Cardinals 2021 lookahead: At safety, it’s Budda Baker and the Thompsons
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, outside linebacker, running back and tight end positions so far.
On to safety, where Arizona has a good starting point.
Players under contract
Budda Baker ($7,775,000)
Jalen Thompson ($935,730)
Deionte Thompson ($937,208)
The good news
Safety might be at or close to the bottom of the priority list for Arizona’s front office. And yes, that’s being said despite the infamous Week 4 loss to the Carolina Panthers that saw the then-recently signed Curtis Riley earn a start.
The team locked Budda Baker into a long-term deal before the 2020 season and he didn’t disappoint, earning All-Pro First Team in his fourth NFL season. He finished with 118 total tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, six passes defensed and a forced fumble.
Baker has cemented himself firmly among the most consistent safeties in the game.
Is he Arizona’s most important defensive player? He’s at least a necessary fabric in the locker room — just remember that one of Arizona’s worst outings this past year, that Week 4 visit to Carolina, was the one game that Baker missed after he underwent thumb surgery.
His teammates listen to him and look up to him.
Baker is a quiet, friendly and approachable player off the field who turns into a heat-seeking missile on it. After the Cardinals fell to the Los Angeles Rams in the season finale to miss the playoffs, Baker said he’d welcome taking on a bigger leadership role after his teammates decided midseason to label him a captain.
“It starts with the offseason,” he said. “It starts with your OTAs, your things where you can develop those friendships because each and every team is different.
“Definitely have to just find more camaraderie in that once next season comes about. For me personally, of course, talking more (with teammates as a leader) is definitely something of course I’m going to want to do. I’m that guy fifth year in, I’m that guy everybody sees.”
NFL-wide, he’s that guy, too. Baker’s a pretty darn good place to start when discussing the Cardinals’ safety room.
Alongside Baker, Jalen Thompson figures to be back for his third season after the harsh realities of the NFL hit him just plays into the season.
A sprained ankle took Thompson out of the opener, and he returned to play in Weeks 9-11 before reinjuring the same leg. The 22-year-old came back a second time to appear in the 2020 finale and finished with 19 tackles and a pass defensed in five appearances (three full games).
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph lauded Thompson’s play as a rookie, as the safety forced himself into a starting role despite joining the team late in the offseason as a supplemental draft pick. It felt like Thompson would be a breakout candidate in his second year, and now Arizona must hope that an injury-riddled season doesn’t set back his development too greatly.
Behind Jalen Thompson, Deionte Thompson (27 tackles, 3 passes defensed) got more experience in his own second season, and it seems he could keep growing as a situational player.
Chris Banjo (48 tackles, 1 pass defensed) and Charles Washington also filled in admirably. As two key special teamers, that duo does not bring the same physical presence as Jalen Thompson, but they could be retained as solid depth.
If Arizona does bring back Banjo and Washington, the Cardinals are in a good spot.
To address that 31-21 loss to the Panthers in which Baker (thumb), Jalen Thompson (ankle) and Banjo (hamstring) were sidelined, forcing Deionte Thompson and Riley into duty, it was pretty much a run of very bad luck.
Worst case come next year, the Cardinals would probably feel comfortable — at last — by moving inside linebacker Isaiah Simmons to safety for a day.