Arizona Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals: A Position-by-Position Primer to Free Agency

Shaun ChurchContributor IJanuary 22, 2014

Arizona Cardinals: A Position-by-Position Primer to Free Agency

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    Could Anquan Boldin reunite with Larry Fitzgerald for one last ride to the playoffs?
    Could Anquan Boldin reunite with Larry Fitzgerald for one last ride to the playoffs?Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    The NFL free-agency period doesn’t begin until the 2014 league year begins on March 11, but it’s never too early to look at whom the Arizona Cardinals may target when that time comes.

    General manager Steve Keim has 20 of his own free agents to worry about, as well as signing new players this offseason, so he will be a busy man. But the team does not need much from the pool of free agents this year—unlike last offseason, when Keim signed nearly 20 veteran free agents to short-term contracts.

    Many of them—including Rashard Mendenhall, Eric Winston, Matt Shaughnessy, Karlos Dansby and Yeremiah Bell—played the 2013 season on one-year contracts and are free agents again this spring.

    Who should the Cardinals target in free agency this offseason? Let’s wander down that path for a while, shall we?

Positions Set for 2014 (Offense)

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Not every position needs a free-agent overhaul this offseason. In fact, most positions are looking good for next season; only a few positions need a boost in veteran leadership and on-field performance.

    With that in mind, Keim will most likely skip these positions when pen hits paper this March.

     

    Quarterback

    Returning starter Carson Palmer struggled massively early in 2013. But he finished with a mostly strong second half and paved the way for the Arizona offense next season to be one of force.

    This is the first offseason since 2009 (Kurt Warner’s final year) that the Cardinals know beyond a shadow of a doubt who their starting quarterback will be next season.

    Behind Palmer is Drew Stanton, who is perhaps one of the best backup quarterbacks in the NFL these days. He hasn’t thrown a pass in a regular-season game since 2010 while with the Detroit Lions, but head coach Bruce Arians has full confidence in him should Palmer succumb to injury.

    Ryan Lindley rounds out the QB depth chart, but it’s possible Keim and Co. “churn the bottom of the roster” by drafting a quarterback this May. Should that happen, Lindley could find himself out of work.

     

    Running Back

    Even with Mendenhall hitting the free-agent market, the stable of running backs appears strong moving forward. Andre Ellington proved to be one of the steals of the 2013 draft, and Stepfan Taylor can serve as a Mendenhall-type back—the “three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust” type—while Ellington slashes defenses on the outside.

    Then, there’s Ryan Williams. Some still believe Keim and Arians kept him around but inactive in 2013 to save him for 2014 when Mendenhall leaves. That’s one possibility, and if true, he could find himself in a substantial role with the Cardinals this coming fall.

     

    Offensive Guard

    When No. 7 overall pick Jonathan Cooper returns from the broken leg he suffered last preseason, the Cardinals essentially will have received two first-round picks in 2014. He’s the starting left guard when he’s a full go.

    That means Daryn Colledge will be forced back to the right side, where he started last preseason before the Cooper injury. That is, unless Colledge becomes a cap casualty because of his nearly $7.3 million cap hit. With $4.55 million in dead money, that seems unlikely.

    Backup guard Earl Watford could be the future at right guard, but he probably needs another season of fine-tuning before he’s ready for the limelight. Nate Potter is also working his way toward becoming a guard, so he could also be in the mix down the road for right guard.

     

    Center

    Lyle Sendlein isn’t a force at center, but he makes all the calls for the offensive line and is a former team captain. He is under contract through 2015, but with no true center threatening his spot, the Cardinals could turn to the draft to pick up his eventual replacement.

    One center to watch this offseason is former Stanford standout Khalil Wilkes. Also, don’t overlook Philip Blake. He is on a futures contract and could end up making the roster out of camp.

Positions Set for 2014 (Defense/Special Teams)

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    Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

    We continue onto a defense that finished in the top 10 in multiple categories last season. Not much needs to be done with the unit other than to re-sign some key free agents and draft young talent to round out the bottom of the depth chart.

    This defense is stacked.

     

    Nose Tackle

    Dan Williams and Alameda Ta’amu split snaps at nose tackle this season, and both played integral parts in the Cardinals having the top run defense in the league. But Ta’amu tore his ACL against the 49ers in the season finale and is not a guarantee for Week 1 of 2014.

    Until Ta’amu returns, it’s possible the team uses young fill-ins during camp and preseason. Maybe we will get to see Padric Scott return and earn a spot on the 53-man roster. He played well for an undrafted free agent last year at Cards Camp.

     

    Defensive End

    Arizona has two free agents at defensive end—Frostee Rucker and Ronald Talley—and hoping both re-sign with the team could be futile. But if one is a shoo-in to be back next season, it’s Rucker.

    The team could turn to the draft to find depth at the position, but do not expect a major free-agent signing here.

     

    Inside Linebacker

    Inside linebacker is the deepest position on the roster. Even if Keim doesn’t re-sign Dansby, the unit still has three starters on the depth chart in Daryl Washington, Jasper Brinkley and Kevin Minter.

    Sneaking suspicion says Dansby will be back, however. That means Keim won’t even think twice when skipping free-agent inside linebackers.

     

    Cornerback

    The Cardinals have two free-agent corners of their own to worry about, in Javier Arenas and Antoine Cason. With Tyrann Mathieu returning in 2014 to man the nickel corner spot, that leaves Justin Bethel as the only other corner on the current 53-man roster.

    It’s possible they hit the market for a cornerback, but it won’t be a big name if they do. It’s more probable they avoid free agents and pick up a late-round draft pick after re-signing Cason.

     

    Punter

    The first move of Arizona’s offseason happened on Tuesday, as punter Dave Zastudil signed a two-year contract to remain with the Cardinals, according to a tweet from team writer Darren Urban.

    Zastudil has led the NFL in punts downed inside the 20-yard line the past two seasons, including setting the league record with 46 in 2012. Since joining the Cardinals in 2011, only Dustin Colquitt of the Kansas City Chiefs (107) has downed more punts inside the 20 than Zasty has (105).

    He currently owns the franchise record with a 45.86 yards-per-punt average (minimum 100 kicks); that’s nearly a full yard ahead of No. 2 Jerry Norton, who kicked from 1959 to 1961 for the Cardinals.

Wide Receiver

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Andre Roberts is a free agent, and chances are he won’t be back. Can you blame him, though? He was a starter until the team drafted Michael Floyd with the intent of making him the No. 2, which he grew into in Year 2.

    With Roberts gone, the choice for No. 3 receiver comes down to Jaron Brown, Brittan Golden and Teddy Williams once he is able to return from injury. The Cardinals should be in the mix for a free-agent receiver.

     

    Anquan Boldin

    Is it inconceivable to think Anquan Boldin would come back to Arizona? Not really. After all, his arch-nemesis, Todd Haley, has been out of the picture for years, and the Cardinals have a team ready to contend in the playoffs.

    The question here would be if Boldin is willing to split time with Floyd and/or take a lesser role with the team. He wasn’t happy with the direction of the Ravens after winning Super Bowl XLVII last season, and after demanding a trade for the second time in his career, he was shipped off to San Francisco.

    He then led the 49ers in receptions (85) and receiving yards (1,179) while starting all 16 games in a season for the first time since 2010.

    He will be 34 years old midway through next season, but he proved this year he can still play. Will he accept a lesser role with a team knowing the end of his career draws closer every day?

     

    Robert Meachem

    Three solid seasons in New Orleans in which he averaged 43 receptions, 660 yards and seven touchdowns per season led the San Diego Chargers to sign Robert Meachem to a four-year, $26 million deal in 2012. After hauling in only 14 receptions for 207 yards and two scores that season, San Diego brass thought it better to take a huge salary cap hit and release him than to pay him even more money for such little production, according to Chris Burke of SI.com.

    He re-signed with the Saints for the 2013 season and only marginally bested his 2012 performance, so he will not come nearly as pricey as he did to the Chargers. He is speedy for his size (6’2”, 214) and runs decent routes. Meachem may be worth a one-year prove-it deal.

     

    Ted Ginn Jr.

    Coach Arians wants a downfield threat, and Ted Ginn Jr. is definitely that. Ginn enjoyed his best season as a receiver this year, grabbing 36 receptions for 556 yards (15.4 yards per catch) and a career-high five touchdowns.

    This signing would also allow cornerback Patrick Peterson to focus on playing cornerback full time, because Ginn is one of the best punt returners in the league. He can also return kicks.

    With one signing, the Cardinals can take care of their No. 3 receiver spot and both returner positions. Ginn might be the best idea of these three from a money and overall production standpoint.

Tight End

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    It’s no secret that the Cardinals struggle to get production from their tight ends. Rob Housler scored his first NFL touchdown this season in his 34th career professional game. He set career highs in receiving yards (454) and yards per catch (11.6) as well, but that’s not good enough for a starting tight end.

    Jim Dray (unrestricted) and Jake Ballard (restricted) are free agents, but both should be back in 2014. Still, Arizona needs a true No. 1 tight end.

     

    Jimmy Graham

    This is an obvious choice. If they can swing the record deal Jimmy Graham is about to receive, they need to make it happen. It would take some serious magic from Keim and Co. to free up some cap space, but I wouldn’t put anything past him.

    Graham holds NFL records for most receptions (301) and receiving yards (3,863) for a tight end through his first four seasons, and his 41 touchdowns ranks second to Rob Gronkowski’s 42 for most touchdowns through four seasons.

    Thinking about Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Jimmy Graham on the same field in Cardinal Red is exciting. Could you imagine?

     

    Brandon Myers

    After a career year with the Oakland Raiders in 2012 in which he led the team with 806 receiving yards and was Palmer’s top target, Brandon Myers signed with the New York Giants and suffered from a pitiful offense. He matched his four touchdowns from the season prior, but he had 32 fewer receptions and 284 fewer yards.

    He and Palmer had a connection two seasons ago, so it makes some sense to bring him in on a short multi-year deal.

Left Tackle

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    If Arizona does not re-sign Winston to play right tackle, Bobby Massie is ready and waiting to start again. Therefore, left tackle is specified here instead of both tackle positions.

    Bradley Sowell filled in admirably after the Cardinals traded Levi Brown, but he doesn’t appear to be the blindside blocker of the future. And with many good left tackles on the market this offseason, Keim can sign a player to a large contract and not worry about his quarterback’s back for years.

     

    Branden Albert

    This has been a popular topic for months. Branden Albert to Arizona would be good for the franchise because he is a proven commodity. An immediate upgrade, he would allow the team to shift draft focus elsewhere.

    But he won’t come cheap. Of the three players mentioned here, Albert would be the most expensive signing. It’s possible Albert to Arizona hinges on whether Fitzgerald restructures his massive contract—or takes a pay cut altogether.

     

    Eugene Monroe

    A former top-10 pick, Eugene Monroe was traded from the Jaguars to the Ravens this season. He played poorly in September just before the trade, but after arriving in Baltimore, he suddenly found himself and finished as the 12th-best tackle, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    He is just shy of 27 years old and is the youngest of the three players mentioned. If he wants, he likely can command the same money as Albert, and with the type of players they are, it’s comparing apples to apples.

     

    Anthony Collins

    Anthony Collins is a former fourth-round pick who has never had a starting job to himself in the NFL. All of his 25 starts have come because of injury. It’s time he is given a starting spot, because he is a very athletic tackle who performs well in both pass protection and run-blocking.

    In 15 games this season (eight starts, postseason included), Collins did not allow a sack and allowed only one quarterback hit. In fact, Collins hasn’t allowed a sack since Oct. 4, 2009 against the Cleveland Browns—a personal span of 42 games played.

    He won’t command quite the contract the previous two will, but he is just as good as Albert and Monroe are, if not better.

Outside Linebacker

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Before all the injuries, the outside linebacker positions lacked pass-rushing prowess in Arizona. Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander do not strike fear in opposing quarterbacks on obvious passing downs.

    After the injuries to Acho and Alexander, John Abraham stepped in and recorded his eighth double-digit sack season, finishing with 11.5 on the season. He returns in 2014, and he should start once again. But who will start with him?

    Matt Shaughnessy is a free agent, and though he’s not a pure pass-rusher like Abraham is, he played a large part in the best run defense in the NFL.

     

    Brian Orakpo

    He will be expensive, but Brian Orakpo is one of the best all-around 3-4 outside linebackers in the game. He has 39.5 sacks in five NFL seasons, but he is also among the best in other categories as well, according to PFF.

    The site ranked him as the third-best 3-4 OLB in run defense this season, and second-best in coverage.

    In fact, Orakpo ranked in the top nine in every category PFF grades (pass rush, coverage, against the run, penalties and, consequently, overall grade).

     

    Jason Worilds

    Edge-rusher Jason Worilds enjoyed his best season as a pro in 2013, recording eight sacks and 63 total tackles. His 50 quarterback pressures led the Pittsburgh Steelers this season, and according to PFF, he was the eighth-most productive 3-4 OLB in the league.

    But he also succeeded against the run, posting the second-best grade on the team in run defense.

    If he leaves Pittsburgh, he would be far cheaper than Orakpo. He has solid upside as a pass-rusher, so it may be worth a look for Arizona.

Strong Safety

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    He had his moments, but Yeremiah Bell did not play well in key moments for the Cardinals this season. He missed some tackles and allowed far too many touchdowns (cover a tight end, maybe?).

    Rashad Johnson can play strong safety, so it’s not paramount to sign a free agent here—especially if the asking price is too high. With that in mind, here are the top candidates.

     

    T.J. Ward

    He’s not huge, but 5’10” and 211 pounds is plenty for this in-the-box terror. T.J. Ward spent 2013 as a defensive captain for the Cleveland Browns and recorded 112 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.

    Ward was PFF’s top safety against the run this season and ranked 12th in coverage. Given Cleveland’s current trouble, it would be surprising to see him re-sign with the Browns.

    He would be a perfect fit in Todd Bowles’ defense as a true strong safety. Pair him in the box with slot corner Tyrann Mathieu, and offenses would be best served just not to throw short or intermediate routes.

    What could be Ward’s best attribute? He covers tight ends well. He was targeted in coverage of 16 different tight ends this season, and he surrendered 14 receptions on 22 targets (63.6 percent) for 138 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions for an 81.3 passer rating

     

    Bernard Pollard

    Eight-year veteran Bernard Pollard fits the mold of a prototypical strong safety, standing 6’2” and weighing 224 pounds. He hits like a prototypical strong safety, routinely laying the boom on receivers who unfortunately cross his path.

    Pollard ranked sixth among safeties against the run according to PFF, which has been his forte since coming into the league with the Baltimore Ravens in 2006.

    Where he struggles, however, is in coverage of tight ends. Unlike Ward, Pollard is a liability because of tight hips that prevent him from getting where he needs to be.

Kicker

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Let’s face it: Jay Feely just isn’t what he once was. He gave the Cardinals four good seasons, but it’s time to move on. He had a few highlights while in Arizona, including a franchise-record 61-yard field goal in 2012 and outscoring the entire Denver Broncos offense in 2010 in a 43-13 win.

    Free-agent kickers don’t often leave a good situation, but perhaps this kicker will see greener pastures in the desert.

     

    Graham Gano

    Former Florida State kicker and punter Graham Gano came into the NFL as a rookie free agent in 2009. He signed with the Washington Redskins and had three mediocre seasons there, connecting on just 73.8 percent of his kicks while missing two extra points. He struggled deep, hitting just four of nine kicks from 50-plus yards.

    But Gano was solid in two seasons with the Carolina Panthers. He connected on 33-of-38 kicks (86.8 percent) over that time including seven of eight from 50-plus.

    He ranked second in the NFL in average kickoff depth this season (72.0 yards) and fifth in average starting field position (19.5 yard-line) according to PFF. He also led the league in percentage of kicks returned, at just 20.0 percent. That’s 16 returns out of 80 kickoffs, which is insane.

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