Pro Football Focus tries to predict Cardinals’ free agency moves
Trying to guess what free agents the Arizona Cardinals will pursue could be an effort of futility.
With minimal cap space and nearly two dozen of their own free agents to worry about, it stands to reason the Cardinals won’t be linked to too many high-profile players.
Still, as GM Steve Keim looks to upgrade a roster that fell well below expectations with a 7-8-1 record a season ago, he will no doubt have to dip his toe into the free agency waters, perhaps right before fully diving in.
What might he do if he does?
The folks over at Pro Football Focus made their best guess, putting a free agency preview together for the Cardinals that looks at their salary cap room, needs and notable free agents.
Pointing out the Cardinals’ projected $32,106,989 of cap space ranks as the 18th-most in the NFL, PFF says the team must re-sign linebacker Chandler Jones. Jones was given the franchise tag Monday and is expected to be back after collecting 11 sacks in his first season in Arizona.
Keeping Jones, while prudent and the smart thing to do, was long expected and is not particularly newsworthy.
What the site thinks would be the Cardinals’ “dream splash,” however, would be, as they’d land cornerback Prince Amukamara.
The Cardinals desperately need another solid cornerback to play opposite Patrick Peterson. The Cardinals play a lot of man coverage in their defense and adding Amukamara would be a big help. Amukamara has five straight seasons with positive coverage grades and would be a nice addition to the Cardinals secondary.
A first-round draft pick of the New York Giants’ in 2011, Amukamara spent last season with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He appeared in 14 games, collecting six passes defensed along with 49 tackles. The 27-year-old Nebraska alum who attended Apollo High School in Glendale, Ariz., has intercepted seven passes in his career and would fill an apparent need for the Cardinals opposite the Pro Bowler Peterson.
Amukamara figures to be one of the more sought-after free agents, however, and it’s likely he will receive some solid offers from other teams with more cap space.
The other three players PFF lists as “top 2017 free agency prospects” are known players, too, but may be more within Arizona’s reach.
The first is guard Ronald Leary, who was with the Dallas Cowboys.
With the sudden retirement of Evan Mathis, the Cardinals are left with only one viable starting guard in Mike Iupati. Earl Watford had struggles at guard last season so it will clearly be a position of emphasis in free agency. Leary would be a clear upgrade for the Cardinals both as a run-blocker and a pass protector. Leary did not allow a single sack in 2016 on 438 pass blocking snaps and that type of pass protection for Carson Palmer would make the entire Cardinals’ offense better.
The 27-year-old Leary started 12 games for the Cowboys last season, helping pave the way for one of the most dominant run games the league has seen. The 6-foot-3, 320-pound player has started 47 games in his career and could be an attractive option for any team looking for interior line help.
Another free agency prospect, according to the site, is cornerback Stephon Gilmore, formerly of the Buffalo Bills.
Cardinals GM Steve Keim has often expressed that his offseason philosophy is to try and fill roster holes in free agency and just draft talented players. In keeping with that philosophy the Cardinals will likely target a free agent cornerback to play opposite Patrick Peterson. While Gilmore did have a down season last year in coverage his 5 interceptions and 6 passes broken up would still be a nice addition to the Cardinals secondary.
A Pro Bowler in 2016, Gilmore is coming off a season in which he appeared in 15 games and was fairly effective. At 26 years old he is still in his prime and is a big corner at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds. It’s easy to see why the Cardinals would have interest, though as is the case with the other players mentioned so far, they likely would not be alone.
The final player listed as a potential Cardinals target is linebacker Sean Spence.
The Cardinals are likely to lose linebacker Kevin Minter in free agency and will need some more bodies to help fill out a thin linebacker group. Spence is an athletic linebacker who has improved his performance every single season he has been in the NFL. Spence has experience playing in a blitz-heavy scheme (3 sacks in 2016) and his coverage ability (75.5 coverage grade in 2016) would be a benefit to the Cardinals defense.
Spence spent the first two years of his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers before joining the Titans last season. He has 144 career tackles to go along with five sacks. A third-round pick out of Miami in 2012, he may be a reasonable option for the Cardinals should they need to find a new inside linebacker.