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Pro Football Focus ranks five Cardinals as top-10 free agents by position

New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) is tackled by Arizona Cardinals strong safety Tony Jefferson (22) and middle linebacker Kevin Minter (51) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

The start to free agency is quickly approaching and quite a few quality Cardinals are set to hit the market.

The people over at Pro Football Focus certainly think so, as they ranked five Cardinals within the top 10 free agents at their respective positions.

These lists feature the obvious big names, a couple quality starters and a fairly surprising inclusion.

The free agent in name only

Outside linebacker Chandler Jones, whom the Cardinals acquired from the New England Patriots for guard Jonathan Cooper and a second-round pick last offseason, is the second-ranked free agent edge defender, trailing only the Los Angeles Chargers’ Melvin Ingram.

His 87.4 grade by PFF was tied for seventh among edge rushers last season after he finished his first season in Arizona with 57 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and four forced fumbles.

“It seemed like Jones didn’t get as much publicity this year in Arizona, but he actually had his most productive year of his career,” PFF writer Matt Claassen wrote. “He earned career-high grades in overall and pass-rushing grades, as well as 66 total pressures in the regular season.”

The five-year pro is the free agent least likely to hit the market, as head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim have already stated that Jones will be hit with the franchise tag if the team cannot reach a long-term deal with him before the deadline.

The long-tenured All-Pro

Jones’ pass-rushing teammate defensive end Calais Campbell also comes in second for free agents at his position of interior defender behind the Carolina Panthers’ Kawann Short.

The massive defensive lineman was a dominating force as always last season, making the AP All-Pro Second Team after finishing with 63 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, eight sacks and seven passes defensed. His PFF grade of 90.4 was second among interior defenders behind only the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald.

PFF writer John Kosko justified the selection of Short over Campbell by alluding to the fact that Campbell is two years older than the Panthers’ defensive tackle.

“Both players will earn themselves sizeable contracts and most likely produce at near elite levels in 2016, but Short is entering the prime of his career while Campbell is in the middle of his,” he wrote.

Although the Cardinals would obviously love to have a player the quality of Campbell back, “he will demand top dollar,” according to Kosko.

The young upstart

Another priority for Arizona is keeping Tony Jefferson, who ranks third among free agent safeties behind the Kansas City Chiefs’ Eric Berry and Patriots’ Duron Harmon.

The 25-year-old took a major step forward in his first season as a full-time starter, finishing with 92 tackles, along with two sacks, five passes defensed and two forced fumbles. His 13 tackles for loss also led all NFL defensive backs.

Jefferson’s overall PFF grade of 88.6 ranked fifth among safeties, but he was the second-best safety against the run, as he finished with a 98 run defense grade.

“Jefferson has transformed from a run-stopping safety who was a liability in coverage, to an elite run-stopping safety who’s also competent in coverage,” according to PFF writer William Moy. “In his first two seasons, Jefferson allowed a 111.1 QB Rating when he was the primary defender; since then his QB Rating against has been just 87.1.”

Jefferson has stated that he wants to stay in Arizona, but he will reportedly not sign before hitting free agency.

The “other” starter

A fourth defensive starter for the Cardinals set to hit free agency is Kevin Minter, who ranks fifth among available linebackers.

“Minter had an interesting season in which he had five excellent games paired with four really bad games,” Kosko wrote. “In the end, he came out with an above-average overall grade with his play in coverage being the best.”

He trails the Patriots’ Dont’a Hightower, Buffalo Bills’ Zach Brown, San Francisco 49ers’ Gerald Hodges and Oakland Raiders’ Perry Riley.

The 26-year-old accumulated 95 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and four passes defensed in his second season as a full-time starter last year.

PFF gave Minter an 81 grade, which was 25th among all linebackers.

“If Minter is able to continue flashing those great games and reduce his number of poor games, a few of them marred by several missed tackles (missed 20 in 2016), the former LSU Tiger has potential to become a solid every down LB,” according to Kosko.

The wild card

Perhaps the most surprising inclusion is Andre Ellington’s ranking as the sixth-best available running back.

“The 28-year-old running back exploded onto the scene in his rookie season back in 2013, when he finished the year with the sixth-highest overall grade among all RBs, at 81.1,” Moy wrote. “He followed that up with a disappointing 2014 season, and has since been completely overshadowed by David Johnson in Arizona’s backfield.”

The four-year veteran finds himself behind the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell, Green Bay Packers’ Eddie Lacy, Patriots’ LeGarrette Blount, Raiders’ Latavius Murray and Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Jacquizz Rodgers.

Ellington rushed for 652 yards and three touchdowns and caught 39 passes for 371 yards and one touchdown as the backup to Rashard Mendenhall in 2013. The explosive back’s 5.5 yards per carry that season was tops among players with at least 100 carries.

However, Ellington took a major step back after being handed the starting job the next season. He still ran for 660 yards and three touchdowns while catching 46 balls for 395 yards and two touchdowns before being placed on injured reserve with a hernia after 12 weeks, but his 3.3 yards per carry average was the third-worst in the league among players with 100 or more carries. Only Texans rookie Alfred Blue and the Jaguars’ Toby Gerhart fared worse.

Since a PCL sprain sidelined him after Week 1 of the 2015 season, he has been surpassed on the depth chart by Chris Johnson and David Johnson and has been mainly a change-of-pace back, with varying levels of success over the past two seasons. For instance, Ellington graded out at 63.6 by PFF last season.

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