Mailbag: Are the Cardinals Legitimate Super Bowl Contenders?

With J.J. Watt now in Arizona, can the Cardinals take a leap from their 8–8 mark last season? Plus, which teams will find a way to either draft a QB prospect or trade for a veteran on the market.
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Lots of quarterback questions in this week’s mailbag. But we’re starting elsewhere …

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From Troy Greene (@troyDgreene): You’re probably going to get a lot of J.J. Watt questions, but here I go anyway: Why Arizona? Are they really Super Bowl contenders?

Let’s start with this perspective: On March 3, 2020, no one saw the Buccaneers as Super Bowl contenders. Maybe, coming off a 7–9 season with a lot of brand-name players on the roster, you thought the Bucs could sneak into the playoffs. But no one was planning the parade route, boat or otherwise, the same way no one could fathom what was coming in our country in general over the year to follow.

The Cardinals were better in 2020 than the Bucs were in 2019. They have a promising young quarterback in Kyler Murray. They improved by two and a half games in Kliff Kingsbury’s first year, and another two and a half games in his second year, in arguably the toughest division in football.

So, no, this isn’t signing with a team like Pittsburgh or Green Bay, that’s always in the chase. But I do think the idea that this is a championship dead end for Watt is a little off.

Then, there’s the other part of his decision: I do think he wants to prove he can still be one of the best defensive players in football. He’s played fewer than half the games in three of his last five seasons, and really only one of those years (2018) was up to the standard that he upheld the first five years of his career. And if you’re him, and you’re looking to get back to where you were, going to a coach (Vance Joseph) and system (the Wade Phillips scheme) that you had great success with makes all the sense in the world.

For those reasons, it really doesn’t surprise me much that Joseph was able to appeal to Watt as the Cardinals’ lead recruiter. (And it probably doesn’t hurt that he could offer the chance to play with Chandler Jones opposite him either.)

From TJ (@ChrisTJ31): At what point do the Joneses (Jerry and Stephen) say enough is enough and pick up the phone to call the Seahawks regarding Russell Wilson? It has to be this week, right?

TJ, I’m really not sure what you’d mean by “enough is enough.” The Cowboys and Dak Prescott haven’t been able to reach an agreement on a contract. It happens. But Dallas has had the opportunity to get something done, and at a time when they had more leverage than they do right now. In the interim, Prescott incurred 16 games of injury risk in 2019, then played at an elite level for five games before suffering a car-wreck injury in October.

The idea of giving your team a hometown discount, in football, is basically predicated on a player being able to transfer injury risk to the team. It’s pretty simple. If a guy is playing on an under-market contract, every game he plays puts his ability to maximize his value at risk. Conversely, if he gets a contract early, then he’s giving up his ability to truly maximize his value, and giving the team value back, in return for the team assuming the injury risk.

Prescott took on injury risk in 2019, then realized injury risk in 2020. So if you’re him, you’d be foolish not to try and make every dollar you can now. And he does have leverage.

His leverage is in what’ll happen if he simply does nothing contractually, stays healthy and plays well. That would result in one of two conclusions.

1) Play on the tag at $37.68 million in 2021, which would give Prescott a two-year take of $69.08 million, then become a free agent at 28 in 2022.

2) Play on the tag at 37.68 million in 2021, get tagged again at $54.26 million in 2022, giving Prescott a three-year take of $123.34 million, then become a free agent at 29 in 2023.

If you’re the Cowboys, right now, you have to beat those two scenarios. I had ex-Dolphins EVP/Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum on my podcast the other day (it posts Wednesday) and his solution for all this was to load up a new deal with guaranteed money to keep the APY lower. Maybe that’ll work. Maybe not. Either way, this is going to be a tough one for Dallas and, given the circumstances, it should be.

So, TJ, do I call and inquire about Russell Wilson? Maybe. But I’m not thinking “enough is enough” in regards to Prescott, and I’m definitely not taking that approach to the negotiating table, given where this situation’s been the last two years.

From Mike Cohen (@mcohen2): Best guess on who starts at QB for the Jets in Week 1?

Mike, I’m gonna say Zach Wilson. Now, the Jets haven’t shopped Sam Darnold around. But they’ve taken calls on him, and they’ve basically told interested teams to sit tight and that Darnold might be available after they get through evaluating the college quarterbacks to be considered for the second pick. The problem with that? The problem is seeing Wilson, Justin Fields and Trey Lance throw live is a major part of that process, and the only shot to do that this year will be at their pro days, which are on March 26, 31 and 12, respectively.

With the new league year starting March 17, and trades becoming official and signings happening right around then, most teams will move to execute plans at the game’s most important position. Which is to say waiting until after then to make a decision on Darnold carries some risk. Some quarterbacks (Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson) have a level of value that will hold up regardless. Darnold is not in that category, and if too many QB seats fill up in mid-to-late March, it could crush his trade value.

That puts the Jets in a spot where I think they’d want to have a Eureka moment on one of the quarterbacks before St. Patrick’s Day—where they say, O.K., this guy is as good or better than Darnold was coming out, and we want to reset our QB-on-a-rookie-contract clock—or know enough before then to where they’d go forward and, presumably, start to shop around the second pick.

I’m really not sure how the timing will work out on that. But if I had to guess right now, I’d say Wilson (and my sense is there’s still an outside shot that it’ll be Fields) in and Darnold out.

From GrantJohn (@JohnJo25278): What do you think the chance is the Bears land either Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson this offseason? Thanks.

Grant, I’d pay attention to what Ryan Pace said on Nick Foles.

“I respect the way he handled a lot of adversity this year, not just for himself in the quarterback room,” the Bears’ GM told the Chicago Sun-Times. “He was a leader in the room as a starter or as a backup. And …. when he was playing, there were some things that, in fairness to him, the offensive line was a little unsettled and the run game wasn’t quite where we wanted it to be.”

Here’s my translation: The Bears are comfortable enough with Foles that they don’t need to overreach for an answer early in the offseason. And that’s where your question gets answered. I think Chicago is trying to be patient in taking its swing at quarterback. The Bears were in on Matthew Stafford and never made an offer on Carson Wentz, which puts them in the same category as Washington and Carolina as teams that are going to be involved in the quarterback market, but aren’t going to wildly bid on every guy out there.

And I think all three of those teams would bid on Watson, and all three are candidates to trade up in March to get one, and I think the Bears will look very closely at the idea of bringing Russell Wilson in, too, since they happened to show up on his list. Which brings us to the issue here …

From Casey Buskey (@CaseyDABEARS): Do you think the Bears have an offer on the table for Watson?

Casey, I don’t know. But the problem the Bears would have in making a trade for either Watson or Wilson (we’ll roll both into one) would be that I’d think the Texans and Seahawks, if they were going to trade those guys, would want some sort of long-term answer, or a path to getting a long-term answer, at quarterback in return. Let’s look, then, at what some of the other supposed contenders for Watson would be able to offer …

Jets: second pick, 23rd pick, 23-year-old Sam Darnold.
Dolphins: third pick, 18th pick, 23-year-old Tua Tagovailoa.
Panthers: eighth pick.

And that’s without getting to each having a young, potential foundational defensive piece to deal (Quinnen Williams, Christian Wilkins, Brian Burns), too. So if those teams were all in on getting Watson, if he were to come available, I don’t know how the Bears, who pick 20th and don’t have a young, ascending quarterback to deal, would compete. At the very least, Pace & Co. would have to get creative.

With Wilson? At least there, when you look at Wilson’s list of desired landing spots (Vegas, Dallas, New Orleans, in addition to Chicago), the Bears could better compete with the field.

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From Eric Ryan (@Yi_Z_TaughtMe): There are numerous former Urban Meyer players that are available, or rumored to be available—Curtis Samuel, Marshon Lattimore, Carlos Dunlap, Joe Haden, Malik Hooker, etc. How many of these guys do you think are Jaguars this fall, and which ones?

Eric, this is a great question. We’ve seen new coaches do this in the past routinely, so it’s not just an Urban Meyer thing. And it happened in Carolina last year in Matt Rhule’s first year at quarterback, with a Joe Brady-connected starter (Teddy Bridgewater was with Brady in New Orleans) and a Rhule-connected backup (P.J. Walker played for him at Temple) filling out the depth chart. On top of that, WR Robby Anderson, TE Colin Thompson and S Sam Franklin played for Rhule at Temple, and DT Bravvion Roy was with him at Baylor.

I can also remember seeing it happen in a more aggressive way a decade ago, with Rex Ryan immediately signing Jim Leonhard, Bart Scott and Marques Douglas to come with him from Baltimore and put a program leader in every defensive position group; and a decade before that when Bill Belichick imported a fleet of ex-Jets (Bryan Cox, Roman Phifer, Anthony Pleasant, Otis Smith, etc.) to follow him to Foxboro.

So yes, I’d imagine we’ll see some of that from Meyer, for two reasons. One, naturally, there’s less guessing on a guy you know as intimately as Meyer will know some of these guys he coached as teenagers. And two, Meyer’s program is gonna be hard, it’s gonna be demanding, and so having guys in the locker room who’ve benefitted from going through it to sell his way would be invaluable.

Of the guys you named, I love Samuel in that he’s the quintessential guy to play the Percy Harvin role that Meyer invented for his offense back when his spread was on the cutting edge in the college. I’d also be fascinated to see Hooker go there as a reclamation project, because, and I think Meyer would agree with this, my belief is Hooker’s 2016 season at Ohio State was probably one of the five or 10 best played by any player at any position that Meyer ever coached. I watched every snap of it. I’ve never seen a college safety like him.

I can also say Meyer legitimately loved those guys, which helps with the program-building piece.

From Michael Seff (@DraftAmerica): Per 17 game schedule, every four years the NFC West team visits the AFC North team, etc., and never the other way around, unless they flip the alternation schedule every four years in terms of home and away. Seems unfair for travel. Any ideas on how this might be set?

Yes, Michael! We actually touched on this all the way back around Christmas when the league voted to approve the formula for the 17th game. And the way this is going to work is that every division will be matched with every division in the other conference every other year—once to play every team in that division, and once where each team will play the team that finished in the corresponding spot the year before.

So, for example, because the AFC West played the NFC North in 2019, those divisions will play the one-off games against each other in 2021 (the first-place Packers vs. the first-place Chiefs, for example). And to deal with the uneven nature of a 17-game schedule, the home/away will alternate by year—with AFC teams getting the one-off “17th game” one year and NFC teams getting it the next. That takes you from 2021 to 24, and I’d assume it’d just reverse for 2025 to 28.

That means, since next year the AFC teams will get the home game, it’ll go AFC, NFC, AFC, NFC the next four years, and NFC, AFC, NFC, AFC for the four years after that.

From Dalen Farmer (@dalenfarmer): Is Derek Carr the right answer in Las Vegas?

Dalen, I honestly think they feel more strongly about him now than they did at this point a year ago. That doesn’t mean they absolutely, positively won’t trade him. But, to me, it does mean that what would constitute an upgrade for them is a little different now than it was in March 2019 (when they kicked tires on Kyler Murray, Dwayne Haskins and Drew Lock) or March 2020 (when speculation continued that they’d dump Carr).

And I’ve said this since Jon Gruden arrived in 2018, and Mike Mayock joined him a year later: I think the analogy here is the Raiders have the advantage any of us might have in a month-to-month lease. My wife and I were in that spot five years ago, in moving from the city to the suburbs, and I can tell you that it’s an awesome place to be in if you’re happy with where you are. Not dealing with a deadline on when you have to buy something allows you to peruse the market, and wait for the right house and the right deal.

It worked out for us, and that sort of dynamic certainly worked out for the Chiefs with Alex Smith, and I think it puts the Raiders in a position of strength now. Could Gruden be smitten with Russell Wilson, or fall in love with one of the quarterbacks in the draft? Sure he could. But if he doesn’t, he has a perfectly fine answer at the position at a pretty affordable rate, and he and Mayock can use their capital to keep building up what’s already a pretty promising roster, all things considered.

From Deshaun Watson Soon with Denver Broncos (@Deshaun2Broncos): Should the Broncos draft a QB in the first round? They have a talented roster and could be contenders if they hit on a talented cost-controlled QB.

Deshaun2Broncos, I think they absolutely should treat the next six weeks as if they plan to draft one. Does that mean they have to take one? No. But they’re picking in the top 10. They have the ability to move up. And this year, there are four guys who are both physically qualified to go that high and have tape that would merit such a pick: Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance. On top of that, as of right now, next year’s crop looks relatively barren (J.T. Daniels? Kedon Slovis? Spencer Rattler?)

That means if new GM George Paton doesn’t come out of this draft with a quarterback, and Drew Lock doesn’t show more in 2021 than he did in 2020, the Broncos could legitimately still be looking for an answer when we get to the draft in 2023 (a reality a lot of teams are now considering).

And maybe the Broncos will wind up with Watson or Darnold (for context on that, they did take a shot at Stafford). Absent that, I think they owe it to themselves to conduct themselves as if they’re going to take one in April, which means doing every bit of research, sending decision-makers to the QBs’ pro days, and burning out their laptops on the Zoom app getting to know these kids ahead of having to make that call at the end of next month.