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Football Outsiders presents Cardinals’ biggest draft needs

Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson (21) celebrates his fourth stop against the Green Bay Packers during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The 2016 NFL Draft is just days away, and at this point most teams should have their draft boards pretty much set.

Of course, we don’t now what those boards look like — and we never will — but suffice to say every team thinks it has a good grasp on the available talent and whereabouts each player should be picked.

As for media and fans, the best we can do is take educated guesses as to what players teams might be interested in based on their draft position as well as roster construction. The folks over at Football Outsiders, in an ESPN Insider piece, took a look every team’s needs, and what they have for the Cardinals is not really much of a surprise.

The biggest need, according to writer Vincent Verhei, is at cornerback.

Patrick Peterson ranks among the NFL’s top cornerbacks, and Tyrann Mathieu is great when healthy, but the drop-off after them is steep. Justin Bethel’s seven starts last season (including the playoffs) were the first in his four NFL seasons. Asa Jackson played only 18 games (six starts) in four seasons with the Ravens, while Shaun Prater has just three starts under his belt and is now on his fifth team in five seasons.

The Cardinals are not without talent at cornerback, but as Verhei notes, it’s for the most part very top-heavy in terms of players who are actually proven commodities. Peterson is one of the best cover men in the game while Mathieu, who is recovering from a torn ACL, is as dynamic a defensive back as you will find. After them, though, there is Bethel — who struggled last season — and a bunch of unknowns. One thing that could change the team’s outlook at the position is a re-signing of Jerraud Powers, who is still a free agent after spending the last three seasons in Arizona.

Picking 29th, the Cardinals may find it difficult to land one of the draft’s top cornerbacks, which could mean their attention gets turned to another position, and according to Verhei Arizona’s “quiet need” is also in the secondary, at strong safety.

Rashad Johnson’s departure to Tennessee opens a hole in the starting lineup. Veterans Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger both have starting experience, but Arizona could use more speed, especially in a blitz-heavy scheme that often leaves safeties isolated in man coverage.

The Cardinals are likely hoping the addition of Chandler Jones and the improvement of Markus Golden (and others) will lead to them not needing to blitz as much, but no doubt they would like to have as many versatile and athletic safeties as possible. They signed Tyvon Branch as a free agent and the speedy safety will likely help replace Johnson, but it would not be a shock to anyone if the team looked to add to the position during the draft.

While it’s clear the Cardinals could (and maybe should) use the draft to upgrade their secondary, one position Verhei writes the team does not need any help is at wide receiver.

Larry Fitzgerald is a Hall of Famer who proved last year that his tank isn’t empty yet. John Brown’s catches, yards and touchdowns all soared in his second season, even though he saw more targets as a rookie. Michael Floyd hasn’t become the superstar Arizona was hoping for when they took him 13th overall in 2012, but most teams would love 800 yards and six scores from their third receiver. Each of rookie J.J. Nelson’s 11 receptions gained a first down, and seven of them gained 20 or more yards.

The Cardinals have chosen at least one receiver in each of the three drafts led by GM Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians, so while there may not be a need at the position, the team may still add a player. That said, if they choose not to take one, the team will not be short on pass-catching options.

Heading into the draft the Cardinals are set to have six picks, including one in the first round (29th), one in the third round (92nd), one in the fourth round (128th), two in the fifth round (167th and 170th) and one in the sixth round (205th). The odds of them making a trade to acquire more picks would seem to be pretty good, though with a stacked roster they may also decide it’s worth sacrificing another pick or two in order to move up and draft a specific player.

We’ll find out soon enough.

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