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ESPN’s Clayton: Cardinals have regressed in early parts of free agency

Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians calls out from sidelines against the Seattle Seahawks in the second half of an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

We all had a feeling the Arizona Cardinals would take some hits in free agency, given that they had so many key players set to hit the open market and not a particularly large amount of salary cap space with which to try and keep them.

But even still, what happened to the team over the first week of the free agency period has been a shock to the Arizona system.

For a deeper look into what exactly has transpired, click here, but suffice to say the Cardinals have lost a considerable amount of talent from a team that in 2016 went 7-8-1.

Now, we won’t know if the Cardinals are truly worse off for what they have lost until the 2017 season begins, but as of right now, it’s tough to believe they will be better. That’s why, in an Insider piece, ESPN’s John Clayton listed the Cardinals among five teams who have regressed after the first surge of free agency.

Biggest losses: DE Calais Campbell, S Tony Jefferson, S D.J. Swearinger, CB Marcus Cooper, OT Earl Watford

The Cardinals, who ranked second in overall total defense in 2016, might drop a level or two with their free-agent losses. They figure to lose as many as six decent defenders: Campbell, Cooper, Jefferson, Swearinger, pass-rusher Alex Okafor and potentially linebacker Kevin Minter. The signing of Karlos Dansby and Jarvis Jones likely signals Minter’s pending departure, and the Cardinals brought in 32-year-old Antoine Bethea on a cheap deal to provide cover at safety. Arizona has to hope that 2016 first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche can improve and take Campbell’s spot, and the team is still looking for a No. 2 cornerback. That spot might have to be filled with the No. 13 overall pick.

The Cardinals, at least in part, prepared for Campbell’s departure with the selection of Nkemdiche last season, and are also hopeful third-year pro Rodney Gunter will take another step forward. The losses of Jefferson, Swearinger and Cooper, however, may be a bit trickier to overcome, however.

Jefferson emerged last season after the team parted with veteran Rashad Johnson, and produced a career year in which he recorded 92 tackles, five passes defensed and two sacks. Swearinger also stepped up in his first full season in Arizona, bringing a physical style to the secondary and recording three interceptions and two sacks. Cooper, meanwhile, led the team with four interceptions as a starting cornerback.

As Clayton noted, the Cardinals did make some moves of their own in an effort to mitigate what they have lost, and it’s possible the additions of Bethea, Dansby and Jones — as well as whatever the team gets in the draft — could be enough to offset the departures.

But as of now, through just less than one week of free agency, it certainly seems as though the Cardinals — along with the Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals, according to Clayton —  have taken a hit.

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