Off-season Outlook: Arizona Cardinals
Yes, Super Bowl 50 just ended, but the NFL never sleeps, so it's time to take a look at what every team must do for a better season next time around. Next up is the Cardinals, the NFC runner-up, who need to start thinking about their quarterback situation after Carson Palmer. We started from the top earlier this week with off-season previews for the Super Bowl champion Broncos, the NFC champion Panthers and the New England Patriots.
Key free agents
CB Jerraud Powers, QB Drew Stanton, OLB Dwight Freeney, RB Chris Johnson, C Lyle Sendlein, OLB LaMarr Woodley, TE Jermaine Gresham, RT Bobby Massie
Players that must be re-signed
Powers, Stanton, Freeney, Sendlein, Johnson: Arizona’s secondary took a pretty serious nose dive with Tyrann Mathieu’s late-season ACL tear, but Powers played decently enough as Patrick Peterson’s bookend. He’s not an elite cornerback, but he gets the system. Stanton is a reliable backup who understands Bruce Arians’s system. The 35-year-old Freeney had a bit of a renaissance season in 2015, with eight sacks, four hits and 29 hurries in the defensive rotation. Sendlein hasn’t been great the last couple seasons, but with all the questions on this line, he’d be a good low-cost re-acquisition. Johnson’s season ended in late November with a fractured tibia, and he's no longer a workhorse back, but he’s a nice change-of-pace back now that David Johnson has firmly established himself as the man in Arizona’s backfield.
Most important position to improve
Offensive line: The Cardinals know that they have the left side of this line down, with left tackle Jared Veldheer and left guard Mike Iupati, but everything else is up in the air. Sendlein had a down year, 2013 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper was benched in favor of Ted Larsen as the season progressed, and Massie, the right guard by default, has been a turnstile in pass protection since the Cards took him in the fourth round of the ’12 draft. Last season, Massie “led” the offense with eight sacks allowed. Larsen is also a free agent. Arians’s offense demands that a quarterback take a lot of deep drops, and outside of Veldheer, nobody in this unit is set up to block for that. Even Iupati, who is an outstanding run-blocker, struggles against more agile defenders.
Other positions to improve
Edge rusher, quarterback, cornerback: No team blitzed more than the Cardinals last season, and there was a reason for that—despite Freeney’s time-machine season and the ascent of Markus Golden, this is a defense without a true dominant edge-rusher, and if they had one, this defense would be one of the top units in the league. It’s possible that Golden, with eight sacks, 10 hits and 39 hurries in his rookie season, could be that guy. But there's still a need for a bookend over time.
The Cards have bet big on Palmer, a move that has paid off over the last two seasons... when Palmer is healthy. But when he isn’t, this offense falls off grievously, and it’s up to Arians and general manager Steve Keim to fix that. Stanton is nothing but a backup, and Matt Barkley, who replaced Logan Thomas as the third man, isn’t the answer, either. It’s time to find the future franchise quarterback and start grooming him as soon as possible.
As for the cornerback position, there’s no real replacement in the NFL for what Mathieu does from a multi-positional angle. Patrick Peterson is one of the league’s best when he’s on, though he struggles with consistency and speed receivers. Powers is a decent fill-in, but this defense could use a good long-term bookend and a backup slot corner.
Overall priority this off-season
Figure out what life after Carson Palmer looks like: In 2014 Cardinals were 9–1 and the best team in football when Palmer went down with a torn ACL. They finished the season 2–4 and limped into the playoffs with Stanton and Ryan Lindley under center, where they were taken apart by the Panthers in the wild-card round. This season, Palmer remained healthy for the duration of the regular season, but he suffered a finger injury late in the season which greatly affected his accuracy, and the team decided that the best way was for Palmer to play through it. Palmer threw six picks in two playoff games, including four in the NFC Championship embarrassment to the Panthers.
Clearly, the Cardinals need a better future option at the position (or, they just need to stop playing the Panthers in the playoffs). Palmer turned 36 in December, and while he’s still got a few years left in the tank, this version of the franchise is gambling hard on an older quarterback with an extensive injury history, with very little in reserve. This needs to change. Arians clearly has shown the ability to make the most of his quarterbacks, but he now needs a young player with potential who can become Palmer’s long-term replacement.