CARDINALS CORNER

Cardinals’ positional priorities begin at the line of scrimmage

Mar 13, 2023, 2:22 PM | Updated: 5:24 pm

Kelvin Beachum runs out of the tunnel...

Offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum #68 of the Arizona Cardinals is introduced during the NFL game at State Farm Stadium on September 11, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. The Chiefs defeated the Cardinals 44-21. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Arizona Cardinals rebuild is underway in the Valley.

Led by new general manager and first-year head coach Jonathan Gannon, the Cardinals are in the middle of changing the identity of the franchise after a disheartening 4-13 finish to 2022 and the firing of Kliff Kingsbury.

At the moment, there are several holes for Ossenfort and Gannon to fill, from the deep inside the trenches out to the secondary. And with around $36 million to work with in cap space following the recent releases of wide receiver Chosen Anderson and outside linebacker Markus Golden, there’s money to spend.

But which positions are the most important when it comes to the team’s success?

A closer look at where the front office should prioritize its spending as the NFL’s free-agent frenzy kicks off:

Offensive line

Arizona Cardinals OL Josh Jones(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Currently rostered for 2023:

– T D.J. Humphries
– T Josh Jones
– G/C Lecitus Smith
– G Marquis Hayes
– G Hayden Howerton
– T Julién Davenport (futures)
– T Lachavious Simmons (futures)
– T Badara Traore (futures)

If you’re going to shell out that type of pay day to your starting quarterback, you better make sure the offensive line can hold its own.

But with Kelvin Beachum, Justin Pugh and Will Hernandez unrestricted free agents and Rodney Hudson likely headed toward retirement, Humphries is the lone opening-day starter left on the roster.

The starting left tackle, however, is coming off a back injury that cut his season to just eight games in 2022. Before last season, Humphries had played and started in 16 games in each of the past three years.

As for who could come potentially slide into one of those four open spots, Jones seems to be the most likely candidate of those currently under contract for next season.

Jones impressed in place of Humphries at left tackle, starting in eight of the last nine games of 2022.

It was a big step up for Jones, who was far more comfortable working on the left side after looking out of place at right guard the year prior.

There’s also the chance the team brings back a veteran like Beachum, who is set to embark on his 12th NFL season after spending the past three in Arizona, or Hernandez.

Even if those two were to come back into the fold, there are still holes at left guard and center to be filled.

Smith flashed his abilities last season, making two starts along the line in his rookie year, but now has the added wrinkle of a new coaching staff to get comfortable with.

Hayes, meanwhile, missed the entirety of the season with a knee injury that placed him on injured reserve, but was given high praise from Humphries as a mauler during training camp. And at 6-foot-5 and 324 pounds, he certainly has the build to make an impact along the inside.

“This is going to be a journey and we’ve got to find solutions to it and there are several different avenues that we can find pieces to the puzzle,” offensive line coach Klayton Adams said Wednesday. “So, I’m excited. I’m very excited about being here and everything that means.”

Pass rush

Arizona Cardinals OLB Myjai Sanders (Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)

Currently rostered for 2023:

– OLB Dennis Gardeck
– OLB Victor Dimukeje
– OLB Cam Thomas
– OLB Myjai Sanders
– OLB Jesse Luketa

Even before starter Markus Golden’s release last week, Arizona’s pass-rushing department was in need of some major help.

Not only is the jury still out as to whether or not Zach Allen will return to the fold in 2023, Arizona has a massive hole to fill following the retirement of J.J. Watt.

The pair of defensive ends finished with 18 combined sacks last season, while the the outside linebacker group of Isaiah Simmons, Golden, Sanders, Gardeck and Thomas combined for 13.5.

The need for added pressure along the outside is great.

Gardeck has proven himself as a consistent presence on special teams but hasn’t been able to replicate his 2020 showing when he racked up seven sacks across 10 games played in place of the injured Chandler Jones.

Dimukeje has flashed at times but hasn’t seen a ton of defensive reps. And Luketa saw less than 50 snaps in his rookie season and needs more time on task.

Thomas and Sanders have the intangibles of being disruptive forces but are still early on in their NFL careers.

That doesn’t mean they can’t make an impact in Year 2, especially after picking added reps in the second half of the season.

Thomas and Sanders finished with three sacks apiece, tied for the fourth most on the team last season, despite seeing 21% and 30% of available defensive snaps in 2023.

“Those are guys that are so young in their careers that they’re still going to find out who they are,” outside linebackers coach Robert Rodriguez said Thursday. “That’s the beauty of our staff and what we get to do is help those guys figure out who they are at the end of the day. If they’re committed to it, which they will be, there’s so much potential and so much growth ahead of them.

“But those are guys that have good skill sets and each in a different way. They bring something else to the table and they just need to hone in on those things. I’m excited to work with them on the grass. … That’s where the most growth comes from.”

Interior DL

Arizona Cardinals DL Leki Fotu (Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)

Currently rostered for 2023:

– DL Leki Fotu
– DL Rashard Lawrence
– DL Jonathan Ledbetter
– DL Manny Jones

The interior defensive line can definitely use some work.

Rashard Lawrence has struggled to stay on the field — 25 games played in three seasons — and Leki Fotu is still a work in progress as an NFL defender.

Ledbetter was a practice squad body in his first season with the team before appearing in 14 games in 2022 and Jones saw 22% of available defensive snaps his rookie year.

Those four weren’t the only ones plugging up the interior, either, with Watt and Allen also spending a good amount of time on the inside last season.

If Allen signs elsewhere, Arizona’s interior defense will take another hit.

Cornerback

Arizona Cardinals CB Marco Wilson (Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)

Currently rostered for 2023:

– Marco Wilson
– Christian Matthew
– Nate Hairston (futures)

The Cardinals’ cornerback situation leaves much to be desired.

Re-signing homegrown option Byron Murphy will certainly help bolster the room, but a deal remains to be seen for a CB that is coming off nine games played in 2022 due to back injury.

Still, adding Murphy back into the CBs room would give new defensive coordinator Nick Rallis a versatile CB that can move between the slot and outside.

But until pen is put to paper, that leaves Wilson as the team’s No. 1 option as free agency begins.

The CB is coming off a productive second season where he recorded 58 tackles, three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, 10 passes defensed, a forced fumble and one QB hit.

“I think he’s got a huge upside and huge potential,” defensive backs coach Patrick Toney said Thursday. “I think he’s done a lot in his career already.

“I think (cornerbacks coach Ryan Smith), he’s going to be working with the corners, I think he’s going to be able to add a lot of value and coach Gannon being a secondary-minded head coach. I think there’s going to be a lot of resources for everyone to work together and add value to everyone’s careers.”

Wilson primarily worked on the outside (660 reps) compared to out of the slot (42), per Pro Football Focus.

Beyond Wilson, though, there’s a lot of work to do for Ossenfort, with second-year pro Christian Matthew the team’s current No. 2 option.

Starting three of his 14 games played last season, the lengthy 6-foot-4, 200-pound corner recorded 19 tackles and three passes defensed.

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Cardinals’ positional priorities begin at the line of scrimmage