What is behind the Cardinals’ quiet start to free agency?

Mar 20, 2023, 1:11 PM

Monti Ossenfort...

General manager Monti Ossenfort of the Arizona Cardinals answers a question from the media during a press conference introducing new head coach Jonathan Gannon at Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center on February 16, 2023 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

The Arizona Cardinals haven’t dotted news headlines with a mass of free-agent signings since the new league year began last week.

The big stories have been about who Arizona lost. Defensive end Zach Allen and cornerback Byron Murphy departed, leaving general manager Monti Ossenfort key roles to fill at position groups already needing additions had the Cardinals kept their two best free agents.

Holes have been filled by re-signing starters like right tackle Kelvin Beachum and kicker Matt Prater.

Signing running back Corey Clement, receiver Zach Pascal and offensive lineman Hjalte Froholdt added depth.

The biggest outside addition of adding linebacker Kyzir White gives head coach Jonathan Gannon someone to help transition the current roster to a new system, but it also creates questions about the team’s last two first-round picks, Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins.

What should we make of Arizona’s first week of free agency? Let’s turn it to Cardinals reporter and Cardinals Corner podcast co-host Tyler Drake.

Kevin Zimmerman, lead editor: Tyler, I think it’s safe to say Cardinals fans aren’t exactly enthused by the quiet start to free agency. Exciting the fanbase is not the job of the new head coach and GM, however.

It’s also important to remember that it’s only week into a very long free agency and the team probably wants to rebuild starting with this year’s draft, which could end up with quite a few picks if the Cardinals trade down from No. 3. I get that Arizona doesn’t want to spend for no reason. I just can’t tell whether this is a full-on tank job like the Coyotes are currently attempting or if this can still end up as a solid, inexpensive and relatively competitive roster.

Do you think that is a valid sentiment for fans to be worried about how the team has lost its top two in-house free agents without being aggressive elsewhere? If you had to guess, is there a reason that the front office is being this patient?

Drake: I think we all knew where the Cardinals were headed this offseason after seeing what unfolded in Kliff Kingsbury’s last season at the helm.

After all the dysfunction, it was hard-reset time.

I just didn’t think it was going to be that kind of hard reset.

Keeping one or both of Allen or Murphy could have gone a long way in having some kind of head start, if you will, into the rebuild process. At the very least, it could have helped ease some of the minds of those already viewing next season as a tank year/wash given Kyler Murray’s unknown ACL recovery timeline.

I think it’s all about trying to keep the finances down in a season that could very well end up being a four-win type of year. There’s no point in paying premiums when playoffs already seem out of reach.

And I think we just need to go back to the beginning wave of free agency in 2018 to get a good idea of what the Cardinals are doing.

Their biggest signing (at the time) was the injury-prone Sam Bradford trying to cling onto an NFL career alongside an unknown at QB in rookie Josh Rosen.

Many saw it as a year of determining what they had on the roster and it was just that.

Sweeping changes followed, with the addition of Murray at No. 1 overall being among the biggest personnel-wise.

Speaking of personnel, cornerback and defensive line were already positions of need for this rebuilding Cardinals team entering the offseason.

If I had to pick the biggest area of need, though, defensive line is at the top of the list.

In addition to Allen’s departure, the Cardinals said goodbye to J.J. Watt this offseason as the defensive lineman enters retirement.

That’s 18 sacks — half of the team’s 2022 total — an up-and-comer and a future Hall of Famer instantly off the books! Not great!

The cupboard is pretty bare in the DL room and the line of scrimmage must be addressed for this team to be competitive in my eyes.

Where do you see the biggest area of weakness on this roster currently, Kevin?

Zimmerman: It’s hard to disagree with picking defensive line. I’m curious if there can be much more drawn out of capable dudes like Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu, whose upside appears to have plateaued for the time being. Having Cam Thomas and Myjai Sanders at least gives you something to look forward to at edge, and I think this will be addressed early in the draft, regardless of whether Arizona trades down.

Cornerback is where it’ll be looking tough, though. Marco Wilson is only one dude. Christian Matthew flashed but they flat-out need more bodies out there.

Beyond that, you actually can’t get too down on this roster in terms of at least being in the realm of competitiveness. Look, in relative terms, it’s not terrible. It only gets terrible when the depth is tested and injuries hit, and building that will take time. The offensive line has returning bodies, wide receiver at least has some fun pieces with Dortch back and Pascal reportedly signing with the Cardinals. Inside linebacker has upside if you think Isaiah Simmons will find a home somewhere.

Maybe this is all like getting excited over Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender scoring 10 points and not playing terrible defense for a 21-win Suns team.

What I don’t think people will get excited about is what might be happening at quarterback for the time that Kyler Murray is still coming back from his ACL injury. Hey, Tyler, who will be starting quarterback to start the season? Or who should be?

Drake: I’m just going to come out and say it: I don’t think it will be Murray.

We’ve gotten no timeline as to when he’ll be rehabilitated from his season-ending knee injury and it’s likely we won’t get one anytime soon.

There is a lot of money tied to his — and the Cardinals’ — future and rushing him back could be determinantal to both parties. Build the roster around him up and look to 2024 to make a serious run.

As for who should be starting, I suspect it to be McCoy given the non-QB moves the Cardinals have made this free agency. He’ll give new OC Drew Petzing a great mind to work with early on in his new role. There’s also the fact that McCoy and Murray are the only signal callers currently under contract.

But even McCoy is dealing with an injury that required a minor procedure and is expected to be limited this offseason.

I see Arizona adding another QB or two. I thought now-Washington Commanders signal caller Jacoby Brissett could have been an answer if the Cardinals really felt they could compete this season. As of now, it’s McCoy’s show to run until Murray returns.

What say you?

Zimmerman: It sure doesn’t seem like there are much better options still on the market. To be honest, McCoy or any similar arm talent being the likely starter furthers my belief that the Cardinals are going to be starting Day 1 with their young players taking the reins. And having a vet quarterback keeping the huddle calm and managing the operations of everything will allow those players (on offense, anyway) to grow.

So let’s end there: The draft, again, is going to be a huge piece to their rebuilding process.

Quickly, what do you see the Cardinals doing there in terms of the No. 3 pick and, more generally, how they draft thereafter?

Drake: What I see them doing is trading the pick for some draft capital that can further the rebuild process along with more young assets.

It makes sense for a first-year GM to want to stockpile picks and go from there. Oregon CB Christian Gonzalez or Texas Tech pass rusher Tyree Wilson come to mind if Arizona moves off No. 3. It’s an understandable decision to make, but I don’t know if that’s the answer to Arizona’s current equation.

What I think is the right move is keeping the pick and nabbing generational talent Will Anderson Jr. out of Alabama. Don’t take another gamble with more picks. He’s going to be there at No. 3 and has the look of being everything you want out of a player both on and off the field. Make the safe — and best — bet and build around him!

The Cardinals may be more than just a player away from keeping back to the postseason, but Anderson definitely puts them on the right path.

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