2016 NFL Offseason: Arizona Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals (Last Year: 14-2)

2016 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
G Evan Mathis, DE Chandler Jones, S Tyvon Branch.
Early Draft Picks:
DE/DT Robert Nkemdiche, CB Brandon Williams, C/G Evan Boehm. Cardinals Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
OT Bobby Massie, G Jonathan Cooper, C Lyle Sendlein, DT Cory Redding, CB Jerraud Powers, S Rashad Johnson.

2016 Arizona Cardinals Offense:
The Cardinals appeared to be the best team in football when they wiped the floor with the Packers, 38-8, in Week 16, which happened to be the same day the Panthers lost to the Falcons. However, the 2015 season ended exactly like the 2014 one did – a loss in Carolina as Carson Palmer was dealing with an injury.

Palmer has always been a talented quarterback, but he has dealt with injury issues throughout his career. He was actually on the field last year, unlike in 2014, but he wasn’t himself after hurting his finger late in the season. He definitely didn’t look like the same quarterback who ripped opponents apart in the regular season, struggling to move the chains against the Packers and then floundering at Carolina.

Protecting Palmer has always been vital, and now it’s more imperative than ever, as he’ll turn 37 in December. The Cardinals absolutely had to bolster the offensive line, and they managed to do so by signing Evan Mathis away from the Broncos. Mathis is 34, but he’s still one of the best guards in the NFL. He began last year slowly because he dealt with an injury, but was dominant down the stretch during Denver’s Super Bowl run. He’s an enormous addition to Arizona’s front, which was weak in the interior besides the stellar Mike Iupati. Jonathan Cooper and Ted Larsen were both liabilities, and Mathis will be a vast upgrade.

With the Cardinals also set at left tackle with Jared Veldheer, their two problem areas on the offensive line are at center and right tackle. The former spot is currently occupied by the pedestrian A.Q. Shipley, so the coaching staff will be hoping that fourth-round rookie Evan Boehm can step in as a rookie. Meanwhile, second-year D.J. Humphries will be given an opportunity to claim the right tackle gig. Humphries was chosen in the opening round of the 2015 NFL Draft, but didn’t even play as a rookie. Humphries was out of shape last offseason, but Bruce Arians recently told the media that Humphries is “more than ready” to become a starter. If he can be effective, there’s a good chance Palmer could make it through the year unscathed.

The rest of the offense remains the same. Palmer has a trio of dynamic receivers to work with in Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown. This might be the last year the quartet will be working together; Fitzgerald has pondered retirement, while Floyd will enter free agency next spring. For now, however, Arizona will boast one of the most potent aerial attacks the NFL has to offer.

The Cardinals are also lethal on the ground, thanks to the emergence of David Johnson. As a third-round rookie last year, David Johnson stepped in for a worn-down Chris Johnson and thrived, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and also catching 36 passes for 457 receiving yards. With Mathis and potentially Humphries bound to improve the blocking, David Johnson seems poised for a huge sophomore campaign.

2016 Arizona Cardinals Defense:
The Cardinals boasted one of the top defenses in the NFL this past season – at least until Tyrann Mathieu got hurt – but their stop unit had some issues, namely their inability to generate a consistent pass rush. That’s a problem that appears to be solved.

Arizona made a brilliant trade with the Patriots in the offseason, acquiring Chandler Jones in exchange for a second-round pick and disappointing guard Johnathan Cooper. Jones is a dynamic edge rusher who will undoubtedly allow Arizona to put more heat on opposing passers. Jones figures to start across from 2015 second-rounder Markus Golden, who accumulated four sacks as a rookie, three of which came in his final six games. With teams paying so much attention to Jones, Golden and Alex Okafor will have more opportunities to accumulate sacks.

Jones wasn’t the only player added who will upgrade the pass rush. Arizona spent its first-round selection on Robert Nkemdiche, which seemed like a perfect pick. Nkemdiche has top-10 talent, but slipped in the draft because of his off-the-field concerns. However, the Cardinals have sheltered troubled players before – such as Mathieu – and it has worked out to their benefit. Nkemdiche will have an opportunity to succeed in a strong locker room, so if he does, he’ll make the defensive front much more potent. Nkemdiche will join the stellar Calais Campbell and nose tackle Corey Peters, who is coming off a torn Achilles. Peters is obviously a concern, given that he sustained another Achilles tear in 2013. However, if he makes close to a full recovery, he should be a solid contributor; Arizona signed him to a 3-year, $10.5 million contract last offseason.

With Jones, Campbell and Nkemdiche putting heat on opposing passers, Arizona’s secondary obviously stands to benefit. The Cardinals have a couple of mega talents in their defensive backfield in Mathieu and Patrick Peterson, two of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. Mathieu, as mentioned, was missed when he tore his ACL in December, but is expected to be ready for the 2016 opener. Peterson, meanwhile, rebounded nicely after having a down 2014 campaign as a result of undiagnosed diabetes. Arizona needed a third cornerback heading into the offseason, so it spent a third-round choice on Brandon Williams, a converted running back with a high ceiling. He may not be ready to contribute, however.

Another area concern for the Cardinals was the safety spot, which was exploited as a big problem area when Cam Newton repeatedly torched the secondary in the NFC Championship. As a result, the front office signed Tyvon Branch, who performed well for the Chiefs last year. Branch is not a spectacular addition, but he still figures to serve as an upgrade.

Deone Bucannon, the team’s first-round choice in 2014, is always a candidate to play safety, but he’s currently stationed in the linebacker-hybrid role in Arizona’s defense. Bucannon is excellent at covering tight ends, but understandably struggles in run support. To counter this, Bucannon has added muscle this offseason, so he could enjoy an upgraded 2016 campaign. Bucannon will need to improve, as fellow inside linebacker Kevin Minter struggled mightily in all facets last year.

2016 Arizona Cardinals Schedule and Intangibles:
Something that was apparent during Arizona’s postseason run in 2008 was the homefield advantage the team unceremoniously established. Including the playoffs, the Cardinals are 47-21 as hosts the past seven years. They were 7-2 in 2015.

Losing Ted Ginn last offseason hurt the Cardinals in terms of special teams. They were outgained on both punts and kickoff returns as a result.

The Cardinals went with a rookie kicker two years ago, and it paid off for the most part. Chandler Catanzaro was 29-of-33 in 2014 and then 28-of-31 last season. However, he missed a whopping five extra points.

Drew Butler finished dead last in terms of net punting average. Perhaps Garrett Swanson can take over.

Arizona seems to have a mixed schedule. Tough opponents include the Patriots (though Tom Brady may not play), Panthers, Vikings and Seahawks twice. However, the team will get to beat up on the Rams (twice), 49ers (twice), Saints (home), Falcons, Dolphins and Buccaneers (home).

2016 Arizona Cardinals Rookies:
Go here for the Cardinals Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.

2016 Arizona Cardinals Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2016 Arizona Cardinals Analysis: The Cardinals have the best team in the NFL. Whether they win the Super Bowl or not is a completely different story, as a lot of it depends on Carson Palmer’s health. If Palmer can make it through the entire year without any injuries, Arizona will have an excellent chance to raise the Lombardi trophy. However, Palmer hasn’t shown an ability to remain unscathed an entire year, and if he misses time, the Cardinals can kiss their Super Bowl chances goodbye.

Projection: 13-3 (1st in NFC West)

NFL Draft Team Grade: B Grade

Goals Entering the 2016 NFL Draft: The Cardinals probably have the best roster in the NFL. They have to make sure Carson Palmer is well protected, however, which means an offensive lineman almost has to be chosen early. Elsewhere, Arizona has a couple of holes at cornerback, safety and linebacker that need to be addressed.

2016 NFL Draft Accomplishments: Arizona obtained its offensive lineman a bit later than initially anticipated. Ryan Kelly was the primary target at No. 29, but the Colts snatched him off the board 11 picks earlier. Graham Glasgow was considered at the end of the third round, and he probably should’ve been the pick. However, the Cardinals were able to ultimately settle on Evan Boehm in the fourth frame. Boehm, the sort of versatile blocker the Cardinals covet, could end up starting this year.

The Cardinals also excelled with their opening-round choice, taking Robert Nkemdiche. Some teams completely removed Nkemdiche off their draft boards because of his character issues, but Arizona has thrived with players of his ilk in the past. Nkemdiche has top-10 talent, so the Cardinals will have a terror in the trenches if he can get his act together.

While I was a fan of those two selections, some of Arizona’s other decisions weren’t as great. Brandon Williams was an enormous reach as a third-rounder, while Marqui Christian, chosen in the fifth, should have been a better player.

I feel as though the Cardinals deserve a solid “B.” They’ve improved their roster for sure, and I only have a major problem with just one of their picks.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

29. Robert Nkemdiche, DE/DT, Ole Miss A Grade
If Robert Nkemdiche were totally clean off the field, he would’ve been a top-10 selection. There’s no doubt about that. There were a lot of things wrong with him, however, and several teams told us that he was completely off their board.

That said, this is a great pick. The Cardinals were completely fine with his attitude, and that carries some weight because they’ve taken chances on players with character issues before like Dan Williams and Tyrann Mathieu. They panned out, and there’s a good chance Nkemdiche will as well. If so, he’s someone who could help put Arizona over the top.

Follow @walterfootball for updates.

92. Brandon Williams, CB, Texas A&M D Grade
Talk about a reach. Brandon Williams was seen as a sixth- or seventh-round prospect from most of the teams we polled. He’s a converted running back who is a major project. Perhaps he’ll pan out, but Arizona could’ve chosen him later. Someone like Graham Glasgow – who was also under consideration – seems like he would have been a much better choice.

128. Evan Boehm, C/G, Missouri B Grade
I was told that the Cardinals wanted a versatile lineman entering the draft. They would’ve chosen Ryan Kelly had he fallen to No. 29. Later, at No. 92, Graham Glasgow was an option. With that in mind, I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t slot Evan Boehm to Arizona in my re-draft. Boehm has played both center and guard, though he’ll likely slide into the former position in Arizona, addressing a huge need.

167. Marqui Christian, S, Midwestern State C Grade
I didn’t hear much buzz about Marqui Christian being drafted. I also didn’t get the sense that the Cardinals were going to take a safety, as they seemed happy with that situation. This pick is surprising, though perhaps Arizona just views Christian as a core special-teamer.

170. Cole Toner, OT, Harvard B Grade
Cole Toner makes sense as a late fifth-round selection. Level of competition is obviously a concern, but Toner seems to have enough skill to latch on as a swing tackle at the very least. Perhaps he’ll be able to challenge D.J. Humphries at some point.

205. Harlan Miller, CB, SE Louisiana A+ Grade
Along with Jacksonville’s Tyrone Holmes, this might just be the steal of the sixth round. Harlan Miller is a talented cornerback with a third-round skill set, and he also thrived in the Senior Bowl. Miller, unfortunately, flopped at the Combine, but he was just way too good of a football player to pass up in the early 200s.

Season Summary:
Some believed that the Cardinals were the best team in the NFL at various points of the season, but their final three games were disappointing, to say the least. They were blown out twice and nearly lost in their opening playoff game. Tyrann Mathieu sustaining a season-ending torn ACL, followed by Carson Palmer’s finger injury, doomed Arizona.

Offseason Moves:
  • Cardinals cut DT Cory Redding
  • Cardinals re-sign RB Chris Johnson
  • Cardinals sign G Evan Mathis
  • Cardinals acquire DE Chandler Jones from Patriots for G Jonathan Cooper, 2nd-round pick
  • Cardinals re-sign DE/DT Red Bryant
  • Cardinals re-sign TE Jermaine Gresham
  • Cardinals sign S Tyvon Branch
  • Cardinals re-sign QB Drew Stanton
  • Cardinals re-sign P Drew Butler

    Team Needs:
    1. Rush Linebacker: Blitzing too much can often backfire, and that proved to be the case for the Cardinals in 2015. Then again, the team had to use that strategy, given the lack of talent at outside linebacker. Markus Golden showed some promise, but Arizona needs a primary pass-rusher. Perhaps one can be obtained in the opening round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Traded for Chandler Jones

    2. Center: Arizona has needed an upgrade at center for quite some time. The front office needs to finally address this glaring issue by spending an early-round pick on a solution.

    3. Cornerback: Antonio Cromartie left a huge void across from Patrick Peterson. Arizona has to make finding a No. 2 cornerback a priority this offseason.

    4. Safety: Neither Rashad Johnson nor Tony Jefferson is a usual liability, though the former struggled in the NFC Championship and he’s an impending free agent anyway. Neither player is that great, so some depth here could be used. Signed Tyvon Branch

    5. Defensive End: Calais Campbell is a stud, but that’s all the Cardinals have at the five-technique position. Finding an upgrade here is something else the front office can do to decrease the number of blitzes.

    6. Quarterback: The Cardinals need to think about grooming a young quarterback to replace Carson Palmer, who turns 37 during the 2016 season. Palmer was an abomination in the playoffs.

    7. Offensive Tackle Depth: Arizona spent a first-round pick on D.J. Humphries, but he didn’t play as a rookie. The Cardinals might want to use a mid-round pick on some competition.

    8. Guard Depth: The team needs a better reserve at guard than Ted Larsen, who struggled down the stretch. Someone to challenge Jonathan Cooper wouldn’t hurt. Signed Evan Mathis

    9. Inside Linebacker Depth: Better depth could be used behind Deone Bucannon and Kevin Minter. The Daryl Washington issues really hurt this team.

    10. Punter: Drew Butler is one of the worst punters in the NFL. Re-signed Drew Butler

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2016 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Evan Mathis, G, Broncos. Age: 34.
      Signed with Cardinals (1 year, $6 million)

      Evan Mathis got off to a slow start in 2015 because of an injury, but his play picked up as the year progressed, and he eventually reestablished himself as one of the top guards in the NFL, leaving Philadelphia fans wondering why Chip Kelly got rid of his Pro Bowl guard. Mathis’ age is a concern – he turns 35 in November – but he should still have a couple of strong seasons remaining.

    2. Tyvon Branch, S, Chiefs. Age: 29.
      Signed with Cardinals (2 years, $10 million)

      Tyvon Branch was the third safety on Kansas City’s roster, but he could’ve started on a full-time basis for most other teams. Branch saw extensive action in the wake of Husain Abdullah’s concussion.

    Arizona Cardinals Free Agents:

    Salary Cap: TBA.
    1. Rashad Johnson, S, Cardinals. Age: 30.
      Signed with Titans (1 year)

      Rashad Johnson can be a liability in run support, but his solid coverage skills make up for it. He just turned 30, but should be able to play well for the next few seasons.

    2. Tony Jefferson (RFA), S, Cardinals. Age: 24.
      Tendered by Cardinals

      Tony Jefferson saw increased snaps in the wake of Tyrann Mathieu’s injury. Jefferson took advantage of them, playing well against both the pass and run.

    3. Jermaine Gresham, TE, Cardinals. Age: 28.
      Re-signed with Cardinals (1 year)

      The stats don’t show it, but Jermaine Gresham is an effective player because of his excellent blocking ability. He hasn’t ever evolved into a solid receiver, unfortunately.

    4. Tony Jefferson (RFA), S, Cardinals. Age: 24.
      Tony Jefferson saw increased snaps in the wake of Tyrann Mathieu’s injury. Jefferson took advantage of them, playing well against both the pass and run.

    5. Chris Johnson, RB, Cardinals. Age: 30.
      Re-signed with Cardinals (1 year)

      Chris Johnson was unexpectedly terrific to kick off the 2015 season, but his production fell off a cliff as the year progressed, averaging 3.6 YPC or worse in four of his final five games. Turning 31 in September, he doesn’t have much left in the tank.

    6. Jerraud Powers, CB, Cardinals. Age: 29. — Signed with Ravens
    7. Red Bryant, DT, Cardinals. Age: 32. — Re-signed with Cardinals
    8. Lyle Sendlein, C, Cardinals. Age: 32.
    9. Bobby Massie, OT, Cardinals. Age: 27. — Signed with Bears (3 years, $18 million)
    10. Drew Stanton, QB, Cardinals. Age: 32. — Re-signed with Cardinals (2 years)
    11. Jaron Brown (RFA), WR, Cardinals. Age: 26. — Tendered by Cardinals
    12. LaMarr Woodley, DE/OLB, Cardinals. Age: 31.
    13. Sean Weatherspoon, ILB, Cardinals. Age: 28. — Signed with Falcons
    14. Ted Larsen, C, Cardinals. Age: 29. — Signed with Bears
    15. Cory Redding, DT, Cardinals. Age: 35.
    16. Corey White, S, Cardinals. Age: 26. — Signed with Bills
    17. Bradley Sowell, OT, Cardinals. Age: 27. — Signed with Seahawks
    18. Drew Butler (RFA), P, Cardinals. Age: 35. — Re-signed with Cardinals (2 years, $2.4 million)
    19. Tommy Kelly, DT, Cardinals. Age: 35.

    NFL Free Agent Tracker:
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