News & Analysis

Arizona Cardinals 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Oct 25, 2020; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) and head coach Kliff Kingsbury look on against the Seattle Seahawks during the first half at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and the opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

The Arizona Cardinals got off to a hot start to the 2020 season — riding high at 6-3 following their “Hail Murray” win over the Buffalo Bills in Week 10 — but they lost five of their final seven games to close the season and missed the playoffs. There are solid building blocks in place on this roster —this team can have success in 2021. 

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That said, they must still address holes at several of the offensive skill positions, along the offensive line and in the secondary. A reimagining of an offense that became stagnant at times last season wouldn’t hurt matters, either. 

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $21,428,869 (13th in the NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 16, 49, 79, 160, 242 

Projected 2021 offense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Kyler Murray 12 / 32 $9.8 million
RB ?
WR DeAndre Hopkins 7 / 127 $12.5 million
WR ?
WR Christian Kirk 98 / 127 $3.0 million
TE ?
LT D.J. Humphries 4 / 38 $19.9 million
LG Justin Pugh 20 / 39 $11.2 million
C ?
RG ?
RT ?

Things aren’t quite going to be the same without Larry Fitzgerald should he officially announce his retirement this offseason, but this is a wide receiving corps that needs some additional juice even if he returns.

The trade for Hopkins paid immediate dividends on offense, but the Cardinals lacked secondary and tertiary options in the passing game.

Kirk figures to play a significant role in the offense again in 2021. However, his 2020 season didn’t provide all that much reason for excitement, and it will be difficult for Arizona to trust options behind him on the depth chart, such as KeeSean Johnson and Andy Isabella, for significant contributions. 

The Cardinals could also be in the market for a starting running back and tight end with Kenyan Drake and Dan Arnold hitting free agency. 

Arizona seems to like Chase Edmonds (69.3 PFF grade in 2020), but he did most of his damage as a receiver this past season. Edmonds saw 65 targets compared to just 97 carries in 2020. 

Maxx Williams is the current high man on the depth chart at tight end, but he doesn’t offer much as a receiving threat. Williams has earned a higher run-blocking grade than receiving grade in every season of his six-year career thus far.      

Offensive line is also an area where we will likely see some shuffling heading into 2021. Last season’s starting right tackle, Kelvin Beachum, is a free agent, as is starting right guard J.R. Sweezy. Josh Jones and swing tackle/guard Justin Murray are candidates to compete for those two jobs already on the roster. Marcus Gilbert also remains an unknown at right tackle after opting out of the 2020 season. 

Additionally, offensive line coach Sean Kugler has already said there will be an open competition at center between Mason Cole, Lamont Gaillard and any additions, per Cardinals’ beat writer Kyle Odegard

How did Kyler Murray improve in Year 2?

Murray’s jump in PFF grade from 64.2 as a rookie to 82.8 this past season made him one of the most improved quarterbacks in the NFL, but where exactly did that improvement come?

The first area of note is the impact that Murray was able to have as a runner in 2020 compared to 2019. It’s not as if Murray wasn’t capable of creating headaches for defenses with his legs as a rookie, but he didn’t utilize that ability as often or as effectively as he did this past season. Murray finished the year ranked among the top three quarterbacks in the league in both scramble rushing yards (427) and designed rushing yards (395). 

Murray also looked much more comfortable as a passer from a clean pocket in his second season. He raised his passing grade without pressure by over 14 points in 2020. The Cardinals will be counting on that upward trajectory to continue into his third season out of Oklahoma.  

Can Chase Edmonds go into 2021 as the lead back for Arizona? 

Per Myles Simmons of ProFootballTalk, Kliff Kingsbury said in a recent press conference that Edmonds could take over as the full-time starter at running back.

“As far as Chase goes, you’ve seen when he’s had his opportunity, he’s played at a starting running back level,” Kingsbury said. “We all understand that he’s unfortunately been nicked up a couple of times, which we want to keep him on the field. But we have all the confidence in the world in Chase and him being able to be the bell cow if that’s how this plays out.” 

Edmonds wasn’t often the featured running back in Arizona’s offense last season with Drake in the fold, but Edmonds was one of just 22 backs across the NFL to play at least 500 offensive snaps. He may be listed at 5-foot-9, but he isn’t small. Edmonds is listed at a healthy 210 pounds for that height. 

When projecting him for a larger rushing role, the biggest concern may simply be inexperience as anything more than a change-of-pace runner. Edmonds has carried the ball at least 10 times in a game just three times in his three-year career — Week 7 of the 2019 season (27 carries for 126 yards), Week 9 of the 2020 season (25 carries for 70 yards) and Week 15 of the 2020 season (11 carries for 47 yards).  He ended this past year with a receiving grade of 77.1 compared to a rushing grade of 62.6. 

Of course, experience has to start somewhere, but the Cardinals are likely best suited to keep him in a rotational role while bringing in another back to split the early-down carries.   

What is Arizona’s best option at the right tackle position?

The right tackle position holds some intrigue for the Cardinals heading into next season. On the one hand, you have a pending free agent who provided quality play for you at that spot in 2020. Beachum produced a 69.0 PFF grade at right tackle for Arizona in his first year with the team after three seasons in New York. The Cardinals could likely bring him back on a reasonable deal if they wanted to. 

However, three players are currently on the roster who could all compete to fill the vacant spot if the team lets Beachum walk. 

Murray drew 12 starts at right tackle for Arizona back in 2019 (62.9 overall grade), but he played primarily right guard for the team this past season. The second-year man out of Houston, Josh Jones, is a guy who PFF labeled one of the best values of the 2020 NFL Draft. You have to imagine he will get an opportunity outside, even amid talk that he may move to guard. Then, there is Marcus Gilbert, whose status is unknown after opting out of the 2020 season. He hasn’t played since the 2018 season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

The optimal outcome for Arizona would be if Jones wins the job and succeeds there. That would give the team two tackles under 30 years old to build around moving forward. If it doesn’t work out, then that’s when you kick Jones inside to guard and try somebody else outside at right tackle.

Potential targets at open spots

Running back: Carlos Hyde, Khalil Herbert

If the Cardinals aren’t bringing Drake back, I don’t expect they’ll go chasing any big names at the running back position. Hyde is a guy who has had success as a runner in a committee these past two seasons in both Houston and Seattle. He has come away from both campaigns with rushing grades of at least 72.0. It wouldn’t be the most exciting of signings, but it wouldn’t carry a lot of risk. 

As his bottom line in the PFF Draft Guide puts it, “Hebert’s blend of contact balance and speed is tailor-made for the NFL.” He’s not going to make a big impact in the passing game, but Edmonds has already shown he is a capable back when it comes to passing downs. Herbert averaged a massive 4.7 rushing yards after contact per attempt with Virginia Tech in 2020. 

Wide receiver: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Amon-Ra St. Brown

PFF’s Seth Galina recently listed Smith-Schuster as an ideal fit for Arizona in free agency, and I tend to agree with that assessment. JuJu was at his best with a legitimate No. 1 next to him on the field, allowing him to work the middle of the field from the slot. The Cardinals have that top option in Hopkins. Smith-Schuster would add some nice after-the-catch ability and toughness to their receiving corps should Arizona be willing to pay what is necessary to bring him in this offseason. 

For the potential draft target, we’ll stick to USC products with St. Brown. The fact that he never really improved on an impressive true freshman season with the Trojans back in 2018 is concerning, but St. Brown brings an NFL-ready skill set to the league with him nonetheless. He can operate a full route tree and make people miss with the ball in his hands after the catch.

Tight end: Gerald Everett, Brevin Jordan

The Cardinals should be looking to add athleticism and receiving ability at the position this offseason. In other words, they should be looking to add someone who complements what Williams already brings to the table. 

Everett and Jordan both qualify as move tight ends who would add some more dynamism as receivers than anyone Arizona currently has on the roster. Everett is coming off a down 2020 season, but he flashed what he could do as a receiver in a shared role with Tyler Higbee during the 2018 and 2019 campaigns. Everett ranked as a top-10 tight end in PFF grade both years. Jordan, meanwhile, has legitimate speed and make-you-miss ability for a tight end. He’s not nearly as complete a player as the Kyle Pitts and Pat Freiermuths of the world, but he also should be available a bit further down draft boards.  

Tackle: Brady Christensen, Kelvin Beachum

This position is more about depth than anything for Arizona. Humphries is locked in as the starter at left tackle, and you would think the team would give Jones a chance to win the starting right tackle job this offseason. Beachum could also return at the right price in free agency after a solid 2020 campaign.  

Christensen is an intriguing offensive line prospect in a deep class who could be available a bit later in the process but still offer quality starting play early. Technically, there is a lot to like about his game. He just doesn’t have near the athleticism or ability to move in space that some other prospects are going to have. As the PFF Draft Guide notes, he could be seen as a guard by some teams — not something that should prohibit him from landing in Arizona. 

Interior offensive line: Corey Linsley, Quinn Meinerz

Linsley is the prize of free agency at center, meaning it may be a long shot for Arizona financially given the other areas of need on their roster. It would be one of the more impactful signings they could make along the offensive line, though. Linsley has earned PFF grades of at least 75.0 in five of his seven NFL seasons and is coming off a position-high 86.4 overall grade in 2020. 

Meinerz would be a mid-round target who could potentially bolster either the guard or center position for Arizona. He recently tested exceptionally well at his pro day and showed the ability to compete at a high level against some of the better prospects in the country at the Senior Bowl. 

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI Jordan Phillips 92 / 125 $12.0 million
DI ?
DI/EDGE J.J. Watt 7 / 110 $4.9 million
EDGE Chandler Jones N/A $20.8 million
EDGE ?
LB Jordan Hicks 54 / 83 $9.5 million
LB Isaiah Simmons 29 / 83 $4.7 million
CB ?
CB ?
CB Byron Murphy 48 / 121 $2.2 million
S Budda Baker 12 / 94 $7.8 million
S Jalen Thompson N/A $0.9 million

The major storyline on this side of the ball is the addition of Watt to pair with Jones along the defensive front. Watt has played primarily outside the tackles these past few years for the Houston Texans, but I would expect him to line up as a defensive end in Arizona’s base 3-4 defense. He’s a guy who the Cardinals can certainly move around the formation, capable of causing disruption both outside and between the tackles. 

Even with the Watt addition, Arizona still could use a few more pieces up front. Corey Peters’ and Domata Peko’s free-agent status leave a question at nose tackle, and Haason Reddick also enters free agency after a career year on the edge for the Cardinals in 2020. 

Cornerback is the glaring area of need for Arizona, though. Their recent release of Robert Alford and the free-agent status of Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick leaves Murphy as the only player at the position with any kind of meaningful experience.  

What is Watt’s best role at this stage of his career? 

Watt's decision to sign with the Cardinals blindsided a lot of people. There was plenty of talk about a potential return home to Green Bay or joining his brothers in Pittsburgh. Moving away from the “narrative destinations,” there was still more talk about fits in Cleveland and Buffalo both schematically and financially. The actual landing spot for the 2011 first-round pick — Arizona — was off the beaten path in those conversations. 

There are reasons that it makes sense as a destination, though. Watt gets to join forces with one of the better pass-rushers in the NFL over the past decade in Jones on a team that has a chance to compete in 2021.

Now, we turn to how the Cardinals can best utilize Watt at this stage of his career. He’s not the same peerlessly dominant force of nature circa 2013, but Watt is still one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the league.

The 5-tech in Arizona’s base defense is where Watt makes the most sense. He’s been the prototype at that position in the NFL for a while now, but he’s shown in the last several years that he’s capable of bumping further outside the tackle and still grading out as one of the best defensive linemen in the league. 

PFF’s Sam Monson wrote after Watt’s release about his desire to see what in more situations where teams allow him to rush from the interior. Regardless of where it comes from, expect Watt to show that he still has plenty of quality play left to give in his first year in the desert.

Does Simmons gain some additional confidence in his role for Arizona in his second season?

One of the more interesting ways to recap Simmons’ rookie season is to highlight the disparity in play in his two games against the San Francisco 49ers compared to his games against every other offense he faced. Against San Francisco, Simmons earned just a 27.7 PFF grade in 39 defensive snaps. That rose to a 68.7 overall grade with a 78.7 grade in coverage against any other offense in the league. Kyle Shanahan did not make life easy on the rookie. 

Still, there are more positives to take away from that than negatives. Simmons didn’t have a major role in the defense, but he did show flashes of the kind of impact he could have in coverage — none bigger than the overtime interception against Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks in Week 7. 

Where exactly he would fit into a defense was the biggest concern surrounding his game coming out of Clemson. Simmons ended up playing primarily linebacker for Arizona, and he should only continue to improve with another offseason to grow more comfortable in his new defense. 

How big of a concern is the cornerback position as things stand right now?

One might argue it’s the biggest concern on this team. Murphy is the only player currently under contract who figures to factor into their long-term plans at the position. He was much improved in his second season out of Washington, raising his coverage grade from 48.5 as a rookie to 63.3 in 2020, but that came with a move to the slot. If the Cardinals are planning on keeping him there, they need to find two starting-caliber cornerbacks outside.

This becomes even more of a concern when noting that Arizona is one of the most man-heavy coverage teams in the NFL. There’s nowhere to hide cornerbacks who can’t stick with receivers one-on-one in man coverage — finding players who can should be the top priority for the Cardinals in the coming months.   

Potential targets at open spots

Interior defender: Corey Peters, Steve McLendon, Tyler Shelvin

Peters has been with the team for the past five seasons, serving as a reliable run defender at nose tackle over much of that span. The Cardinals could consider bringing him back as an experienced, well-respected player in the middle of their defensive line despite a somewhat down year in 2020 before going down with an injury in Week 10. 

McLendon is another veteran alternative who has shown that he can hold up against the run at nose tackle throughout his career. He’s coming off a year in which he helped contribute to Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl run following a midseason trade to the team. Even at 35 years old, it still looks like there is some gas left in the tank. 

Shelvin would be the route if Arizona wants to add another young piece to a positional group where they’ve recently selected guys like Zach Allen, Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence. Shelvin is bigger than all of those guys. Listed at 6-foot-2 and nearly 350 pounds, Shelvin is a hard man to move at the line of scrimmage. He’ll eat double teams and let the guys making the big bucks — Jones, Watt, Phillips, etc. — make plays. 

Edge defender: Pernell McPhee, Chris Rumph II

Edge is another spot where I don’t see the Cardinals investing heavily since signing Watt several weeks ago. Reddick looks like he’ll end up elsewhere, meaning Arizona should be looking for some more depth at outside linebacker. 

McPhee has thrived as a rotational part of defensive fronts for years in Chicago and Baltimore. The 32-year-old is coming off a 2020 season in which he earned pass-rushing and run-defense grades of at least 70.0 on over 500 defensive snaps. 

Rumph is a more difficult projection but one who should hold some appeal where he’s going to come off the board in the 2021 NFL Draft. He’s unlikely to be a true edge defender in the NFL at his size, but he showed at Duke that he knows how to win as a pass-rusher. Rumph earned a 92.7 pass-rushing grade back in 2019. You have to think Vance Joseph would be able to maximize that ability in some of the unique defensive fronts he runs. 

Cornerback: William Jackson III, Jaycee Horn

Cornerback is where Arizona should have its sights set big in both free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft. Jackson is PFF’s top free-agent cornerback available following Cincinnati’s decision not to use the franchise tag on him. He looked like he may be on a path toward becoming one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in his first season of action back in 2017. Things haven’t quite broken that way since, but he still projects as a reliable CB1 outside. Jackson has graded above the 80th percentile in the league in single coverage since 2017. 

Meanwhile, Horn is one of the better fits defensively for Arizona in the first round of the draft. Few teams ran more Cover 1 than the Cardinals did in 2020, and Horn has the kind of press-man coverage mentality that you want out of your cornerback. He plays bully ball with receivers. That aggressiveness may need to get reeled in a bit at the next level, but you have to like the way he plays the game if you’re a man-heavy defense. In his matchup this past season against Auburn and Seth Williams, Horn allowed two receptions while intercepting two passes and breaking up another five.

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