Arizona Cardinals roster reset: Roles and depth to fill after 2019
Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury likes to describe situations as “works in progress.”
From Kyler Murray’s development to the team’s failure covering opposing tight ends this season, it was a phrase that came up a lot.
There was actual progress regarding a number of topics as the first-year head coach directed Arizona to a 5-10-1 record in 2019.
For the Cardinals as a franchise, however, the roster situation needs a lot of work. A relatively healthy year helped hide depth deficiencies.
General manager Steve Keim has money to spend — upward of $50 million as of this writing — and quite a few starting holes to patch by using that cash, plus draft picks, if Arizona wants to compete in a competitive NFC West.
So with only the Super Bowl between the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs left this season, let’s review the roster and look ahead with 2020 in mind.
Players under contract: Kyler Murray, Drew Anderson
Free agents: Brett Hundley
Last January, I wrote in this same exercise that “the Cardinals don’t need to worry about the quarterback position heading into 2019.” In my defense, what could you really make out of Josh Rosen’s rookie season playing behind the NFL’s worst offensive line? Well, the Cardinals felt differently, especially after Murray opted to pursue a football career a month later.
I’ll say it more forcefully this time: The Cardinals don’t need to worry about the quarterback position heading into next season.
Murray provided plenty of evidence that his command of the offense, elite quarterback stuff in his arm and speed all translated to the NFL. It would be nice, though, to re-sign his backup in Hundley, who in the preseason and a little bit of game action showed he was up for managing Kingsbury’s offense.
Players under contract: David Johnson, Chase Edmonds
Free agents: Kenyan Drake, D.J. Foster (IR/restricted)
It’s a no-brainer that Drake’s 643 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in his half-year, plus his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, would be welcomed back. There’s always a chance another team flies in with a big offer in his free agency, and that’s why it’s hard to see him reaching an extension with Arizona before the new league year starts in March. His command of the offense stood out.
That is where you wonder about Johnson, the guy who lost his role after the Cardinals traded for Drake midseason.
Johnson, Kingsbury and Keim need to sit down and figure out whether they’ll be able to work things out and make the former All-Pro effective in this offense. That is true regardless of if Drake is back or not. As for Edmonds, he remains a high-level backup, if not a starter should Drake walk and things aren’t patched up with Johnson.
Players under contract: Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk, Andy Isabella, KeeSean Johnson, Trent Sherfield, Hakeem Butler, Johnnie Dixon, A.J. Richardson
Free agents: Pharoh Cooper, Damiere Byrd
Fitzgerald’s extension signed through 2020 just this past week only filled in the second starting receiver role for 2020. Think about that for a second, and it’s clear there are questions to be asked here, whether it’s about in-house development or finding contributors in the draft or free agency.
Kirk and Fitzgerald appear to work best in the slot, so who is the top outside threat?
Byrd flashed and was a favorite of the coaching staff for his work ethic and improvement, but a hamstring injury limited his production. Can Isabella make a leap to be the speed guy in his second season? Is Butler going to be consistent enough — or even in the mix — in 2020 without one NFL snap taken his rookie season? Can he or another player give Arizona the jump-ball type of wideout they’ve lacked the last few years?
Players under contract: Maxx Williams, Dan Arnold, Darrell Daniels (IR)
Free agents: Charles Clay
Keim got some offseason work done ahead of time by extending Williams in-season, as he was a key piece to the run-blocking and an occasional participant in the passing attack.
Arnold is the most fascinating player to watch of this group. Like Drake, he stood out in practices, picked up the gameplan early on and within weeks of being acquired via waivers had Murray’s and Kingsbury’s attention in red zone packages, where his high-pointing of the football led to a couple touchdowns. It likely means Clay, who had a decent enough season (237 yards receiving), could be viewed as expendable.
Players under contract: LG Justin Pugh, C/G Mason Cole, RG J.R. Sweezy, T Josh Miles, C/G Lamont Gaillard, Brett Toth, T William Sweet (IR), C Sam Jones
Free agents: LT D.J. Humphries, C A.Q. Shipley, RT Marcus Gilbert (IR), RT Justin Murray (exclusive rights restricted), RT Jordan Mills (IR), G Max Garcia
Keim’s years-long vision for his offensive line finally came to fruition in 2019, but now the Cardinals are set up to face turnover. Arizona can keep the gang together by spending money at both tackles positions, but there’s a good argument for finding a starting-caliber rookie with the No. 8 pick in the draft. Re-signing Humphries and drafting a ready-to-go rookie would be promising moves.
If Keim wants to spend elsewhere, another option is to re-sign right tackle Justin Murray; he’s arguably No. 1 on a list of Cardinals who didn’t get enough credit in 2019. Murray held down the right tackle job with injuries striking that position multiple times, all despite being a waiver-wire pickup before Week 1 without a single NFL start under his belt.
At center, re-signing Shipley would not only bring back a well-respected leader but lock in depth, keeping Cole as a backup at any of the interior positions.
Players under contract: DT Corey Peters, DE Zach Allen, DE Michael Dogbe, DT Miles Brown, DE Kylie Fitts, DE Lyndon Johnson
Free agents: DT Rodney Gunter, DE Jonathan Bullard, DT Zach Kerr, DE Clinton McDonald
There’s potential for upgrades here, and the reported parting of ways with defensive line coach Chris Achuff suggested as much.
The interior line group, one that saw many iterations due to injuries, held up decently against the run but produced just 7.0 sacks on the year. Improving the pass-rush sure would help out linebacker Chandler Jones. There is young talent on board, but the Cardinals need defensive ends that do what they thought Darius Philon would last season before he was arrested and released in the preseason.
Players under contract: ILB Jordan Hicks, OLB Chandler Jones, OLB Haason Reddick, ILB Tanner Vallejo, ILB Ezekiel Turner, ILB Dennis Gardeck, ILB Keishawn Bierria, OLB Vontarrius Dora
Free agents: ILB Joe Walker (exclusive rights restricted), OLB Cassius Marsh, OLB Brooks Reed (IR)
As bad as the pass-rush was from the interior linemen, the outside linebacker position — outside of Jones — saw little production in the sacks department before and after the team moved on from veteran Terrell Suggs. Marsh flashed with 1.5 sacks in the last two games, and Reddick could be ushered in as the starter if Marsh is gone in free agency. That, however, is putting faith in a player who has hardly played a true pass-rushing position since his rookie season.
Inside linebacker needs better athleticism and depth, regardless of how you feel about Walker, who worked alongside the tackle machine Hicks.
Players under contract: CB Patrick Peterson, CB Robert Alford (IR), S Budda Baker, S Jalen Thompson, S Deionte Thompson
Free agents: CB Kevin Peterson (IR/exclusive rights restricted), Brandon Williams (IR), Josh Shaw (IR), S Charles Washington (restricted), S Chris Banjo
Patrick Peterson’s close to 2019 alleviated concerns about his ability to return to his pre-suspension level of play. Once Alford is back from a leg injury that derailed his entire season, one could wonder if he can revert to playing like the high-level No. 2 corner Arizona expected this past year.
Rookie Jalen Thompson began hitting his stride late at deep safety as well, but the Cardinals would be in a much better spot if the Thompson twins are depth options. Either way, they need depth period. The question is whether Arizona has the money to spend here after dealing with both lines, linebacker and even potentially receiver.
Players under contract: P Andy Lee, LS Aaron Brewer, P Ryan Winslow,
Free agents: Zane Gonzalez (restricted), KR/PR Pharoh Cooper
Gonzalez couldn’t have been much more solid by making 31 of 35 field goals, where three of the misses were beyond 40 yards. There’s a lot of stability here.
Perhaps one point of curiosity is in the return game, where the Cardinals must wonder who fills in for Pharoh Cooper or if they like him enough as return guy and receiver to bring him back.