The Arizona Cardinals were considered by some to be Super Bowl favorites not that long ago, but it all came crashing to a halt after the Carolina Panthers dominated them in the NFC Championship game. There is little doubt that the Cardinals can continue to compete in the immediate future, but a lot can be done to help ensure a shot at the Super Bowl in 2016, rather than just a playoff run. Here are the three things Arizona needs to focus on to continue the work Bruce Arians has already started.
Re-invest in the building blocks
While most teams have a list of free agents they would love to re-sign, the Cardinals could lose all of their unrestricted free agents and not be much worse off. The only players with an overall grade above 70.0 (1–100 scale) that they could lose are starting safety, Rashad Johnson (70.2), and situational pass rusher, Dwight Freeney (74.6). Both are above the age of 30, so even if they are re-signed, a replacement will need to be found soon enough. Even though giving current Cardinals contracts isn’t an immediate need, there are still players worth giving new contacts to.
In 2016, Tyrann Mathieu (91.6), Calais Campbell (87.6), and Michael Floyd (82.6) will all enter the final year of their contracts and become free agents in 2017. Mathieu had the most pass stops for a cornerback, at 24, and the second-most run stops, at 17 this season, despite missing two games. Also, Campbell had the fourth-most run stops for a 3-4 defensive end at 30, and Floyd was a top-20 receiver in yards per route run, at 2.07. All three should be keys for the Cardinals' for years to come.
You could argue that Carson Palmer (91.1) and Larry Fitzgerald (89.7) are the best players on the offense, and at their age, Arizona should do whatever it takes to win now before they retire. If the Cardinals gave Campbell and Floyd long-term contracts now, it would help free up cap space. The Cardinals shouldn’t have cap problems in the offseason, but if they have more cap space, they can make more moves in free agency to help bring a Super Bowl ring to Palmer and Fitzgerald before they call it quits.
Bring in a big name pass rusher
Over the past few years, the Cardinals have brought in more than their fair share of old pass rushers without finding a long-term solution. They’ve added Clark Haggans, Joey Porter, John Abraham, and most recently, LaMarr Woodley and Dwight Freeney. Freeney had a successful season in Arizona with eight sacks, four hits, and 24 hurries in his limited time, but he’s not a long-term solution.
At one edge defender spot, they have Markus Golden (74.3), who worked his way into an every-down role by the end of the season, and should remain one of the two starters. The Cardinals could use someone across from him, however, and this could be the offseason to add an impactful player to go across from Golden for the long run.
The men that should be at the top of the Cardinals' wish list are Von Miller (92.9) and Olivier Vernon (92.2). While everyone knows how good Miller is, many missed Vernon's average of one sack, three hits, and three hurries per game over the second half of the season. Either could help Arizona go from a great defense to an elite one.
Other less expensive options include Robert Ayers (88.5), William Hayes (85.8), and Derrick Shelby (82.9). Ayers had double-digit sacks, hits, and hurries, despite missing a quarter of the season. Hayes had the sixth-highest pass rushing productivity for a 4-3 defensive end, and Shelby reached 40 pressures while being one of the better 4-3 defensive ends against the run. Big names Greg Hardy, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Aldon Smith are also available, although they all come with different issues, and none of them were as productive as the previously mentioned players. Any of them would help in the area the Cardinals have struggled with the most on defense.
Revamp the offensive line
The Cardinals have invested heavily in the offensive line in recent seasons. Two of their last three first-round picks have been linemen. Some of their biggest free agent moves have also been to help the offensive line. In some cases, the moves have worked, and in other cases, they did not. The left side of the line includes Jared Veldheer (78.9) and Mike Iupati (81.9), which are both examples of free agent hits. Despite the good players, the line has a pass-blocking efficiency of 72.3, which was third-worst in the league this past season.
At right guard, former first-round pick Jonathan Cooper (61.6) began the year as the starter, but Ted Larsen (37.2) took over after Cooper went down with injury, and Cooper was later unable to win the starting job back. By our numbers, Cooper was far better, but the Cardinals preferred Larsen, and Cooper still has a long way to go before he’s an asset. Similarly, A.Q. Shipley (73.6) was brought in to potentially take over the center job from Lyle Sendlein (48.8). Sendlein remained the starter all year, despite Shipley grading better in recent seasons. At right tackle, Bobby Massie (46.3) remained the starter, even though first-round pick D.J. Humphries could have potentially done a better job.
Sendlein, Larsen, and Massie are all free agents, so the Cardinals can easily walk away from those players and start Shipley, Cooper, and Humphries. Arizona could switch to those younger players and probably be better off, but they might want to improve even more. One free agent they could target is right guard Michael Harris (80.3) who played for the Vikings last year and did an admirable job both run blocking and in pass protection. Harris would be an upgrade to what we’ve seen out of Cooper.
On the season, Palmer has a 28-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio without pressure, and an 11-to-8 ratio when under pressure. A better line helps both the run and pass, and could make this offense unstoppable.
Putting it all together
The Cardinals are already pretty close to being Super Bowl contenders. They aren’t at risk of losing any key components of their 2015 run, unless there is a retirement or injury, and they can afford to bring in a difference-maker or two in free agency without risking their future. Their current window of opportunity will only stay open as long as Carson Palmer is still on the roster, but those days are limited. The Cardinals need to make a Super Bowl in 2016-17, or risk missing their opportunity.