Arizona Cardinals’ top priorities entering the 2021 NFL Draft
The Arizona Cardinals hit the offseason hard through big-name free agent additions and a trade.
Most recently, the Cardinals checked another box off their to-do list with the addition of former Pittsburgh Steeler and bruising running back James Conner.
But no matter how well they attacked the offseason, there’s still a handful of positions the Cardinals need to address before the regular season rolls around.
Let’s run through them:
No matter how the Cardinals navigate the draft, cornerback should be a highly sought after position.
Arizona went out and added Malcolm Butler, while also re-signing Robert Alford, but needs to certainly add more depth with the departure of Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick a free agent. Both corners are on one-year deals in their 30s, with Alford coming off back-to-back season-ending injuries in training camp the last two seasons.
They join Byron Murphy as the main three cornerbacks, with Jace Whittaker also still in the mix. Murphy continues to impress since being drafted in 2019, recording 51 tackles, 2.0 sacks and eight pass deflections last season.
“For us to have a guy like Byron Murphy, who can play inside and outside, it gives us tremendous value,” general manager Steve Keim said last week. “But there are guys who can play inside and outside in this draft, some guys that can only play outside with their length and their movement skills. So really feel good about that position and the opportunities that may present themselves but those top three are very, very good.”
Names to know: Jaycee Horn (South Carolina), Patrick Surtain II (Alabama), Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech) and Greg Newsome II (Northwestern).
With Dan Arnold off to Carolina, there’s a glaring need to give Murray another big target to work with, especially in the red zone.
As it stands Wednesday, Arizona has tight ends Maxx Williams, Darrell Daniels and Ian Bunting on the roster.
Utilized more for their blocking abilities, the duo of Williams and Daniels combined for just 16 catches on 21 targets for 194 yards and two touchdowns in 2020.
Williams has scored just one touchdown in each of his five NFL seasons, while Daniels has just one over the past four years.
Names to know: Kyle Pitts (Florida), Pat Freiermuth (Penn State).
The Cardinals appear to have their rushing tandem for the immediate future after signing James Conner this offseason to pair with Chase Edmonds.
However, Conner is on a one-year deal, while Edmonds is on an expiring rookie contract.
Behind those two are Jonathan Ward and Eno Benjamin, the latter of which did not see any game action in 2020. Ward was primarily used on special teams, but did record a receiving touchdown in Arizona’s season finale against the Los Angeles Rams.
With two running backs on short-term deals and two more unproven, Arizona could stock up with another rusher.
Names to know: Najee Harris (Alabama), Travis Etienne (Clemson), Javonte Williams (UNC) and Michael Carter (UNC).
The Cardinals have the bodies in the wide receivers room, but haven’t quite found much success outside of their starters.
While Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins found his groove right away in Year 1 with the Cardinals, finishing with 115 receptions for 1,407 yards and six touchdowns, there was quite a drop-off in production when looking at the rest of Arizona’s pass catchers.
Christian Kirk was No. 2 on the team with 48 catches for 621 yards and six scores. He was followed by the now-Panther Big Dan and Larry Fitzgerald, who is contemplating retirement. The Cardinals managed to add A.J. Green to help limit the losses, albeit on a one-year deal.
Another addition to the wide receiver room would also put some pressure on 2019 draft picks Andy Isabella and KeeSean Johnson, who have struggled to find their footing. The pair combined for 397 yards and two touchdowns on 36 receptions in 2020.
“I think it’s a really deep receiver class and they all have different traits, especially the guys at the top,” Keim said. “They’re all different sizes, they have different skillsets, whether they can play X or Z or do some things in the return game.”
Names to know: Ja’Marr Chase (LSU), DeVonta Smith (Alabama), Jaylen Waddle (Alabama), Kadarius Toney (Florida), Rashod Bateman (Minnesota), Elijah Moore (Ole Miss) and Rondale Moore (Purdue).
The Cardinals went out and acquired former Las Vegas Raiders center Rodney Hudson this offseason, while adding right guard Brian Winters through free agency.
Adding to the line isn’t a desperate need, but one that should still be evaluated by the front office if the situation presents itself come draft day.
With J.R. Sweezy a free agent and Marcus Gilbert retired, Arizona could use another piece or two down in the trenches, most notably at guard.
Winters, who enters his ninth NFL season, managed to start nine of his 16 games played in 2020. Justin Pugh turns 30 in August.
Winters figures to compete with Justin Murray and Josh Jones at right guard. Murray started seven games last season. Jones didn’t register a start his rookie year but saw playing time in 13 outings. He could also be in line to play the tackle spot.
Names to know: Penei Sewell (Oregon), Rashawn Slater (Northwestern), Christian Darrisaw (Virginia Tech), Alijah Vera-Tucker (USC) and Teven Jenkins (Oklahoma State).
Defensive line may not appear to be a massive need after signing J.J. Watt this offseason, but the 2021 draft class does provide some interesting candidates. The Cardinals would be hard-pressed to avoid the position altogether, especially with Corey Peters’ future with the team up in the air.
The Cardinals was in the bottom half of the NFL (22nd) in terms of run defense in 2020, allowing 125.5 yards per game. They also gave up 13 touchdowns.
As it stands, Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu represent the only players listed as defensive tackles on the roster. Last season, Lawrence recorded nine tackles, one of which was for a loss, in nine games played (one start).
Then there’s Jordan Phillips, who experienced an injury filled season in 2020.
Phillips managed to start just nine games, recording 11 tackles, 2.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and three QB hits. He missed seven of the final eight games of the year. With Phillips hurt, the trio of Zach Allen, Fotu and Lawrence were able to pick up some added reps, which should only help them moving forward.
Allen produced the most out of the three, registering 35 tackles, five of which were for losses, 2.0 sacks and six QB hits, all career highs. Allen has dealt with injury as well, missing most of his rookie season with a neck injury and sitting out three contests in 2020 due to an ankle injury.
Names to know: Kwity Paye (Michigan), Azeez Ojulari (Georgia), Jaelan Phillips (Miami), Christian Barmore (Alabama) and Gregory Rousseau (Miami).