Cardinals free agency refresher: CB has more holes after Robert Alford cut
The National Football League’s new season officially begins next Wednesday.
League-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
Byron Murphy ($2,178,954)
Jace Whittaker ($660,000) – Future contract
Picasso Nelson ($660,000) – Future contract
The good news
In late December, Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s honesty came out. It was either that, or he was trying to light a fire under his veteran cornerbacks with a crucial pair of games left on the schedule. Arizona was fighting for its playoff life.
“Murphy’s played very well. You can argue that he’s been our most consistent corner the entire season,” Joseph said of second-year nickel Byron Murphy. “Last year, he took a bunch of snaps as a rookie before he was ready to play, so he took some bumps and bruises, but I think that’s definitely paying off now.
“Murph’s making plays and he’s consistently been a good player each and every week. So that’s fun to watch, and he’s so comfortable in his role, he’s confident, he’s tacking and he’s making plays on the ball and he’s helping us win each week.”
Murphy as a rookie in 2019 was targeted 112 times, second-most in the NFL, according to Pro-Football-Reference.
It was a question then if the lumps he took would hurt his confidence or provide experience to make improvements in his second season. Now, we can see it was the latter.
With Murphy mostly in the slot this past year, opponents targeted him only 81 times — just two more times than Patrick Peterson (79) and 13 fewer than veteran cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (94). Granted, Murphy was on the field 72% of the time to Peterson’s 99%.
While Peterson allowed completions 66% of time time and Kirkpatrick coming in at 67%, Murphy allowed a 65% completion percentage.
PFF graded his coverage snaps for the year at 63.3, better than Peterson (53.1) or Kirkpatrick (46.1).
Somewhat subjective numbers aside, Murphy made a lot of plays. Joseph used him on blitzes 35 times, and the DB accumulated two sacks, eight passes defensed and 51 total tackles on the year.
It appears Arizona general manager Steve Keim hit by taking Murphy with the first pick in the second round of the 2019 draft.
But from there, the cornerback position has the potential to see tons of turnover.
Let’s put this out there before diving in: As Murphy thrived mostly in the slot, Patrick Peterson was still the Cardinals’ top cornerback in 2020.
Yes, it appears there might be physical dropoff heading into his 11th season. But like it’s been with receiver Larry Fitzgerald in the last several seasons, Arizona wouldn’t surprise anyone by trying to keep Peterson in town.
The market will dictate a lot. Peterson made an average of $14 million in base salary over the last five years, and the top-of-the-market corners command close to $20 million. He’s not that anymore, but he might still call for eight figures.
Maybe a shorter-term deal gets that done.
Even then, the Cardinals are faced with depth concerns at cornerback, which is why the combination of a Peterson return and a pick of a cornerback early in the NFL Draft wouldn’t surprise anyone.
Unlike the other previews, I’ve highlighted the future contracts of Jace Whittaker and Picasso Nelson to show just how depth-less the cornerback position is a week before free agency starts.
Robert Alford was due $9 million next season before the Cardinals on Wednesday released him, saving $7.5 million in cap space.
Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro points out that Alford could still return on a smaller deal. He knows Joseph’s system and stood out in the past two training camps before injuries — a leg and a pectoral tear — ended his 2019 and 2020 seasons before Week 1.
In his place this year, Dre Kirkpatrick hung in there but was picked on at times as the cornerback opposite Peterson. Veteran Johnathan Joseph had the trust of his DC immediately and didn’t look too shabby in certain packages over four games before a stinger ended his year. He’s going to turn 37 in April.
Whittaker got a taste of the NFL when injuries struck and could be a piece. It felt like the coaching staff trusted the undrafted rookie from Arizona enough, especially considering he made the roster despite the pandemic-shortened offseason.
Anyhow, there are many ways Arizona could go at corner. The draft and free agency will both be needed to restock the room.
All eyes, however, will be on Peterson. He wants to be on a contender, and while the addition of J.J. Watt could bolster a defense led by Joseph, who Peterson seems to trust, the life-long Cardinal still has reason to give free agency a try.
Here’s a look at his career since his last First Team All-Pro nod in 2015.
|Year||Targets per game||PFF coverage grade||Notes|
|2015||4.06||80.9||Helped the Cardinals reach the NFC Championship and was named NFL All-Pro First Team for the third time in his career|
|2016||4.44||80.1||After the year was named to NFL Network’s Top 100 Players list as the 19th-best player overall and top cornerback on the list|
|2017||3.75||68.4||In the final year of the Bruce Arians era and playing in coordinator James Bettcher’s defense, he played mostly opposite Justin Bethel and Tramon Williams|
|2018||3.25||83.7||Playing more zone defense under head coach Steve Wilks, Peterson asked for a trade during the 3-13 campaign but days later rescinded the demand. He still made his eighth career Pro Bowl appearance in eight seasons|
|2019||5.8||64.3||Missed the first six games of the Kliff Kingsbury/Vance Joseph era after a PED suspension and struggled to get his feet under him until the final four games of the year|
|2020||4.69||53.1||Though there was dropoff, Peterson was still the No. 1 corner for Arizona|