The War Room: Arizona Cardinals offseason preview: defense edition

Arizona Cardinals offseason preview: defense 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)

(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.

Defensively, the Arizona Cardinals don’t need a lot of work, as to be expected from a unit that was among the league’s best. Still, the best GM’s are the ones who never leave well enough alone and micromanage every step of the way.

While there are no true needs for the defense, there are still some tough decisions to be made.

Defensive End

Calais Campbell ($11M)
Darnell Dockett ($8.8M)
Matt Shaughnessy (free agent)
Frostee Rucker (free agent)
Ronald Talley (restricted free agent)

Calais Campbell (photo credit: Paul Connors/AP)

Calais Campbell (photo credit: Paul Connors/AP)

The defensive end tandem of Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett has been one of the NFL’s best kept secrets the last couple years, and this year was no different. In 2013, Campbell enjoyed his best season as a Cardinal, notching a career-high nine sacks and Dockett’s four and a half sacks is his highest tally since 2010. Needless to say, these guys aren’t going anywhere in 2014.

Beyond the two starters, things are a little uncertain for Arizona with all of the backups becoming free agents. The biggest name among them is Matt Shaughnessy, who also saw time at outside linebacker.

Shaughnessy must be retained if at all possible. It was his production off the bench that helped Arizona minimize the dropoff whenever Campbell or Dockett got tired. Much like Andre Roberts, though, his performance may warrant him a more prominent role with another team, and Arizona may not be able to offer him what another team is able to.

If he can’t be kept, Arizona has some options available elsewhere. There are some talented 3-4 defensive ends hitting the free agent market, but it’s unlikely Arizona will devote a lot of resources for a guy like that. It’s more likely they target a talented young end in the upcoming draft.

There are some talented players in the Cardinals range that could fit nicely in Todd Bowles’ scheme.

Potential free agents targets
Brett Keisel (Steelers)
Antonio Smith (Texans)
Jared Allen (Vikings)
Lamarr Houston (Oakland)

Potential draft targets
Jackson Jeffcoat (2nd round, Texas)
Chris Smith (2nd round, Arkansas)
Marcus Smith (5th round, Louisville)
Ben Gardner (5th round, Stanford)

Defensive Tackle

Dan Williams ($2.2M)
Alameda Ta’amu (exclusive rights free agent)

Dan Williams and Alameda Ta’amu have this position all but locked down. Not only are they both young, they also are cheap in the grand scheme of things. Nothing if anything needs to be done, at least in the interest of the big league roster.

Still, a quality starter-caliber guy could fall. If they’re the best player available, the Cardinals would be remiss to pass them up.

Potential draft targets
RaShede Hageman (1st round, Minnesota)
Will Sutton (1st round, Arizona State)
Ego Ferguson (2nd round, LSU)
Daniel McCullers (4th round, Tennessee)

Outside Linebacker

John Abraham ($3M)
Sam Acho ($.7M)
Lorenzo Alexander ($1.5M)
Dontay Moch ($.6M)
Alex Okafor ($.6M)
Marcus Benard (free agent)

When the Arizona Cardinals signed John Abraham, they truly hit the jackpot. Not only did they get him for a team-friendly three million a year, they were also prudent enough to lock him up for one more year. Heading into 2014 that bodes well, especially if he can repeat his performance from this past season.

From top to bottom, the outside linebacker position may be one of Arizona’s best in terms of depth. There are a lot of bodies for the Cardinals to work with, and not one of them is a waste of a roster space.

That being said, I think that this position is in the biggest need of a game breaker. Sam Acho and John Abraham are both above average pass rush talents, but with Acho having inconsistency and injury problems and Abraham getting up there in years it may be wise for Arizona to try and find an upgrade at the position.

Anthony Spencer (photo credit: Matthew Emmons/USA Today Sports)

Anthony Spencer (photo credit: Matthew Emmons/USA Today Sports)

One guy in particular that I think the Cards should try to go after is impending free agent linebacker Anthony Spencer. Formerly of the Cowboys, Spencer was the linebacker opposite DeMarcus Ware. An 11 sack campaign in 2012 put him in the spotlight, and he was due for a payday on the market until Dallas used their franchise tag on him in 2013. However, he missed all of 2013 due to a knee injury. That may be a good thing for the Cardinals, as his market value will be significantly lower because of that.

If Spencer can’t be swayed, there are plenty of draftable guys that could be within the Cardinals range.

Potential free agent targets
Anthony Spencer (Cowboys)
Mark Anderson (Bills 2012)
Kyle Vanden Bosch (Lions)

Potential draft targets
Dee Ford (2nd round, Auburn)
Ryan Shazier (1st round, Ohio State)
Vic Beasley (1st round, Clemson)
Denicos Allen (4th round, Michigan State)
Jeremiah Attaochu (3rd round, Georgia Tech)

Middle Linebacker

Daryl Washington ($10M)
Karlos Dansby (free agent)
Kevin Minter ($1M)
Jasper Brinkley ($2.2M)

The Cardinals have some big decisions to make at the middle linebacker position.

As it stands, the position isn’t necessarily one of “need”. However, with Dansby hitting the free agency market, Arizona will have to decide whether or not to pony the money up to resign him after playing one of the best years of his career. If he doesn’t return, the position could function just fine without him with Brinkley and Washington holding it down.

(photo credit: Mark Rebilas/US Presswire)

(photo credit: Mark Rebilas/US Presswire)

Speaking of Washington, his 2014 salary figure is pretty lofty. In addition to his $6 million salary, he is due a $10 million roster bonus. Now, Washington is one of the best linebackers in the NFC as Cardinals fans are well aware. But if a cheaper option is available, don’t be surprised if a trade sends D-Wash somewhere else. Not that I think it will happen, but it’s a decision that the Cardinals may have to make.

No matter what shuffles on the big league roster, the position could still benefit from some depth, and that could be obtained by drafting a project-type middle linebacker in the later rounds.

Avery Williamson of Kentucky is a guy who I think would fit in nicely without too much risk for the Cardinals. He’s a tackle machine with an edge in his game, and he is projected to fall very late in the draft. Syracuse’s Marquis Spruill is a smaller guy, but Arizona has already demonstrated a willingness to try out diminutive players (see Mathieu, Tyrann and Michael Adams in previous years).

No matter what, Dansby will be high up on the shopping list.

Potential draft targets
Avery Williamson (6th round, Kentucky)
Marquis Spruill (7th round, Syracuse)
Lamin Barrow (3rd round, LSU)
AJ Johnson (3rd round, Tennessee)

Cornerback

Patrick Peterson ($5.9M)
Jerraud Powers ($4M)
Antoine Cason (free agent)
Javier Arenas (free agent)
Brian McCann (free agent)
Justin Bethel ($.6M)

The Cardinals saw exceptional play at the cornerback position, due in large part by the Pro-Bowl caliber play out of Patrick Peterson and Jerraud Powers playing incredibly well as the second corner.

Antoine Cason and Javier Arenas will not be returning, however, to see time as the nickel corner. Tyrann Mathieu saw a majority of the snaps at the nickel spot prior to his promotion to the starting free safety job, but the depth is still something that Arizona should try to address.

Potential free agent targets
Sam Shields (Packers)

Potential draft targets
Kyle Fuller (2nd round, Virginia Tech)
Louchiez Purifoy (2nd round, Florida)
Rashaad Reynolds (5th round, Oregon State)
Ricardo Allen (5th round, Purdue)

Safety

Rashad Johnson ($2.1M)
Yeremiah Bell (free agent)
Tyrann Mathieu ($.7M)
Tony Jefferson ($.5M)
Curtis Taylor ($.6M)

Arizona is very young at the safety position, but showed a lot of promise in 2013. Rashad Johnson remained an underrated playmaker in the secondary, and Tyrann Mathieu busted onto the NFL scene rather quickly. Combine that with Tony Jefferson being solid off the bench and the solid play of Yeremiah Bell, and you’re looking at a unit with very little need for overhaul.

Bell, however, will leave in free agency in 2014, leaving a very big void. In a perfect world, Arizona would get Yeremiah Bell to fill his own spot for 2014. The problem is, at 35 years old, Yeremiah Bell is less of himself with each passing week, making it impossible for the Cardinals to replace Bell with the player they would most like. Still, there are other ways to make up for his production, and you can bet Keim has his eyes on a couple guys.

Chris Clemons (photo credit: Robert Mayer/USA Today Sports)

Chris Clemons (photo credit: Robert Mayer/USA Today Sports)

One guy I’m particularly high on is Miami Dolphins safety Chris Clemons. What intrigues me the most about him is that he, like Bell, is very much a stay at home guy. Much like hockey defensive pairings, you like having an aggressive playmaker (Mathieu) teamed up with a guy who is content keeping the play in front of him. Clemons does that as well as anyone in the league.

Potential free agent targets
Jairus Byrd (Bills)
Chris Clemons (Dolphins)

Potential draft targets
Dion Bailey (3rd round, USC)
Craig Loston (3rd round, LSU)
Hakeem Smith (5th round, Louisville)
Alden Darby (6th round, Arizona State)

Special Teams

Mike Leach ($1.1M)
Dave Zastudil (free agent)
Jay Feely (free agent)

Dave Zastudil has been one of the NFL’s best punters for last couple years, and he will be missed if Arizona can’t retain him.

Jay Feely on the other hand ended his tenure with the Cardinals on an uneven note. While his loyalty to the Cardinals is commendable, the NFL is a business, and he simply cannot be counted on to be the kicker of the future.