The War Room, offense edition: Arizona Cardinals offseason preview

Arizona Cardinals offseason preview: offense edition

Following a 10-6 finish that wasn’t enough to put them in the playoffs, the Arizona Cardinals are trending up at pace unmatched by any other team in the NFL. The two-team stranglehold on the tight NFC West is all but non-existent; as Bruce Arians has his team in prime position to not only compete with, but surpass Seattle and San Francisco.

But in order to do that, Arizona needs to begin 2014 the same way they started 2013: in the war room.

(photo credit: AZCardinals.com)

Keim (left and Arians (right) talkin’ foozeball strategory for the Arizona Cardinals offseason. (photo credit: AZCardinals.com)

Ah yes, the war room, where personnel decisions in the National Football League are determined, where franchises are built (or, for some teams, torn down). It is here that the Bill Belichicks and Jerry Jones of the league move their chess pieces to better their on-field product. For Arizona, the one moving the pieces is general manager Steve Keim.

After a solid managerial debut, Keim is an emerging star at the position and looks to follow his solid “rookie” campaign with an equally impressive sophomore effort. For a summary of Steve Keim’s 2013 moves, check out my other article concerning the general manager’s moves for the season.

In order to stay competitive in the National Football League, it is imperative for teams to take part in the arms race so as to not fall behind. But for some teams, the offseason is spent catching up, like the Jaguars or the Browns.

Last season, at 5-11, the Cardinals were one of those teams looking to catch up. What a difference a year makes, as prudent personnel decisions shifted the fortunes for the Cardinals who reaped the rewards almost instantly.

It is turnarounds like that which make the NFL hot stove so fascinating to me. So to prepare for the offseason, I’ve decided to dissect the Arizona Cardinals roster as they enter the 2014 offseason and discuss some of the holes that need filling for the Cardinals to keep in the thick of things.

For each position, I’ll highlight the state of the position, and pose some options the Cardinals have in improving it.

Quarterback

Depth chart (with 2014 cap hit)

Carson Palmer ($10M)
Drew Stanton ($2.7M)
Ryan Lindley ($.6M)

(photo credit: Matt Kartozian/USA Today Sports)

(photo credit: Matt Kartozian/USA Today Sports)

Not much tinkering needs to be done at the quarterback position, due in large part to the play of Carson Palmer. The former USC quarterback has stabilized the once volatile position, and is under team control for the 2014 season. It’s safe to say he will be the Cardinals starter in 2014. Both Stanton and Lindley are also under contract, meaning not much attention needs to be allotted for the insurance at the position.

Nevertheless, it is no secret that the Cardinals need to think about the future at the position. Lack of doing so has cost the Cardinals in the recent past, and hopefully the front office has learned their lesson. Due to the depth at the position in the upcoming draft, don’t be surprised if the Redbirds take a quarterback in the mid-to-early rounds to develop behind Palmer and become his heir apparent.

The free agent market doesn’t really have anyone that can step in and do a better job than Palmer right now, with the Bears extending quarterback Jay Cutler to a long term deal. He was the only one worth considering, and his removal from the market means Arizona’s future will more than likely be found in the draft.

Luckily for Arizona, this quarterback class is deep and diverse enough for the Cards to find themselves a guy later in the draft, preferably a big-armed pocket passer kind of guy. LSU’s Zach Mettenberger is a guy that has been tied to Arizona in the second round in most mock drafts I’ve read, and I tend to agree with the majority that he would fit in nicely. But if Carr or Manziel fall to them, Arizona could be tempted to take a quarterback with their first round pick.

Potential free agent targets
Josh Freeman (Buccaneers/Vikings)

Potential draft targets
Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M, 1st-2nd round)
Derek Carr (Fresno State, 1st-2nd round)
Black Bortles (UCF, 1st-2nd round)
Zach Mettenberger (LSU, 2nd-3rd round)
Tom Savage (Pitt, 6th-7th round)

Running Back

Rashard Mendenhall (free agent)
Andre Ellington ($.5M)
Stepfan Taylor ($.5M)
Alfonso Smith (restricted free agent)
Ryan Williams ($1.5M)

With Andre Ellington, the future at the running back position looks incredibly bright for the Arizona Cardinals. With that in mind, the Cards still have some tough decisions to make moving forward. Rashard Mendenhall will most likely leave in free agency after being the team’s leading rusher in 2013.

Another guy with a questionable future in the organization is 2011 draft pick Ryan Williams, who has been either scratched or injured in most games since getting drafted. It might be time to let the Virginia Tech standout go, as there really isn’t a place for him even if he is healthy.

Photo Courtesy of Zimbio

Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde. (Photo credit: Zimbio)

If the Cards want to add a running back, there are some interesting choices in both the free agent pool and the draft. Knowshon Moreno and Ben Tate are basher, every-down back material if the Cards want to go that route. It’s unlikely they do go that route as that will minimize Ellington’s impact, but Mendenhall’s production will need to be replaced in some form or fashion.

There are some intriguing prospects should Arizona want to draft a guy as well. Carlos Hyde from Ohio State stands out as a physical, up-the-middle kind of guy that would complement Ellington’s shifty style very well. Whoever the Cards draft, they will need to be able to pass block well, as they’ll do it often in Arians fullback-less system.

Potential free agent targets
Knowshon Moreno (Broncos)
Ben Tate (Texans)
Maurice Jones-Drew (Jaguars)

Potential draft targets
Carlos Hyde (Ohio State, 3rd round)
Raijon Neal (Tennessee, 5th round)
Marion Grice (Arizona State, 5th round)
Tyler Gaffney (Stanford, 5th round)

Wide Receiver

Larry Fitzgerald ($18M)
Michael Floyd ($2.7M)
Andre Roberts (free agent)
Jaron Brown ($.5M)
Brittan Golden ($.5M)

In 2013, the argument could be made that Arizona fielded a top-five wide receiving corps in the NFL. A lot of that is on the emergence of second year receiver Michael Floyd and the depth on the bench. Even Andre Roberts, who saw his playing time decreased because of the scheme change had some eyebrow-raising plays throughout the season. His play may be enough to warrant a starting spot with another team as he tests the free agent market this summer. As long as this unit has Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, though, it will continue to be average at worst and elite on its best days.

Two major issues riddle the position, though, and will need to be fixed early on for the Cardinals. One is the bloated contract of Larry Fitzgerald. When the Cardinals agreed to extend him in 2011, they made him the highest paid wide receiver in NFL history. Because of what he is to the Arizona Cardinals, he deserves every bit of the contract, but at $18 million, it becomes hard to build a solid, salary-cap compliant supporting cast around him. If at all possible, a restructured contract for the veteran receiver needs to be a priority for Steve Keim and his front office.

The next issue will be the retention of Andre Roberts, or the pursuit of a slot receiver should he choose to leave. If he does, no one can blame him; the Bruce Arians scheme change saw his production drop significantly in 2013, marking the first season he hasn’t performed better than the previous one. The talent is there for the four year veteran out of The Citadel and he may be due for an increased role with another team.

Kansas City Chiefs

Dexter McCluster (Photo credit: kcchiefs.com)

If that is the case, some good slot options may be within reason for the Arizona Cardinals. In the free agency market, Julian Edelman and Dexter McCluster could be decent fits if their asking price isn’t too absurd. The two could contribute in the return game as well, an area in which Arizona took a step backwards in 2013.

In the draft, slot receivers are mid-to-late round fodder, meaning Arizona won’t be making a huge risk if they target a slot guy and he’s the best player on the board at the time. Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks and Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon are guys with big-game material that could fall come draft day due to their diminutive nature. I’m also impressed with Tulane’s Ryan Grant and Oregon’s Josh Huff as guys that could thrive in the role despite being projected as feature wideouts.

Of course, anything the Cardinals do involving the receiver position is purely for depth and luxury.

Potential free agent targets
Julian Edelman (Patriots)
Dexter McCluster (Chiefs)

Potential draft targets
Brandin Cooks (2nd-3rd round, Oregon State)
Josh Huff (4th-5th round, Oregon)
Ryan Grant (6th round, Tulane)
Jeremy Gallon (5th round, Michigan)
Kevin Norwood (5th round, Alabama)

Tight End

Rob Housler ($.9M)
Jim Dray (free agent)
Jake Ballard (free agent)
Kory Sperry (free agent)
Jeff King (free agent)

The tight end position is very fluid for Arizona, save for Rob Housler, the only tight end under contract for 2014. That can be interpreted one of two ways: the Cardinals have a glaring need at the position, or the way Bruce Arians uses tight ends is ancillary, and they are just bodies in the system. In reality, I’m sure it is a little of both, but a true impact player at the position makes an offense deadly. Just ask Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski.

Jimmy Graham dunking on the University of Phoenix Stadium goal post would be very welcome if he donned Cardinal red. (Photo credit: NewOrleansSaints.com)

Jimmy Graham dunking on the University of Phoenix Stadium goal post would be very welcome if he donned Cardinal red. (Photo credit: NewOrleansSaints.com)

Speaking of Jimmy Graham, the Saint is poised to hit the free agent market in the wake of one of the greatest statistical seasons ever compiled by a tight end. Housler has showed flashes, but has yet to have a true coming out party. What kind of conference-shattering move would it be if Graham signs with the Cardinals? That’s purely a hypothetical and far outside the realm of likely, but still an intriguing fantasy. I’m also unsure whether or not the Cardinals could afford Graham’s contract, which will almost certainly be in the “absurd” range.

To discredit my own hypothetical even further, it’s also a move that appears uncharacteristic of the Cardinals; very rarely do they try to make a huge splash in free agency. They much prefer small, tiny puddle splashes, like the Dansby and Abraham signings this past season.

As far as the draft is concerned, I think Keim wants at least one young tight end on the roster, so he’ll target a high-character guy who can block first and foremost, like he tried to do with DC Jefferson last year. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out, but I still think he’ll take another similar shot.

Georgia’s Arthur Lynch is a guy I think fits perfectly into the locker room mentality Arizona has been trying to build. Lynch is a team captain with a good, balanced package at the position, and could be a steal in the middle rounds.

Potential free agent targets
Jimmy Graham (New Orleans)
Brandon Pettigrew (Lions)
Dallas Clark (Ravens)

Potential draft targets
Arthur Lynch (3rd round, Georgia)
Crockett Gillmore (5th round, Colorado State)
Justin Jones (5th-6th round, East Carolina)

Tackle

Bradley Sowell ($.6M)
Eric Winston (free agent)
Nate Potter ($.6M)
Bobby Massie ($.7M)

Bradley Sowell (photo credit: AtlantaFalcons.com)

Bradley Sowell (photo credit: AtlantaFalcons.com)

As solid as Eric Winston and Bradley Sowell have been, tackle is far and away Arizona’s biggest weakness on the roster. As such, Arizona will almost certainly take a tackle in the first two rounds. If they don’t, they will sign one of the big names on the free agent market.

And boy, are there some big names. Branden Albert was a guy the Cardinals were linked to last offseason before the Chiefs franchise tagged him to take him off the market. Eugene Monroe will also hit the market after a solid year with the Ravens, who will most likely try to extend him. If he isn’t extended, don’t be surprised if Arizona actively pursues him.

Luckily for Arizona, this year’s draft class is very deep at the tackle position if they can’t sway a free agent left tackle. They won’t be in Jake Matthews range, but there are several late-first-round guys with legitimate starter ceilings.

Either way, I expect Arizona to add a proven impact player at the position.

Potential free agent targets
Branden Albert (Chiefs)
Eugene Monroe (Ravens)
Michael Oher (Ravens)

Potential draft targets
Taylor Lewan (1st round, Michigan)
Cam Erving (1st round, Florida State)
Tiny Richardson (1st round, Tennessee)
Jack Mewhort (1st round, Ohio State)
Morgan Moses (2nd round, Virginia)

Guard/Center

Jonathan Cooper ($3.3M)
Lyle Sendlein ($4.1M)
Daryn Colledge ($7.3M)
Mike Gibson (free agent)
Earl Watford ($.6M)
Paul Fanaika ($.8M)

Cooper getting carted off after  his season-ending injury. He will be a welcome sight when he returns to the Cardinals in 2014. (photo credit: Rick Scuteri/SI.com)

Cooper getting carted off after his season-ending injury. He will be a welcome sight when he returns to the Cardinals in 2014. (photo credit: Rick Scuteri/SI.com)

Cardinals fans may forget, but Johnathan Cooper broke his leg before playing a down for the Redbirds. In theory, him alongside Lyle Sendlein and Daryn Colledge are enough to carry the load, with Paul Fanaika and Earl Watford under contract as backups. I really don’t see a lot of moves being made at all at the guard position, draft or otherwise.

That leaves the backup center spot open due to Mike Gibson becoming a free agent. That’s not necessarily a premium roster spot, but it is something that can possibly be addressed in the draft, or with a practice squad caliber player.

Potential draft targets
C Bryan Stork (3rd round, Florida State)

 

Stay tuned for the defensive offseason preview at a later date!

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