, Zach Allen

DT: Jordan Phillips

OLB: Chandler Jones, Markus Golden

ILB: Isaiah Simmons

CB: Malcolm Butler, Robert Alford, Byron Murphy (slot)

S: Budda Baker, Jalen Thompson

So, through the power of deduction, it would appear that RB, TE, RG, and one ILB spot are still up in the air. Let’s quickly run through each position and see who the candidates are as the 2021 roster picture becomes more and more clear.

Running Back

Candidates: Chase Edmonds, James Conner

Redbirds fans who were hoping the team would add a rookie runner last weekend were left sorely disappointed. I’m personally glad we didn’t spend a pick on a runner and think we’ll be fine with the duo of Edmonds and Conner. They’ll both play a ton and could form a close to 50/50 time share. The only question is who will be the official starter.

Edmonds has only started 4 games in his 3-year career, while Conner has started 33 games in the past 3 seasons for the Steelers after playing sparingly as a rookie. So experience would seem to favor Conner. But he also has a long injury history, and I think the coaching staff will give the nod to Edmonds, who has earned the shot to start after being productive in a part-time role in the past two seasons. But like I said above, these guys will be splitting carries all season—I wouldn’t be surprised if neither of them cleared 175 carries next season.

Tight End

Candidates: Maxx Williams, Player X

After the Cardinals let the affordable Dan Arnold go, I was a bit surprised they didn’t invest a single draft pick in a tight end. Maxx Williams, a capable blocker and so-so receiver, would seem to be the starter for now. The only other TE of note on the roster is special teamer Darrell Daniels. It is interesting to note that both Williams and Daniels caught 8 balls last season.

Perhaps the starting TE isn’t even on the roster right now? As far as trade options go, the Zach Ertz rumors won’t seem to die. The free agent options are rather unappealing. Perhaps an UDFA or this guy sticks? There could always be a salary cap casualty or waived player that lands in our laps. Of all the positions on this list, this is the one where an external option makes the most sense.

Right Guard

Candidates: Justin Murray, Josh Jones, Brian Winters

The Cardinals have no shortage of options here: Murray started several games at guard last year, Jones is a 1st-round talent itching to get into the lineup, and Winters is an experienced veteran (88 career starts). Any of them would likely be an upgrade over J.R. Sweezy, who was barely adequate when not hurt last year.

Of these three, I think Murray, who was solid but not spectacular at guard last year, profiles best as a swing tackle. Jones is intriguing, but I suspect he’d have to clearly beat out the other two in camp, which I’m not sure I see happening. Does that make new addition Winters the frontrunner to start at RG? He did start 9 games last year for the 13-3 Bills. I think right now, it’s Winters, Murray, Jones in that order.

Inside Linebacker

Candidates: Jordan Hicks, Zaven Collins

If Isaiah Simmons isn’t manning one of the two ILB spots in Week 1, something will have gone terribly wrong. That leaves one of former big-money free agent Hicks and 1st-round rookie Collins to man the other spot. Hicks has started all 32 games over the past two seasons, but he has provided consistently below-average play. It’s probably fair to label him as a free agent bust. But is Collins ready to step in right away and start in Week 1?

Walter recently did a fantastic write-up on this very topic, and his conclusion was that the team should move on from Hicks. I mostly agree with that take, but I think it should be a reactive move, rather than a proactive one. If another team makes a fair offer in a trade, go ahead and move him. Otherwise, there’s no pressing need to move on right away. Let’s see how Collins looks in the offseason and make a decision from there. Right now, I’d guess that Hicks is still on the roster in Week 1—and likely still in the starting lineup.

Final Thoughts

The 2021 roster is looking pretty close to complete. I think the most likely potential addition is at TE, although I would love adding another starting-caliber veteran corner to take Alford’s starting spot, if possible. Beyond any potential roster additions, here’s who I see starting in Week 1 right now at the four still-undecided positions:

RB: Chase Edmonds

TE: Maxx Williams

RG: Brian Winters

ILB: Jordan Hicks

What are your thoughts on the roster as it stands now, RotBers? Who do you think wins these position battles? Are you keeping your eye on any other positions?