Cardinals free agency refresher: Which OLBs return with Chandler Jones?
The National Football League’s new season officially begins on March 17.
NFL-wide, the Arizona Cardinals have the largest share of 2020 snaps taken by players who will enter free agency this offseason, according to OverTheCap.com. Forty-four percent of the team’s total snaps could be lost in free agency.
General manager Steve Keim will see what he can do to retain many of those players after an 8-8 season. But with spending limited due to a salary cap drop — plus teams expected to be shedding big contracts before free agency — there are many roster decisions to make on the fly.
This series, originally published in January, has been refreshed with any updates before free agency begins.
Players under contract
Chandler Jones ($20,833,334)
Devon Kennard ($8,000,000)
Dennis Gardeck (restricted)
Kylie Fitts (exclusive rights)
The good news
Can it be labeled as good news that star pass-rusher Chandler Jones got hurt relatively early in the 2020 season and his replacements took full advantage of the opportunity in replacing him?
If you are overly optimistic.
Losing the best pass-rusher since he joined the Cardinals cannot be argued as a good thing. So let’s go with this: What defensive coordinator Vance Joseph did after Jones injured his biceps and was lost for the year verified he’s one of the more creative defensive coordinators in the NFL.
His outside linebacker group was the key to that.
Arizona began the year looking relatively standard, if not dull, in how little it blitzed, hoping instead Jones and offseason free agent pickups Devon Kennard and Jordan Phillips could pile up the sacks with four-man rushes.
Jones posted a single sack in four-and-a-half games before getting hurt.
Once he went down, others stepped up.
Joseph used a rotation of five outside linebackers, plus inside linebacker Isaiah Simmons, and at times put most of them on the field on third downs as part of his NASCAR package. Some would drop, some would pass-rush, but confusing the opposing quarterback was likely. If Jones is healthy next year, whomever joins him up front can continue building on those unique packages with a blueprint already there to start 2021.
It’s just a matter of how ready Jones will be to begin the year. The addition of J.J. Watt on the interior of the defensive line also reduces the priority of how Keim spends at outside backer.
Looking toward the offseason, the Cardinals will have difficult conversations regarding how they spend money on restocking the outside linebacker room. It starts with soon-to-be free agent Haason Reddick, who was not tagged before the Tuesday deadline.
After the Cardinals opted against picking up his fifth-year option before the season, the 2017 first-round pick thrived in his first full year playing exclusively as a pass-rusher. Reddick tied for fourth in the NFL with a 12.5-sack season, adding 63 tackles (20 for loss) and six forced fumbles.
He will be hitting a free agent market impacted by the pandemic, but it might still pay him well because he plays at a premium position.
If that prices him out of the Cardinals’ range, they at least have options in regards to retaining their free agents.
Kennard only played about a third of the snaps for the entire year and was pushed out of regular snaps in the back-half of the year, for whatever reason. The Cardinals would hope he can earn back a starting-caliber role considering the money he’s making (There’s also an out that can be triggered by the fifth day of the 2021 league year if the Cardinals want to open more cap space and move on, per Spotrac).
Then there’s the impending free agents.
Markus Golden provided the energy and had three sacks with 5.5 tackles for loss in nine games after Arizona traded a sixth-round pick to acquire him from the New York Giants. Golden actually got pressure on pass rushes at a higher rate (16.5%) than Reddick (13.6%), according to Pro Football Focus.
Kylie Fitts was also serviceable, but the story that became immediately apparent after Jones went down with a biceps injury in Week 5 was that of Dennis Gardeck.
The undrafted special teams captain made his first appearance on defense once Jones was lost to his injury against the Jets. He recorded two sacks in that game and recorded seven sacks to finish second on the team for the year.
Gardeck posted a ridiculous 18 pressures — which include sacks, hits and hurries — in only 79 pass-rush snaps all year long. That means he was bearing down on a quarterback on nearly one in every four snaps.
While Gardeck was used sparingly on rushing downs, the Cardinals will likely be willing and able to retain the restricted free agent, who is also a key special teams player. That would give Arizona Jones (1 sack), Kennard (3) and Gardeck (7) back in the fold, plus the occasional sighting at the line of scrimmage from Simmons (2).
Retaining one or more of Golden and Fitts would keep continuity and the position group’s depth intact.
For Reddick, the uncertain market will likely dictate if Arizona can keep him at a reasonable cost.