Cardinals 2021 lookahead: RB Kenyan Drake’s free agency a point of intrigue
With the Arizona Cardinals missing out on the playoffs having finished 8-8 this year, we’re leaping ahead to — we hope — a relatively standard offseason.
In November, the NFL mapped out a 2021 offseason that officially begins March 17, when free agents can be signed. Then comes the NFL Draft scheduled for April 29 through May 1.
The Cardinals have big roster decisions to make across the board. By looking back at last year, we’re taking a look — by position group — at the personnel decisions ahead for Arizona general manager Steve Keim.
We’ve run down the quarterback, defensive line, receiver and outside linebacker positions so far. Now on to running back, where there are big financial considerations at play.
Players under contract
Chase Edmonds ($1,033,092)
Eno Benjamin ($805,678)
Jonathan Ward ($780,000)
The good news
Don’t expect the Cardinals to view things much differently next year.
They need a true power running game to be the focal point of the offense. Whether that involves soon-to-be free agent Kenyan Drake — more on him in a bit — or someone else remains to be seen. But Arizona did in 2020 build upon the roles assumed by Drake and changeup back Chase Edmonds compared to the prior year.
The results were not always pretty, nor did head coach Kliff Kingsbury commit to the running game maybe as much as an NFL traditionalist would like, but the team did consistently and successfully dole out clear-cut roles to its top two backs.
Edmonds rushed for 448 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and added 402 receiving yards with five touchdowns combined. He was the team’s fifth leading receiver. Defenses learned to account for him differently, and he was most problematic by forcing coverage his way in the passing game.
Drake took his first year as a No. 1 back by the horns, and while the results weren’t always as electric as his eight-game run in 2019, he wasn’t a disappointment by any means.
If he departs, here’s what we know: Edmonds can handle a bigger load, even if the team believes he’s not the big-bodied back who can wear on an opposing defensive line over the course of a game.
The Cardinals liked undrafted rookie Jonathan Ward, who has size, speed and pass-catching ability that he flashed with a touchdown in just four offensive snaps all year.
Rookie Eno Benjamin could also use an offseason to will his way into the conversation after he was inactive throughout the regular season in what is effectively a redshirt year.
There is already inexpensive depth built at the position.
Keim doesn’t have to dig into his memory banks to remember why the running back personnel decisions present a tough call this year. Things didn’t go well the last time he handed out a long-term contract to a starting running back.
Arizona gave Dave Johnson a three-year extension before the 2018 regular season began — and after a season-ending wrist injury took away all but a brief appearance by Johnson in the 2017 opener. His slide wasn’t utterly predictable at the time he signed the deal.
After underwhelming 2018 and 2019 seasons, the Cardinals got out of a bad situation by preying on a Houston Texans team led by a lame duck coach-slash-GM. They grabbed one of the NFL’s best receivers, DeAndre Hopkins, in exchange for a money dump of Johnson’s contract.
Drake at 26 years old is still not in the same place as the high-mileage, injury-prone Johnson was before his Arizona departure.
Drake came 45 yards short of the 1,000-yard mark in 2020, turning in a career year while playing on a transition tag. He battled inconsistency that became most apparent when he started forcing things early in the year. Drake corrected those issues and had several games where, even if the numbers weren’t there, he did act as a stout closer with tough runs to seal games.
All-in-all, Drake did prove he could carry the load of a No. 1 back, even if he only averaged 4.0 yards per carry. He missed just a single game despite an ugly-looking ankle injury.
While Edmonds brought a different dynamic, neither back scored positively in terms of advanced analytics like Sports Info Solutions’ total points earned (TPE). Arizona’s rushing Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) ranked just 17th despite quarterback Kyler Murray’s dynamic abilities that contributed to the ground game.
Only the Cardinals know whether that’s on Arizona’s scheme, the running backs themselves or the offensive line, which relatively recorded much higher grades and praise.
What Drake commands in free agency is murky. Money, as has been mentioned, will be tight this coming offseason for all teams.
Early mock drafts have the Cardinals targeting a running back in the first round of the 2020 draft, but that 1) would cost a lot of money that could be given to a known commodity like Drake and 2) risks Arizona not signing a starting back in free agency and then missing out on their favorite draft prospects. Free agency comes first, remember?
Maybe the silver lining after a so-so year for the Cardinals running backs — again, they were still career seasons for Drake and Edmonds — is that Drake didn’t price himself out of a multi-year return.
Perhaps that makes a decision easier. Still, it’s a discussion to be had.
Arizona has three returning backs. In a frugal world, they could add depth via the draft and in the lower tiers of the free agent market.