Despite Additions, Cardinals Remain in Bottom Half of Roster Rankings

Mason Kern

With the feverish period of free agency and the NFL Draft in the rearview mirror, and with rosters predominantly set, team evaluations are running rampant across the NFL.

With so much turnover, there is lots of speculation put toward how new pieces will fit with their respective teams. This is especially the case considering traditional in-person offseason programs never happened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic that still leaves the odds of team's actually playing a season in 2020 virtually unknown.

There has been lots of hype surrounding the Arizona Cardinals. Not only does last season's Offensive Rookie of the Year quarterback Kyler Murray return for Year 2, but several other key positions were supplemented this offseason.

Arguably the biggest splash of the entire period was made by the Cardinals in mid-March, when the franchise traded aging running back David Johnson (and his enormous contractual obligation) to the Houston Texans in exchange for one of the most dynamic receivers in the league, DeAndre Hopkins. Many felt that was lopsided in favor of the Cards, especially when considering they did not even have to give up a first-round draft pick in the process.

That pick, at No. 8 overall, turned into Clemson do-it-all linebacker Isaiah Simmons, who many felt the Cardinals got as a steal at his draft slot. In essence, all of the Cardinals draft choices were projected to go higher, so fans were pleased (for the first time in a long time) with how general manager Steve Keim operated the war room.

In free agency, the Cardinals supplemented one of the weakest position groups on the roster with the acquisition of former Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, who is poised to play a major role under defensive coordinator Vance Joseph and his 3-4 scheme. Plus, Arizona used both of its fourth-round draft picks on defensive linemen in Leki Fotu out of Utah and Rashard Lawrence from LSU. Both will likely factor into the rotation this season.

Throw in the addition of linebackers Devon Kennard (Detroit Lions) and De'Vondre Campbell (Atlanta Falcons) and the Cardinals' front seven looks vastly improved on paper.

Despite struggling to defend the passing game last season, the Cardinals left their secondary alone. With a "happy" cornerback Patrick Peterson and the emergence of young talents like cornerback Byron Murphy and safety Budda Baker, it will be interesting to see if the unit improves in its second season under head coach Kliff Kingsbury and Joseph.

The retention of offensive continuity along the offensive line — having only not re-signed center A.Q. Shipley, replacing him with an experienced Mason Cole, who started all 16 games in his rookie year — as well as signing breakout running back Kenyan Drake to his one-year transition tag, all sets the stage for an improved season from the five-win campaign last year.

Yet, according to Pro Football Focus — which ranked all 32 NFL rosters using the PFF database with an eye toward the projected starters, they were not impressed. Using both the PFF grades from the 2019 season, a number that is included for every projected starter, and a more comprehensive look at each player's career using both PFF grades and statistics — the Cardinals' roster still ranks in the bottom half of the league.

Arizona was listed at No. 24 out of 32 NFL franchises. Here is why:

Biggest strength: It's hard to overstate how huge the addition of DeAndre Hopkins is to this offseason. With Larry Fitzgerald living primarily as a possession and slot receiver at this stage of his career, quarterback Kyler Murray needed a true primary threat in the passing game — and Hopkins is one of the best in the business. By PFF's WAR metric, Hopkins was one of the five most-valuable non-quarterbacks in the NFL last season, and he has some of the best hands in the league. Murray and Hopkins should waste no time building a dangerous connection.

Biggest weakness: The pass-rushing options on this team outside of Chandler Jones leave a lot to be desired. Jones' 90.5 pass-rushing grade since joining the Cardinals in 2016 ranks 10th among all edge defenders, but Devon Kennard — the projected edge defender on the other side — hasn't earned a pass-rushing grade above 60.0 since 2014. Jordan Phillips (despite what the sack numbers last season might suggest), Corey Peters and Zach Allen can't be relied on for much pass-rushing push, either.

X factor for 2020: What position does rookie first-round pick Isaiah Simmons play? That was the question that dominated the pre-draft process. The truth is, he's so versatile and so multi-talented that it's not hard to overthink things. Last season at Clemson, Simmons earned grades in run defense, pass rushing, coverage and tackling above 80.0 while playing a wide range of positions on defense. Whether it's at linebacker, safety, the slot, edge or, ideally, a combination of each, Simmons should make Arizona's defense better.

Answering PFF's X factor question, Simmons will start out playing linebacker, according to both Kingsbury and Joseph. They do not want to overwhelm him and stunt his growth too early.

As for the rest, several Cardinals players and coaching staff members have stated that the "sky is the limit" for this franchise, but they have to go prove it. The cautious optimism building within the organizational walls means nothing if the roster improvements on paper do not translate on the field.

Here is PFF's projected first-team offense and defense with each player's grade underneath.

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