Perhaps more than any other team in the NFL, the Arizona Cardinals are a disaster. Their GM was arrested in the offseason, their offensive coordinator didn’t make it to midseason and their head coach looks like a prime candidate to be one-and-done in his first season.
So how can the once competitive Cardinals return to prominence? I’ve laid out the offseason plan that can get the franchise on the right track, but patience will be required. This roster is in terrible shape and that won’t change overnight, however no time should be wasted in altering the team’s current course. The moves need to be drastic.
Identify the cornerstones
There aren’t many, folks. Josh Rosen, David Johnson and Christian Kirk on offense. Bad as he was before injury, you’re locked into Justin Pugh at right guard for the next couple years at least, so you gotta hope his play improves and you get one answer up front.
On defense, Patrick Peterson is under contract for the next couple seasons, so he and Chandler Jones will be the cornerstones of the defensive rebuild. Both are amongst the best players in the league at their positions, and Budda Baker is a budding star, so there are worse spots to be in as a unit.
But the drop-off comes quickly after that. I’d keep Haason Reddick around although the organization seems to have lost affinity for him. I’m not sure I’d bring back Markus Golden, but Josh Bynes looks like a piece to build around. The rest can kick rocks.
Fire the head coach
When Steve Wilks was hired, the Cardinals didn’t know they would be landing their next franchise quarterback in the upcoming draft, and they clearly thought they could win right away. That gross miscalculation of the roster resulted in a hire that has not felt like a good fit from the moment camp started.
Wilks’ old school approach led to the hiring of offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who didn’t even make it to midseason. The offense is the league’s worst as a result, and the defense isn’t much better despite having more talent. The Cardinals went from one of the better run defenses in football to one of the worst in 2018, while also giving up almost 25 points per game. Young players haven’t shown much developmental promise, and Wilks’ in-game decision-making has been questionable at best.
Wilks may be a good coach, but he hasn’t been a good head coach, and delaying the inevitable will only lead to a more tumultuous start to Rosen’s career. Look at all the good young quarterbacks around the NFL – Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, Mitch Trubisky, Jimmy Garoppolo even Andrew Luck in his resurgence. All of them are paired with offensive-minded head coaches who have been instrumental in creating a system that works for their quarterback and maximizes the skill sets of the players around him.
The Cardinals need that energy around Rosen. Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFillipo is a candidate receiving a lot of buzz right now, and rightfully so. He’s one of the better offensive minds in the game and his competitive drive and work ethic would invigorate Rosen and a lackluster offense. There are other options, but I would do whatever it takes to land DeFillipo if I were Steve Keim.
P.S. I know there are Byron Leftwich fans out there, I just don’t know what to make of him yet, and I know what to make of DeFillipo, as an offensive mind at least.
Target these free agents
1. C Matt Paradis
The Cardinals have a ton of cap space freeing up with Larry Fitzgerald and Mike Iupati coming off the books, and fortifying the offensive line should be the top priority. Don’t just rely on the draft; it takes time for rookie offensive linemen to reach their peak in the NFL, and your quarterback needs protection now.
Denver would undoubtedly like to have Paradis back, but Arizona will have more space and the need is dire. A.Q. Shipley will be 33 coming off a season-ending injury and is average at best, while Mason Cole has been rough as a rookie. Paradis is young, talented and has been one of the better centers in the league for years now. He would be a massive upgrade for Rosen at the pivot.
2. OG Ramon Foster
Foster is 33, but his contract will be short and his leadership will be invaluable. His level of play remains extremely high, and the culture change he will help bring to the locker room in Arizona will be transformational. He should come at an affordable rate with very little term attached to his deal, which will allow the Cardinals to bring up a younger player to eventually replace him in a couple years.
3. S Landon Collins
The Giants aren’t likely to let Collins walk, but if they do, Arizona should pounce. Versatile safeties who can fill a ton of roles don’t come around often, and Collins at strong safety with Tre Boston at free safety and Budda Baker in the slot could be a trio worth getting excited about. A highly competitive, big-time communicator like Collins wouldn’t hurt the unit’s cohesiveness either, as the Cardinals secondary has always been at their best with great safety play.
P.S. I think you have to consider bringing John Brown back as a major upgrade over J.J. Nelson as a deep threat. His career resurgence has been impressive. With Christian Kirk playing more outside lately, Quincy Enunwa might be an affordable big slot option to replace Fitzgerald as well. That’s a move I would like a lot for Arizona.
Re-shape the roster
Let almost every free agent walk. Fitzgerald will likely retire, but if not, let him chase a ring elsewhere. Iupati needs to go. Deone Bucannon, Golden and Rodney Gunter served a purpose for awhile, but all three spots can be upgraded easily. Don’t tie up money in guys that are unlikely to be part of the solution. The roster needs a new look.
It may be time to let Robert Nkemdiche go. He’s made little progressive over three seasons and failed to be even slightly productive. Over 3 million can be saved by cutting Antoine Bethea loose at 35 years old. Jermaine Gresham’s contract is awful and cutting him will still result in a hit, but it’ll be more affordable than keeping him. That said, his leadership and character in the locker room, plus his impact as a blocker may make him worth it.
One player I would keep is Boston. He’s played well, he’ll be cheap and he’s only 27 years old. True free safeties are hard to find, and while he may not produce on the ball a ton, Boston is an affordable option who helps the defense more than he hurts it. Filler guys like that are needed when rebuilding a roster.
Draft Nick Bosa (and other good players)
I don’t see another winnable game on the Cardinals schedule the rest of the season, and I’ll be shocked if they don’t finish 2-14. San Francisco and Oakland will each win at least one more game, which should put Arizona in position for the no. 1 overall pick.
The rules are simple: draft Nick Bosa and prosper. And that’s it.
The Cardinals are in the enviable position of being at the top of the draft and not needing a quarterback at all. If they can fill a few holes on the offensive line in free agency (where I prefer to fill them anyway) and find at least one difference maker in the secondary, that will allow them to focus their early draft efforts on landing a dynamic pass rusher opposite Chandler Jones.
If the Cardinals don’t get no. 1 overall, that’s ok. San Francisco could lose out and draft Bosa, in which case the Cardinals would be wise to select Jonah Williams as their left tackle of the future. Don’t listen to the “lacks length” people out there. Williams is an offensive tackle and a very good one. He’d be a huge get for Arizona and a big-time comfort to Rosen.
Imagine a starting five of Humphries-Foster-Paradis-Pugh-Williams next season? It’s attainable, and would be a massive turnaround from the sieve of a group they currently have. But getting better in the offensive and defensive trenches has to be Arizona’s top priority this offseason.
Footnote: It’s too early to talk much about trading back, but that is an option I always keep in mind for teams that are rebuilding and don’t need a quarterback. Something to discuss in draft season for sure.
Picks no. 33 and 67 (currently) need to be spent addressing either offensive tackle, cornerback or pass catcher if Bosa is their first overall pick. The sweet spot for wide receiver and tight end could actually be on day two of the draft, which would align perfectly with the Cardinals’ needs. This could absolutely be a draft to find playmakers for Rosen at both positions.
I don’t like it, but it is going to be next to impossible for the Cardinals to re-tool every position on their depleted roster this offseason. The cornerback spot opposite Peterson and the interior defensive line may need to be put on the shelf temporarily, although in a ridiculously deep d-line class, mid-round talent could still be had with perhaps the team’s early fourth round pick.
1. Fire Steve Wilks, hire an offensive-minded head coach, preferably John DeFillipo.
2. Identify the cornerstones of the roster (Rosen, Kirk, Johnson, Peterson, Baker, Jones) and build around their skill sets, especially the quarterback.
3. Add offensive line talent that can play at a high level right now by targeting the position heavily in free agency. If possible, grab a role wide receiver and get Landon Collins to fortify the safety position.
4. Let all your free agents walk, except Tre Boston. Look to trim the fat of other veterans too.
5. If picking no. 1 overall, draft Nick Bosa. If at 2 or 3, draft Jonah Williams. Either player is a home run for Arizona. Always keep the option of trading down for an elite package open.
6. Focus on helping Rosen with your next three picks. If the other cornerback spot or the interior defensive line still need some help after the offseason, so be it. This roster won’t be fixed in one year, but Rosen could be broken next season if he doesn’t get better weapons and protection to go with better coaching.
Arizona Cardinals fans, you are welcome.