Arizona Cardinals' Free-Agency and Draft Wish List
Throughout the spring, you will see a host of different free agents and potential draft picks linked to the Arizona Cardinals. Not all will make sense; even some listed here may cause you to scratch your head.
And that’s OK. We get by during this time of year by speculating on which prospects the Cardinals could target in the draft and which ones they should avoid, as well as the free agents they must have no matter the cost.
This offseason, the Cardinals will have a multitude of decisions to make regarding their salary-cap situation. As of the date of this article, they have just over $5.7 million in cap space, according to a public report published by NFLPlayers.com.
News broke last week that, despite earlier reports that he would not be willing to do so, star wideout Larry Fitzgerald is “absolutely” willing to restructure his contract. That means Arizona will likely have a bit more breathing room underneath the cap in the near future, which it can use to improve the team by signing free agents to fill immediate needs.
.@LarryFitzgerald on restructuring: "Absolutely. If that's what needs to be done, that's what needs to be done." Hear the interview at 2:30— Mike Jurecki (@mikejurecki) January 30, 2014
With that restructure—and others that could get done—in mind, here is a Cardinals' free-agency and draft wish list, based on both need and want.
The Cardinals are set with free-agent veteran quarterbacks. Carson Palmer’s backup Drew Stanton has starting experience and knows head coach Bruce Arians’ offense as well as anyone. That said, a couple of incoming rookies would look good in Arians’ system.
Zach Mettenberger (Draft)
The ultimate pro-style quarterback, former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger stands tall in the pocket and is ready and willing to deliver passes under pressure. He’s not what you’d consider a mobile quarterback, although he moves well around the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield.
He tore his ACL late in his senior season, and he could start his rookie season on the physically unable to perform list—which is fine given the quarterback room in Arizona.
Derek Carr (Draft)
File this one under the “he who will not be available” category. Former Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr has it all: size, arm strength, accuracy, touch—there isn’t a throw he can’t make.
He’s too good, however. The chances he’s there at No. 20 for Arizona are slim-to-none, so this is an end-all-be-all of wishes.
Some lucky team will draft Carr in the top 10 this May and get a franchise quarterback with Day 1 starting potential.
Although there are no bell-cow backs in this year’s free-agent pool, there are more than a few nice pieces that would complement Andre Ellington better than Rashard Mendenhall did in 2013.
While you could say Stepfan Taylor and even Ryan Williams can work with Ellington and do just fine, why not get even better if you can?
If the Cardinals add a running back this offseason, it likely would be via free agency and not the draft. It may be foolish to put anything by general manager Steve Keim, however, so you never know.
Ben Tate (Free Agent)
A second-round pick of the Houston Texans in 2010, Ben Tate missed his rookie season after injuring his ankle against the Cardinals during the preseason. But in three years since then, he has averaged 4.7 yards per carry and has been at times “the guy” when Arian Foster has succumbed to injury.
Tate sharing the backfield with Ellington would give defenses nightmares and have coordinators waking up in the middle of the night with cold sweats, rousing their wives and asking to be held until they fall back asleep.
Tate's power, combined with his speed and vision, makes him the perfect weapon alongside Ellington, who became the fourth rookie running back in franchise history to top 1,000 yards from scrimmage.
Andre Brown (Free Agent)
Andre Brown was drafted by the New York Giants in the fourth round of the 2009 draft. After missing his rookie season with an Achilles injury, the Giants waived him as the 2010 season began. He spent time with four teams before rejoining the G-men in Aug. 2011.
He then was waived again and signed to New York’s practice squad, where he spent the entire season.
It wasn’t until 2012 that he finally got his chance as an NFL back. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry in 2012 and scored eight touchdowns while starting two games. A down 2013 season should not mar his image, as he was merely part of a terrible team.
He has power and speed much like Tate, and though he’s 27 years old, he has the wear of a second-year back—he only has 214 carries in four NFL seasons (granted, he’s spent a lot of time on IR).
Jeremy Hill (Draft)
Keeping with the theme of bigger backs, former LSU running back Jeremy Hill has a large frame (6’1”, 235 pounds) and was productive in two seasons at Baton Rouge. In 24 games, he rushed for 2,156 yards (6.2 yards per carry) and scored 28 touchdowns.
He can afford to slim down some. If he gets down to 225, he would be even faster and a bit more agile—he has breakaway speed as it is.
Durability and consistency are two key positives for Hill, something the Cardinals have rarely gotten from the running back position.
With the probability that Andre Roberts leaves in free agency for greener pastures, the time is now to find a replacement third receiver. Arizona is shallow at receiver behind Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, so it would not be surprising to see a free agent and a draft pick this offseason.
James Jones (Free Agent)
Had James Jones enjoyed nearly the same success in 2013 as he did in 2012, when he led the NFL with 14 touchdowns, he would be untouchable. But he and the Green Bay Packers struggled this season, and Jones’ production dropped despite a career high in receiving yards (817).
He likely wants to be a starter, however, so this is a pipe dream of sorts. Even with how often NFL teams use three-receiver sets, the third receiver technically is not a starter and subs out when teams use 21 or 12 personnel.
Martavis Bryant (Draft)
Tall and thin, Martavis Bryant has room to bulk up. He’s 6’5” and 200 pounds, and if he adds 20 pounds of muscle, he could be one of the biggest, strongest and fastest receivers in the game. With 10 to 15 more, he’d be Calvin Johnson.
He has speed to burn to go along with that elite size, but why is no one talking about him? He attended Clemson, where he was overshadowed by quarterback Tajh Boyd and fellow receiver Sammy Watkins—a likely top-10 pick.
But Bryant is currently a second- to third-round pick projection, according to CBSSports.com. He is good enough right now to step in as the No. 3 receiver for Arizona and make Arians a happy man from Day 1. As a junior in 2013, Bryant hauled in 42 receptions for 828 yards (19.7 yards per catch) and seven touchdowns, including two scores in the Orange Bowl against Ohio State.
Fitzgerald (6’3”), Floyd (6’3”) and Bryant (6’5”) would be the perfect threesome to throw out there against the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
Two names will be seen here. One is a free agent, and the other is a rookie. One is attainable, while the other is not. You decide.
Jimmy Graham (Free Agent)
He’s about to set a record for the most lucrative contract ever signed by an NFL tight end. Will it be for the New Orleans Saints, the team that made him a third-round pick in 2010? Not likely.
They have more money problems than Sinbad.
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis promised to use the franchise tag on Graham, much to the dismay of the All-Pro tight end, according to Kevin Patra of NFL.com: "I’m not keen on the franchise tag, that would be really unfortunate, but that is really all I have to say about that one."
Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Draft)
Blocking tight ends usually get taken later in the draft. But this blocking tight end also has hands like Fitzgerald and can break tackles like Rob Gronkowski.
But is he worth the No. 20 overall pick? He is if other top players are gone by then, and it comes down to, say, a tackle or a quarterback.
Is he better than fellow draft member Eric Ebron? As a runner and pure receiving tight end? No. As a blocker? Yes.
He also has better hands than Ebron, who is afraid to make the catch in traffic. Too often, he drops a pass because he “alligator-armed it,” as they say.
The outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense are typically the heart and soul of the pass rush. Without a dominant edge rusher, your defense better have others in the front seven who can get to the quarterback.
The Cardinals had to do that under Ray Horton, because none of the outside linebackers in his two seasons as defensive coordinator recorded more than seven sacks in any one season. Sam Acho did that as a rookie in 2011.
Last season, free-agent signee John Abraham recorded 11.5 sacks to lead the team. Arizona finished seventh in the NFL with 41 sacks on the season. But Abraham won’t be around for much longer.
Brian Orakpo (Free Agent)
The 13th pick in the 2009 draft, Brian Orakpo spent his first five seasons with the Washington Redskins, where he recorded 39.5 sacks and 232 total tackles. He should be on his way toward a sizeable contract, so he may be out of reach for the Cardinals.
With some creative money-moving, however, he could be a plausible option.
His most productive year of rushing the passer was as a rookie, when he recorded 11 sacks and finished seventh in the league. He notched 10 this season and has recorded at least 8.5 in every season except for 2012, when he missed the final 14 games with a torn pectoral muscle.
Michael Sam (Draft)
He’s an underrated pass-rusher, but that may not be the case for long. Former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is undersized for DE in the NFL. He stands 6’2” and weighs 260 pounds, making him a perfect fit for 3-4 outside linebacker.
He will have to prove at the NFL Scouting Combine that he can catch the football and drop into the flat in coverage—he appears to have tight hips, so this could be an issue early.
Given his production, he could shoot up draft boards for teams that employ the 3-4 if he displays enough athleticism and fluidity to cover tight ends.
Khalil Mack (Draft)
Like Carr, Khalil Mack falls under the category of “he who will not be available.” But one can dream, right? A likely top-10 pick, Mack possesses everything you want from a 3-4 outside linebacker: strength, speed, grit and a ferocity in rushing the passer that is unmatched in this class.
His production throughout four years at the University of Buffalo was outstanding.
CBSSports NFL insider Pat Kirwan developed a simple formula for gauging production of college pass-rushers in his book, Take Your Eye off the Ball. He calls it the “Production Ratio.” The number is created by adding plays that are made behind the line of scrimmage (sacks plus tackles for loss) and divided it by the number of games played.
Kirwan explains that he looks for a number of 1.0 or better—that is, one play behind the line of scrimmage per game played.
Mack’s career number? A staggering 2.16—or greater than two such plays per game.
Should he somehow fall to No. 20, it would be the first major mistake of his general managerial career for Keim to pass on Mack.
This year’s free-agent class of cornerbacks is a bit thin, but one or two guys will command the big bucks. That does not mean they will be mentioned here, but you should know their names: Charles Tillman and Aqib Talib.
OK, onto the cornerback wish list.
Justin Gilbert (Draft)
If somehow Justin Gilbert, Khalil Mack and the next cornerback are all still on the board at No. 20, the Cardinals would be in a prime position to trade back a few picks to add a pick or two. Or, they can simply choose the player they see helping them the most.
We won’t get into which of those three would help the most, because that’s an entire column by itself.
Anyway, Gilbert is likely the best cornerback in this year’s draft class, and Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller noted he is the highest-graded corner on his board since Patrick Peterson.
So why not make them two teammates and watch the fun unfold?
Darqueze Dennard (Draft)
A physical tackler who plays great in press man coverage, Darqueze Dennard is No. 1B in cornerback rankings—Gilbert being No. 1A, of course. We mocked Dennard to the Cardinals at No. 20 earlier this week with the assumption that Gilbert would be off the board already, and though Gilbert would be the slightly better choice between the two, Dennard would fit in just fine with Todd Bowles’ defense.
He provides solid run support and will be a leader among leaders throughout his NFL career.
Jay Feely is a free agent and missed some key kicks last season. For the most part, his Cardinals career was successful. But those few shanks sting.
Graham Gano (Free Agent)
He was excellent from beyond 50 yards with the Carolina Panthers, and Graham Gano is also one of the best kickoff kickers in the NFL. He led the league in average distance on kickoffs with 72.0 yards last year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
That’s an average of seven yards into the end zone, in case you’re wondering. It led to the lowest percentage of kicks returned in 2013, at 20 percent.
Kickers are easier to hit with the franchise tag, given that it costs less than any other position to do so; in that sense, signing him may be difficult. But it would be wise to offer Gano the most lucrative contract among current NFL kickers. He’s worth it.
Who is the highest paid kicker in the NFL? Dallas Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey has a seven-year, $22.5 million contract. As for average salary, 35-year-old former first-round pick Sebastian Janikowski earns $3.775 million on average with his four-year, $15.1 million deal.
If the Cardinals offer Gano an average of $3.5 million over six years, both parties would be happy. That would put his deal in the $21 million range.
Again, well worth it.