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Cardinals must upgrade their defense with post-June 1st cap relief; Avoid making same mistake twice

Defensive line and cornerback are two positions of need for the Cardinals

Los Angeles Rams v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

One of the most important lessons learned from the Arizona Cardinals last season is that having quality depth is equally as important as having a quality starting lineup. They can never have enough depth.

And they learned that the hard way with the unexpected retirement of Malcolm Butler that offseason and the injuries to both J.J. Watt and Robert Alford midway through 2021.

The Cardinals caught fire with a 10-2 start but came crashing back down to earth with a 1-5 record the rest of the way, which includes the 34-11 blowout loss against the Rams in the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs.

With the conclusion of the main free agency period and the NFL Draft, the Cardinals are still left with substantial needs at both the defensive line and cornerback positions.

If they want to make another run at the NFC West title, they must address their needs.

Given the additional $10 million in cap space from Jordan Phillips’ post-June 1st designated release, there is no reason for GM Steve Keim to not make any impactful free agent moves this month for a defensive group that is in dire need of depth.

Let’s take a look at their two areas of need:

Defensive Line

After J.J. Watt’s injury in Week 7, the Cardinals defensive line struggled to get after the quarterback. Though Zach Allen had a breakout season with four sacks and 26 pressures, he lacked the desired consistency as a 3-4 pass rusher in the trenches. Jordan Phillips, who returned to Buffalo after his release, struggled to stay healthy in his time in Arizona and never lived up to the three-year $30 million contract he received a couple years ago.

Taking a look at their previous defensive line draft picks, 2020 fourth-round selection Leki Fotu has not had the impact the Cardinals expected out of him and could be on the roster bubble this year. Former seventh-round pick Michael Dogbe was re-signed to a one-year deal and flashed when given the opportunity last season. The second of their 2020 fourth-round picks Rashard Lawrence showed quite a bit of potential at nose tackle last year but still not enough to be awarded the starting job. Him and Corey Peters rotated at the position but the defensive line remained a unit that struggled in all facets in rushing the passer and stuffing the run.

In three out of their last four games, Colts’ Jonathan Taylor, Lions’ Craig Reynolds, and Seahawks’ Rashaad Penny gashed the Cardinals with over 100 rushing yards. Arizona’s struggle against the run was much worse than what their 20th ranking in that category entailed. Their 4.6 yards per carry allowed was tied for fifth-worst in the NFL.

What will they do upgrade their defensive line this season?

As of now, the Cardinals are moving forward with a similar defensive line unit minus Peters and Phillips. The first step they made towards improving their depth is signing former Packers and Texans defensive tackle Kingsley Keke to a one-year deal. He had 6.5 sacks over the last two seasons.

Arizona Cardinals v Tennessee Titans Photo by Silas Walker/Getty Images

However, this is far from enough considering the inexperience and lack of production from their depth behind J.J. Watt. Available veteran defensive linemen in free agency includes Eddie Goldman, Linval Joseph, Larry Ogunjobi, and Sheldon Richardson. The Cardinals must be prepared for all situations and not be fully dependent on their starters remaining healthy through the rigors of 17 regular season games.

Cornerback

After Malcolm Butler’s unexpected retirement last season with rookie Marco Wilson beating him out for the starting job, the Cardinals did not make much of an effort to replace him for depth purposes.

Robert Alford and Wilson were starters on the outside with Byron Murphy manning the slot. Antonio Hamilton started the season on the practice squad before being elevated to the roster as the No. 4 cornerback on their depth chart. Cardinals traded rookie CB Tay Gowan and a draft pick to acquire Zach Ertz. This unit more than held their own through the first 13 weeks of the regular season.

However after Alford sustained a season-ending injury in the Cardinals’ Week 14 loss to the Rams and Wilson in the Week 16 loss to the Colts, their cornerback depth was tested and unfortunately they failed to deliver. Their job was made harder with the loss of pass rush threat J.J. Watt for the second half of the season.

Breon Borders was signed from the Titans’ practice squad and allowed two touchdowns in his one game of action in the regular season finale. Byron Murphy had a rough second half of the season, allowing three touchdowns in Week 15 through 17. Kevin Peterson was exploited in coverage as the Cowboys picked him apart in the form of two touchdowns in spite of the win in Week 17. Cardinals signed Bashaud Breeland to their practice squad towards the end of the regular season but was never elevated to their active roster.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Jacksonville Jaguars Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

With the tragic and unfortunate loss of Jeff Gladney, the Cardinals are yet again back in square one very thin at the cornerback position. It would not surprise me in the slightest to see them add multiple veterans to this position group. 2022 seventh-round pick Christian Matthew out of Valdosta State has intriguing measurables (6’2’’ 196lbs) and athleticism (4.5 40) but seems to be a player auditioning for the practice squad than a 53-man roster spot at the moment.

The Cardinals should try harder than ever to not be in another position where they are forced to play a Jace Whittaker or Kevin Peterson especially when a playoff spot is on the line.

There remains an abundance of experienced veteran corners in free agency that include AJ Bouye, Pierre Desir, Joe Haden, Chris Harris Jr, Kevin King, Xavier Rhodes, and Trae Waynes. The Cardinals could opt to re-sign Robert Alford, who they brought back for a visit in March, or Bashaud Breeland.

Cardinals are hoping Byron Murphy and Marco Wilson can elevate their game in 2022.

Another position of need includes backup center, considering the struggles of Max Garcia and Sean Harlow in place of All-Pro Rodney Hudson last season. The Cardinals did bring in free agent center Billy Price for a visit.

Who would you like to see the Cardinals add with the $10 million in cap relief?