By Thomas Willoughby

As one season ends and another one begins, 32 NFL franchises put 2020 firmly in the rear view mirror and gear up for another tilt at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The hard work starts here, and for many has already begun; general managers and head coaches are finalising their staff and looking ahead to turning their rosters into potential challengers.

In this series we identify the key components that go into building a winning team, and what each franchise needs to do to be in the mix come the playoffs next January. We continue our team by team offseason review with a look at the Arizona Cardinals.

2020 Recap

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The 2020 Arizona Cardinals were, largely, good. Year one of the Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray partnership was exciting, but housed all the hallmarks of inexperience. The pair needed to show tangible progress in 2020 in order to justify the project, and it’s difficult to argue that they didn’t do that. From 5-10-1, they went 8-8, which is, at surface level, better.

Dig a little deeper, however, and things weren’t as clear-cut as you might expect. A great deal of Arizona’s 2020 successes can be attributed to the acquisition of DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins is as premiere a receiving talent as you’re likely to find in the NFL. Bringing him in was designed to add another dimension to the pseudo-air raid scheme Kingsbury runs. And add a new dimension he did. Hopkins ended the season with over 1400 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns, one of which from a buzzer-beating hail mary vs Buffalo.

For all their positive steps, however, it’s hard to argue that the Cardinals’ 2020 wasn’t a missed opportunity. After starting the season 5-2, they lost 6 of their final 9 games, missing out on playoff football on the final day. Five of their eight losses were by a score or less. Given Kingsbury’s perceived reputation as an offensive savant, that doesn’t necessarily bode well.

You can fairly attribute a lot of their struggles to their defense. The Cardinals were very middle of the road, in that sense, allowing the 16th most completed passes, the 19th most total yards, and the 3rd most total points scored. For all their offensive prowess, they absolutely require fine-tuning on the other side of the ball.

So, yes, the 2020 Arizona Cardinals were, largely, good. So much of their play was left on the field, however, it’s difficult to not feel a little disappointed by their ultimate output. 

Staff Changes

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The Cardinals are in the fortunate position to have not lost anyone of note heading out of 2020. Kliff Kingsbury will remain has the teams defacto offensive coordinator, Vance Joseph will continue to coordinate the defense, and Steve Keim remains the general manager.

They do have one departure worth mentioning, however. Veteral quarterback whisper, Tom Clements, has opted to retire from his role as passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach. His replacement, Cameron Turner, has been with the Cardinals since 2018, operating in various assistant roles. He will assume the role of quarterbacks coach, having been the assistant quarterbacks coach in 2019 and 2020.

State Of The Roster

The Cardinals need to beef up their defense, if they want to improve on 8-8 in 2021. Incredibly, before the new league year has begun, they’ve added the most desirable piece of dry-aged beef in the butcher. J.J Watt is one of the most successful pass rushers in league history, and was granted his release from the Texans after 10 seasons. He was indisputably the biggest fish in the free agency pond, the Cardinals have hooked him on a 2 year deal, which will take him up to the age of 33. Watt hasn’t had a double-digit sack season since 2018. Given the Cardinals ranked 4th in sacks last season, you can imagine he will play more of a rotational role than he had in Texas.

Arizona have a really good core nucleus of talent. Kyler Murray had an excellent 2020, helped by a top 15 offensive line keeping him upright. We’ve already mentioned DeAndre Hopkins, but their defense still has some talent. Budda Baker’s 2020 was exceptional, earning himself a pro bowl nod, as well as Chandler Jones as dependable names. For the Cardinals to take the next step, they’re going to need their first round pick from 2020, Isaiah Simmons, to really find his feet. Simmons had his moments last season, but needs to have more than that for the Cardinals to be competitive in 2021.

Salary Cap & Cut Candidates

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The Cardinals are, at the time of writing, an estimated $9.4m under the cap heading into the new league season. While that’s certainly a healthy situation to be in, they’d like a little more to play with, if they’re planning on making a run in 2021.

The most obvious move with be Robert Alford. Alford had a successful six-season run in Atlanta as their CB2, opposite Desmond Trufant. He penned a 3 year deal to Arizona in 2019 and, since then, has suffered season-ending injuries in back-to-back years. With only a season left on his deal, and no games to justify his $9m cap hit, expect Arizona to save $7.5m by releasing him.

Arizona, as we’re about to discover, don’t necessarily have a huge number of cut casualties, mainly due to the lack of players they actually have under contract heading into 2021.

Free Agents

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The Cardinals have no less than 27 unrestricted free agents heading into 2021. The bulk of the cap space they can create will be spent on bringing back players capable of contributing. As of right now, they don’t have a kicker or a punter, for example. Expect either Zane Gonzalez or Mike Nugent to be retained. Hot take, I know.

The Cardinals will absolutely say goodbye to at least one franchise stalwart in 2021. Both Larry Fitzgerald and Patrick Peterson, players who have been consistent in Glendale for 17 and 10 years respectively, are out of contract, and it’s difficult to imagine either will suit up next season. For Fitzgerald, retirement feels like it’s right around the corner, though it would be great to see him given one last shot at a title elsewhere. Patrick Peterson’s play has diminished somewhat since his glory days, though 2020 was absolutely a step in the right direction. Whether that’s enough to bring him back is another matter entirely.

Hasaan Reddick had a career year in 2020, registering 12.5 sacks alone. Reddick hasn’t exactly lit up Arizona since being drafted in 2017, only registering more than 5 sacks this past year. He will end up somewhere, and on a big deal, but Arizona is unlikely to be the one to extend that offer.

Team Needs

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It couldn’t hurt to add depth receiver or two but the defense needs work. With only Robert Alford and Byron Murphy as contracted cornerbacks in 2021, they’d be wise to address that position. Thanks to their relatively healthy cap position, they are in a position to explore some of the more interesting names there, such as Brian Poole and Gareon Conley.

They could do worse than to address the defensive interior, as well, given their current lack of tackles. Corey Peters has enjoyed some success in Arizona in that position, and could return on the right sort of deal, though there might be a little more value looking at Jonathan Hankins who, at only 28, has proven incredibly productive everywhere he’s been. 

Similarly, over on offense, Arizona have exactly one contracted tight end. Maxx Williams has played a single full season since being drafted, having been blighted by injury every other year. It’s unlikely they’ll seriously pursue Hunter Henry, but you could certainly imagine they’d kick the tyres on a Kyle Rudolph, or a Tyler Eifert type.

Thomas Willoughby