The Arizona Cardinals fortified the locker room with professionals and leaders this offseason, bracing for a departure of cornerback Patrick Peterson and potential retirement of receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
How smart it was to add J.J. Watt, A.J. Green and Rodney Hudson a decade into their respective careers won’t be judgable until those players — all of whom were 2011 draft picks — hit the field and produce.
In the meantime, let’s take a breath at this point of the offseason to peek at what priorities are left for general manager Steve Keim as free agency has slowed to a near-halt and with the NFL Draft less than a month away.
Cornerbacks wanted – duh!
I don’t need to explain why every mock draft encountered has Arizona selecting a cornerback at No. 16.
Even if Malcolm Butler is an above-average cornerback at age 31 and even if Robert Alford can be competent on the opposite side of him going on 33 years old, there’s quite the depth problem.
The Cardinals have made it super clear that Byron Murphy, as capable as he is on the outside, is at his best in the slot. The cornerback room then, is only at three. Four if 2020 undrafted rookie Jace Whittaker continutes impressing defensive coordinator Vance Joseph enough to earn consideration.
The best-case scenario laid out above still should make you feel uneasy.
And in a situation where Butler trends downward or Alford just isn’t up to speed having missed the past two full seasons, it could get ugly in a hurry. It would seem prudent for the Cardinals to consider themselves without a No. 2 cornerback at this point.
You’d expect that there are inexpensive options on the market, whether that’s bringing back free agents like Dre Kirkpatrick, Johnathan Joseph or Kevin Peterson — or if Arizona likes any other guys searching for jobs.
The talent at the position and the need just make too much sense for the mocks to be anything but boring at this juncture.
Run-focused interior defender
Fitzgerald’s uncertain future remains the big storyline, but in terms of on-field importance, he’s not the captain whose departure looks like the biggest void at this point.
Green’s addition ultimately plugs a potential Fitzgerald retirement or departure, but along the defensive line, Arizona does not have a clear-cut starting nose tackle.
Corey Peters is coming off a torn patellar tendon. The injury came at an untimely point just before he reached free agency.
In-house, there are some options if Peters isn’t back or isn’t healthy to begin the year if he does re-sign.
Fourth-round pick Rashard Lawrence flashed but spent too much time on the IR to peg as the Week 1 starter. His 2020 rookie classmate, fellow fourth-round pick Leki Fotu, was a nose tackle in college but spent last year learning how to play off center while trying to lose weight. Could he revert back to nose with an offseason eating spree?
Jordan Phillips certainly adds girth to the interior next to J.J. Watt and a tandem of the second-year guys and Zach Allen, but Arizona at this point is just missing the gap-stuffer and run-stopper (though Watt graded well from that perspective on the edge last season for the Texans).
A hammer at running back
The Cardinals turning to Chase Edmonds as the No. 1 running back is supported by the numbers — and the tape as defenses freaked out when he lined up out wide.
But we don’t know much about what’s behind him.
Rookie Jonathan Ward clearly made an impression after going undrafted, playing often on special teams and taking a pitch play 11 yards for a score in the season finale. There’s reason to believe the Cardinals could give him a chance in camp to earn the role as a bigger, 200-plus-pound rusher who also has receiving chops.
Fellow rookie Eno Benjamin, a Sun Devil-fan favorite, took 2020 as a redshirt season. He can replicate what Edmonds brings and, being under contract for 2021, at least gives Arizona depth.
Obviously, Benjamin has yet to earn the coaching staff’s trust.
But you would think the Cardinals will keep an eye out for a veteran to add to the young mix. A physical down-hill runner would be the ideal candidate.
The No. 5 (big-target) receiving threat
Let’s take a swing at predicting the receiving leaders right now: DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk, Green and Edmonds should lead the way in 2021, in something like that order.
Fitzgerald can add his name there if he returns, but if not, there’s a void. That void could be filled by a tight end.
Dan Arnold joining the Carolina Panthers leaves the tight end room open for an addition. Even if Maxx Williams and Darrell Daniels are back and healthy, the Cardinals went to 12 personnel packages of two tights ends too often for that room to stand pat from here on out.
Daniels maybe could take on a bigger role. Still, Arizona needs at least another body to complement what’s already there.
Inside backers, maybe?
De’Vondre Campbell remains a free agent, and while the writing has been on the wall for first-round pick Isaiah Simmons to take this place in 2021, there’s also this: Simmons was great moving around from safety to outside linebacker alongside Campbell.
Even with Tanner Vallejo and Zeke Turner back in the fold behind Simmons and Jordan Hicks, the Cardinals could use another inside linebacker perhaps to enhance Simmons’ Swiss Army Knife-type abilities.
But maybe the deep safety room that has veteran Shawn Williams joining some returning guys can play that role as well.