Off-season report card: Arizona Cardinals
2016: 7-8-1, second place in NFC West.
Significant additions: S Antoine Bethea, LB Karlos Dansby, K Phil Dawson, QB Blaine Gabbert, OLB Jarvis Jones, LB Haason Reddick (R1), S Budda Baker (R2), WR Chad Williams (R3), G Dorian Johnson (R4)
Significant losses: DE Calais Campbell, TE Darren Fells, S Tony Jefferson, LB Kevin Minter, OLB Alex Okafor, S D.J. Swearinger, LB Daryl Washington, G Earl Watford
The Cardinals—featuring the ultra-talented RB David Johnson and potential Hall of Fame WR Larry Fitzgerald on Bruce Arians's chance-taking offense, and dynamic playmakers like Deone Bucannon, Tyrann Mathieu and new rookies Budda Baker and Haason Reddick on one of the NFL's more unique defensive rosters—should be one of the NFL's most entertaining teams in 2017. But the big question here—will Arizona be any better than their 2016 selves?
There are reasons to believe they will, not the least of which is their recent, pre-2016 track record—the Cardinals played in the 2015 NFC title game and chalked up a combined 34 victories from 2013 to ’15. Even with WR John Brown scuffling through injury last season and QB Carson Palmer unable to drum up any consistency, the offense ranked in the top 10 in both points and yards.
The front office and coaching staff must trust that the points will come. Aside from swapping OT Jared Veldheer from the left side to the right to accommodate D.J. Humphries, the Cardinals' additions on offense were mostly limited to the draft: Williams, Johnson, Logan and OT Will Holden. All could contribute, but it's possible none plays an expansive role this coming season.
The status quo might be good enough to keep the offense in rhythm. The defense, on the other hand, has undergone some changes.
Where it gets most interesting (read as: exciting or dicey, depending on your personal confidence level) is at defensive end and safety. The Cardinals let longtime D-line stalwart Calais Campbell walk in free agency this off-season, and then decided to look in-house for solutions. When asked at the combine how the Cardinals planned to make up for Campbell's loss, Arians replied, “We hope we've done that in the draft the last two years, with Rodney [Gunter] and Robert [Nkemdiche].”
If it turns out that the Cardinals do improve this season, they will be able to thank their commitment to versatility on defense. That's specifically true at the safety spot, where the Cardinals lost two players to free agency: D.J. Swearinger, who saved his career with his play in Arizona, and the wholly underrated Tony Jefferson. Competing for their spots in the desert will be ex-Colts veteran Antoine Bethea and rookie Budda Baker. They’ll join incumbent star Tyrann Mathieu and others in what could be a deep secondary.
There is a bit of a challenge in how to utilize all of those safety pieces (plus Tyvon Branch and CB convert Harlan Miller).
Mathieu’s role could be the key to unlocking everything else. Currently working his way back off a season-ending shoulder injury, Mathieu initially was expected to transition back to his old spot as a hybrid corner, playing close to the line of scrimmage—he spent significant chunks of last year at free safety. However, Bethea, despite having extensive experience at free safety himself, is more of a strong safety at this point in his career; and Baker tells SI that the Cardinals are prepping him for a nickel safety/slot corner role, too.
“At the end of the day, [Tyrann’s] a safety and he [also] has all the tools to be all the other things” Baker says. “They just wanted to get another one in me, I feel like it’s going to be beneficial, you’re getting a player who can play any position.”
The Cardinals have leaned into this approach of “draft first, figure it out later” as much as any team in the league. They've moved Mathieu all over their secondary, and Bucannon is a safety turned linebacker. This year, Arizona will add in Baker and first-rounder Haason Reddick, who played DE at Temple but projects to be a linebacker in the NFL. They also return OLB Chandler Jones, a pass rusher and then some.
As a result, Arians's team has an enviable ability to dictate matchups on their terms, rather than try to adjust to what an offense throws at it.
“I think it's important to have hybrid players at all levels, whether it is your defensive line, your linebackers or secondary” Cardinals GM Steve Keim said at the combine. “Because when you do things like we do—multiple fronts, multiple coverages—you have that position flexibility where you can play inside, you can play outside. … To have a guy like Tyrann Mathieu who can invert, play in the slot, play in the nickel for you, the more flexibility you have, the more you can do.”
The flexibility, that athleticism may have to be enough. The Cardinals did not aggressively chase any upgrades at cornerback, nor did they nab a legitimate fallback option should Palmer falter (no, Blaine Gabbert does not count). It was an off-season of minor, if intriguing, tweaks for a team that finished below .500 a year ago.