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Cardinals’ biggest needs post free agency

2023 NFL Draft is two days away

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The main free agency period has come and gone but the Arizona Cardinals still have many holes to fill.

First-year GM Monti Ossenfort was very active this offseason, signing 13 new free agents as well as claiming three players off waivers.

Their top free agent addition was former Eagles’ linebacker Kyzir White as he reunites with head coach Jonathan Gannon and defensive coordinator Nick Rallis in Arizona from Philadelphia.

With that said, nine of the 13 acquisitions were signed to one-year deals near or at the veteran minimum value. Many of the additions will be competing for a backup role on the roster to play primarily on special teams.

The 2023 NFL Draft takes place this Thursday, April 27.

Let’s take a look at their six biggest needs post free agency:

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1. Defensive Tackle

The Cardinals’ top two defensive linemen and sack artists from last season are no longer on the team. J.J. Watt retired and Zach Allen signed a three-year $45.75 million contract with the Denver Broncos in free agency. They were responsible for 18 of the team’s 36 sacks on defense last year.

In free agency, the Cardinals added three defensive tackles in L.J. Collier, Carlos Watkins, and Kevin Strong. Collier was the Seahawks’ 29th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft with three sacks in his career, all in 2020. Watkins is entering his eighth season in the NFL and was a solid rotational player on the Cowboys last season as a run stuffer. Strong played in a career-high 16 games last season but did not register a sack.

Their top defensive linemen is arguably Rashard Lawrence, who missed 25 games since being the Cardinals’ fourth-round selection in 2020. His inability to stay healthy is a concern but has played well when available. Roster holdovers in 2020 fourth-round pick Leki Fotu, last season’s preseason standout Manny Jones, Jonathan Ledbetter and Eric Banks will battle for roster spots. Their current defensive tackle group had a grand total of one sack combined in 2022. Defensive tackle is, without question, their biggest need entering the draft.

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2. Center

It was only two seasons ago when the Cardinals traded for All-Pro center Rodney Hudson. He is now a free agent along with two other centers that filled in for him when injured in Billy Price and Sean Harlow. To address the position, the Cardinals signed Hjalte Froholdt to a two-year deal. However, Froholdt only has four career starts at center. His lack of experience makes him a very risky start for Arizona, especially with Kyler Murray recovering from a torn ACL last season.

The Cardinals experimented with 2022 sixth-round pick Lecitus Smith at the center position during practices last year but has not played any meaningful snaps there. Arizona’s best bet to upgrade the center position is via the NFL Draft unless they opt to sign Ben Jones, a free agent who was one of the most reliable centers in the NFL the last decade. Minnesota’s John Michael-Schmitz and Ohio State’s Luke Wypler are arguably the top two centers in the draft. Cardinals met with Penn State’s Juice Scruggs, whose draft stock is rising after his Senior Bowl and NFL Combine performances.

Arizona needs a long-term answer at the center position. They need to come out of the draft with that answer.

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3. EDGE rusher

An edge rusher was not added to the Cardinals’ roster during free agency. Markus Golden was released, J.J. Watt retired, and Dennis Gardeck is expected to be in rotation but play primarily on special teams. That might mean that Jonathan Gannon and his coaching staff are comfortable with last year’s third-round picks in Cam Thomas and Myjai Sanders as starters, Both showed promise in their limited reps last season with three sacks each which tied for the lead at the Cardinals’ outside linebacker position. They were part of the Cardinals’ new uniform unveiling last week for what it’s worth.

2021 sixth-round pick Victor Dimukeje and 2022 seventh-round pick Jesse Luketa will battle for a spot on the 53-man roster with very limited experience. Taking a look at all their current roster options, the Cardinals lack experience and production at the edge position. The talent is rather questionable with no player currently guaranteed to start the season.

Mock drafts over the last few months had the Cardinals taking either Alabama’s Will Anderson, Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson, or Georgia’s Nolan Smith. The 2023 draft class has an abundance of starter-level edge rushers that could be still be available late into the third round.

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4. Cornerback

Two new cornerbacks were added in free agency that includes Rashad Fenton and Kris Boyd. Fenton was traded from the Chiefs to the Falcons last year. He has 17 career starts in 49 games. Kris Boyd was the Vikings’ seventh-round selection in the 2019 NFL Draft and played primarily on special teams the last four seasons.

Antonio Hamilton was re-signed to a one-year deal this offseason and figures to battle for a starting spot either in the slot or in the boundary. He is coming off his best season as a pro with 44 tackles and nabbing his first-career interception. Marco Wilson is the presumed No. 1 cornerback on the Cardinals’ roster after a breakout season with 58 tackles and three interceptions. Last year’s seventh-round selection Christian Matthew made three starts in the final four games of 2022. Journeyman Nate Hairston is one of the more experienced cornerbacks on their roster with 18 starts (61 games), 105 tackles, and two interceptions since 2017.

Cardinals have quite a few depth pieces at cornerback with really only one bona fide starter in Wilson. The NFL Draft is loaded with a quality cornerback talent and two first-round prospects that have been linked to Arizona are Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez and Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon. Expect Arizona to add a cornerback within the first two days of the draft.

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5. Left Offensive Guard

The Cardinals have a number of options at the guard position. Elijah Wilkinson was signed to a one-year deal but proved to be a good interior guard when healthy for the Falcons’ last year. If I had to guess, he would be their starting left guard. Dennis Daley inked a two-year deal with Arizona. Considering his disastrous performance at offensive tackle last season, he is expected to make a move to guard.

Marquis Hayes impressed during the 2022 preseason as their seventh-round selection but was placed on season-ending injured reserve prior to Week 1. Both Hjalte Froholdt, 2022 sixth-round pick Lecitus Smith, and waiver claim Hayden Howerton played left guard throughout their college careers. Cardinals’ starting right guard Will Hernandez also played left guard in college and for three years with the New York Giants.

Might the Cardinals target a guard early in the draft? Ohio State’s Paris Johnson has been linked to Arizona over the last couple days. He has right guard experience but his athletic ability makes him a fit to play anywhere along the offensive line. Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski is expected to make a move from tackle to guard in the NFL. TCU’s Steve Avila and Florida’s O’Cyrus Torrence are viewed as the top guards in the draft.

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6. Wide Receiver

A DeAndre Hopkins trade is inevitable and the expectation is he will be traded some time Friday in day two of the 2023 NFL Draft. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, his time in the desert seems to be over. The Cardinals starting wide receivers at the moment are Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Rondale Moore, and Greg Dortch. All three are shorter than 5-feet-10.

They added a quality depth player in former Eagles’ wide receiver Zach Pascal to a two-year deal. At 6-feet-2 214 pounds, he is one of the bigger pass catchers on the roster with 46 career starts since 2018. Auden Tate and Javon Wims are 6-feet-5 and 6-feet-4 respectively with some NFL experience. Andre Baccellia was jumping back and forth between the active roster and practice squad last season. All four are depth players than anything else.

Will the Cardinals target a starting pass catcher via the draft? Some of the top wide receiver prospects include Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and TCU’s Quentin Johnston.