Arizona Cardinals bring back key contributors in solid 1st day of free agency
Not all NFL positions are created equal. The Cardinals occasionally struggle with this fundamental concept, especially in recent drafts. They lost a marquee performer at wide receiver (Christian Kirk) and could lose another at edge rusher (Chandler Jones), two of the most coveted position groups in football.
Our NFL franchise had a good day on Monday. The Cardinals doubled down on some of the good things that helped lead the team to seven consecutive victories to start the 2021 season, a team that peaked at 10-2 before the bottom fell out of the tub.
Cheers to small victories.
JAMES CONNER: The NFL has repeatedly proven in recent years that it’s not smart to allocate large chunks of guaranteed money to running backs. The Cardinals erred twice in this category, awarding big contracts to David Johnson and Kenyan Drake. Neither player was the same after cashing their bonus checks. Both seemed inclined to sprint toward the sideline whenever their number was called.
But retaining Conner was a smart play, even at a steep price, and here’s why:
Running backs who get large amounts of money upfront don’t lose their talent overnight. They lose their courage, hunger and motivation. They are battered every week in the NFL, and sudden financial security makes them rightfully question the brutal poundings they absorb every week, along with the inherent dangers of running between the tackles.
That shouldn’t happen with Conner. Toughness is his brand, and elite physicality is something the Cardinals need to reward. Especially if they want to breed more of Conner’s mentality inside their locker room. Even if it meant losing Chase Edmonds to the Miami Dolphins.
Fact: The Cardinals were not keeping and paying both.
COLT MCCOY: The Cardinals paid $6 million guaranteed and $7.5 million total for their backup quarterback, which seems like a luxury purchase. But this deal was a steal and provides immense value on many different fronts. McCoy gives the Cardinals a mentor and an insurance policy for Kyler Murray, whether the starting quarterback shows up on time, refuses to enter a game or is willing to hold out at all costs.
As silly as this sounds, I’m guessing Kliff Kingsbury believes he could win 9-10 games in 2022 with McCoy as his starting quarterback. After all, McCoy is pliable, obedient and smart; knows the offense; runs the plays; is comfortable standing in the pocket; and displayed more athleticism than anyone expected while posting road wins against the 49ers and Seahawks.
At the very least, the kinship and connectivity between Kingsbury and McCoy will be an effective deterrent for a potential Murray holdout.
ZACH ERTZ: A tremendously talented tight end who came to the Cardinals in a mid-October trade, and this re-signing feels like an impact statement, something that goes well beyond the statistics.
Ertz is a highly-skilled route runner, adept at maneuvering in the flats, a great third-down option while sharing a field with DeAndre Hopkins. His numbers should increase dramatically in 2022, especially now that Kingsbury has seen Ertz’s skill set up close and personal.
As many have noted, the Cardinals seemed more physical and more successful with a healthy Maxx Williams, a two-way player that helped keep defenses on their toes. But Ertz is the superior tight end, and in my view, it’s not even close.
JUSTIN PUGH: The Cardinals offensive line is no longer a weakness, and Pugh has been a dependable pass blocker in the past two seasons. He accepted a team-friendly deal to stay in Arizona, which is the most accurate gauge of internal chemistry you’ll find in the NFL.
Issues remain. The Cardinals need to win at home. They need to stop collapsing in the final two months of the season. They need to understand why they keep losing the biggest games on their schedule. They need a No. 1 pass rusher, a No. 1 cornerback and a No. 2 wide receiver. They weren’t even in the same financial zip code as the suitors for Kirk, Haason Reddick and (presumably) Jones. Much heavy lifting remains.
But the Cardinals took a step forward on Monday, retaining four key members of the offense. And for the moment, that’s not a bad start.