The 5: Arizona Cardinals top offseason priorities
It appears there will be no shakeups in the Arizona Cardinals’ leadership structure this offseason.
General manager Steve Keim will continue pulling the roster out of a talent deficit, while head coach Kliff Kingsbury and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph get to build on implementing their philosophies in 2020.
As Arizona heads into an early offseason, discussions about improving the roster will be the first steps toward building on a 5-10-1 year.
Here are five areas that the Cardinals will prioritize while looking ahead to free agency and the draft, where Arizona holds the No. 8 pick.
Keeping the O-line intact
As good as the offensive line played in 2019, change threatens the cohesiveness of the group.
Starting tackles D.J. Humphries and Justin Murray are free agents, the latter of whom is an exclusive rights free agent. Veteran right tackle Marcus Gilbert, the presumed starter who saw his season come to an end due to a knee injury before Week 1, is also a free agent. Same goes for fellow veteran Jordan Mills, who was inked to replace Gilbert.
On the interior, starting center A.Q. Shipley and backup guard Max Garcia can hit the market if they choose. Bringing back Shipley, who played 16 games coming off a 2018 ACL injury, would keep the versatile Mason Cole as a plug-and-produce backup option at either guard spots or center. Garcia, who was active since Week 10 but did not play an offensive snap, has a strong resume and is only 28 years old.
Youngsters like guard Lamont Gaillard, plus tackles Josh Miles and Brett Toth, could contribute next year, but Keim mostly can attack this offseason this way: Does he bring back Humphries or favor another free agent tackle seeking a big deal? Does he have enough confidence that a top tackle prospect will fall to the Cardinals at No. 8? Georgia’s Andrew Thomas and Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs could be the first two tackles off the board.
Re-signing Gilbert or Murray on the cheap would build depth. But the Humphries decision and the draft pick are two ways to shore this up and ensue quarterback Kyler Murray will be protected next season and beyond.
Immediate returns in depth through the 2020 NFL Draft
There’s no doubt that whomever is the No. 8 pick will need to play right away. If that’s a receiver or an offensive tackle as most are speculating, that’s true based on need alone.
But Keim must do more than get one instant-impact player in the draft, especially when it comes to the defensive side of the ball.
At eighth overall, the Cardinals should hope that one of the teams behind them becomes desperate for quarterback help. If one of Joe Burrow or Tua Tagovailoa falls, or if one team is high on Justin Herbert, that’s a possibility.
And there’s a lot of curiousness behind them. Are Nick Foles and/or Gardner Minshew answers for the Jaguars (ninth pick)? As crazy as it sounds, you probably can’t count out the Browns (10th pick) on resetting their head coach and football operations leadership model and then wanting a new quarterback.
The Colts (13th) think the “jury’s still out” on quarterback Jacoby Brissett, and with the 14th pick, the Buccaneers’ Bruce Arians certainly did not express a lot of optimism about free-agent-to-be Jameis Winston.
There’s opportunity to trade down and gather more picks.
Arizona got through 2019 relatively healthy, but depth issues are a concern at nearly every defensive position group. Interior linemen, pass-rushers and inside linebackers are first among those needs. More on that later.
Offensively, ready-to-go receivers and offensive linemen are obvious priorities.
The running back situation
This one’s a doozy.
Kenyan Drake’s 643 yards and 5.2 yards-per-carry in a half-season with Arizona might have increased his price tag as a free agent. There’s no doubt Kingsbury would love to have him back.
Alongside that storyline, however, is the one regarding David Johnson. It became clear Kingsbury was only comfortable using him as a pass-catcher, and the running back’s $14.2 million and $12 million cap hits over the next two years loom as a cloud over the team.
Honest conversations between coach, player and GM must be had in the coming weeks. Arizona must consider if there’s room for Johnson to play a bigger role than he did down the stretch if Drake returns. Or the Cardinals need to determine if Johnson or Edmonds can be a No. 1 option if not.
This all leads to a wider-angled question.
Itemizing the weaponry
Kingsbury loves himself some options.
He started three different running backs in 2019. Twelve players recorded 100 or more receiving yards, and 11 caught a receiving touchdown.
Who’s a keeper and who’s not?
Larry Fitzgerald may or may night retire, and Christian Kirk must prove he can stay healthy. But even then, Arizona needs a true No. 1 jump-ball receiver. Is tight end Dan Arnold, who is under contract through 2020, the real deal?
Can Damiere Byrd, a pending free agent who had two of his best games in the final three outings, take a leap next season? Meanwhile, Pharoh Cooper is a key return man and for a stretch looked like the No. 3 receiver. But he’s also about to hit free agency.
How bullish Keim is on how soon rookies Andy Isabella (second-round pick), KeeSean Johnson (sixth round) and Hakeem Butler (fourth round) can contribute matters in the discussion as well.
The wide receiver crop in the 2020 NFL Draft includes likely first-round choices like Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb. Kingsbury might pound the table for the team to draft a No. 1 receiver, but there’s also the possibility of finding ready-to-go contributors in the second round or later.
Adding impact players to the front-seven
The interior of the Cardinals defensive line was a rotation of inconsistency outside Corey Peters. Relying on Robert Nkemdiche and signing Darius Philon ended up biting Keim. A series of injuries to Zach Allen, Rodney Gunter and Jonathan Bullard took away any possibility of stability there.
Peters plus rookies Allen, Michael Dogbe and Miles Brown are on the only interior linemen under contract next season.
Bullard, who will be a free agent, flashed before he found himself and IR, and midseason pickup Zach Kerr quietly impressed as well. They could be candidates to extend now or re-sign later.
The interior needs addressing in the draft, either way.
Opposite Chandler Jones, the Cardinals have to find depth. Cassius Marsh and Haason Reddick didn’t do a lot to make themselves clear-cut options at outside linebacker once the team released Terrell Suggs.
And at inside linebacker, there is zip for depth after Jordan Hicks with fellow starter Joe Walker being an exclusive rights free agent.