The 5: Arizona Cardinals starting jobs still up for grabs
Free agency has come to a crawl, draft week is over and rookie camps are next on the docket.
For the Arizona Cardinals, a heavy dose of defense in the draft answered a few questions but didn’t address others. Their first-round pick of Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins, in fact, added to the big roster questions we have.
The Cardinals’ list of starters and key contributors appears mostly clear, but five starting jobs remain open heading into training camp season.
The candidates: Jordan Hicks, Zaven Collins
Steve Keim and Kliff Kingsbury made it crystal clear that Collins is expected to play right away. Cardinals fans might be quick to point out that last year’s first-round linebacker drafted, Isaiah Simmons, took awhile to see the field with regularity.
But this year, unlike last, the Cardinals will have a rookie mini-camp to give the rookie ample reps. Plus, Collins played as a middle linebacker at Tulsa the last few years, something that Simmons didn’t do at Clemson (he changed positions by the game).
Arizona’s decision-makers wouldn’t say what Collins playing immediately means for veteran Jordan Hicks, who has two years left on his contract.
Keim and Kingsbury did make it clear, however, that Collins will play middle linebacker. That means the starting MIKE position is either up for grabs, set to be a situational platoon or the team will eat money to move on from Hicks.
At the moment, Hicks remains the leader considering his knowledge in quarterbacking defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s system.
No. 2 cornerback
The candidates: Robert Alford, Marco Wilson, Tay Gowan
If you’d watched the Cardinals’ last two training camps, it’d be hard not to come away impressed by Robert Alford. That’s why the cornerback’s two season-ending preseason injuries were so painful inside the building.
Alford hasn’t played in an NFL regular season game since 2018 with the Atlanta Falcons, and the Cardinals did the right thing this offseason to release him — saving money — and bring him back on a much smaller deal. He knows the defense and adds emotional pop on the field when healthy.
Now the competition begins for the No. 2 corner opposite newcomer Malcolm Butler. Alford, along with rookies Marco Wilson and Tay Gowan, will have a shot to impress Joseph. If nobody stands out, then nickel Byron Murphy might once again play as a second corner in base sets and move to the slot in nickel packages.
There’s also an off chance — though not a preferred one — Murphy could be used mostly outside if the Cardinals would rather stick Wilson in the slot only (Keim said he can play inside). That seems unlikely.
The candidates: Justin Murray, Brian Winters, Josh Jones
The Cardinals rave about Justin Murray any time they’re asked about him, and that would seemingly put him in the running to start at the same right guard slot that he took from starter J.R. Sweezy midseason. While Sweezy remains a free agent, the Cardinals added Brian Winters to the picture. He brings much more experience with 105 games (88 starts) at guard between time with the Jets and Bills.
Winters, obviously, would need to make an impression with his new team.
Also lurking is 2020 third-round pick Josh Jones, who played backup tackle and as an extra offensive lineman in heavy packages last season. Offensive line coach and run game coordinator Sean Kugler mentioned this offseason that Jones could get a look at guard.
The candidates: Leki Fotu, Rashard Lawrence, David Parry (future), Corey Peters (free agent)
Multi-year captain Corey Peters remains a free agent. His age (he turns 33 years old in June) plus the severity of a knee injury that ended his season could make the Cardinals wary about his impact in 2021, even if he is ultimately re-signed.
It’s not clear who will be the starting nose tackle alongside J.J. Watt and some rotation that should also include Jordan Phillips and Zach Allen.
Leki Fotu played in a two-gap defense in college at Utah as more of a space-eater at nose tackle. The Cardinals drafted him and pushed him to learn as more of an attacking 3-technique or even 5-technique. Still, they could re-align the 330-pound lineman into the middle in the base defense.
The other options include fellow 2020 fourth-round pick Rashard Lawrence, a smaller player who aside from an injury was a reliable backup.
David Parry is an interesting pickup who signed a future deal with Arizona in January. A fifth-round pick in 2015, he started every game in his first two NFL seasons with the Indianapolis Colts — playing some nose tackle — but was arrested in Scottsdale in 2017 for stealing a golf cart and attacking the driver.
The Colts released Parry and he’s since bounced between the Saints, Vikings and Patriots.
No. 4 receiver
The candidates: Rondale Moore, Andy Isabella, KeeSean Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald (free agent)
You knew this was coming! The Cardinals can call Maxx Williams their starting tight end along with the three known commodities at receiver.
But because Arizona is currently without a serious pass-catching threat at tight end, it appears 10 personnel is going to be on the menu more often than a year ago.
Arizona drafted Rondale Moore with its second-round pick to put the fire under Andy Isabella’s and KeeSean Johnson’s rear ends — or to admit the team doesn’t trust that either of the 2019 draft picks will win the job.
Isabella’s snap count went from 157 to 305 spanning his first two years, but it felt like Kingsbury too often didn’t have a horizontally challenging player on the field in 2020. He should get that with Moore’s 4.29-second 40-yard dash speed if Isabella doesn’t win the job.
Johnson shouldn’t go without mention here just because he appears more technically sound, but he doesn’t have that extra pop and won’t get much time outside with DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green and Christian Kirk earning the majority of snaps.
Also a thing to note: Larry Fitzgerald remains a free agent! It sure doesn’t feel like he’ll be back in Arizona but until it’s official, a return is on the table.