Arizona Cardinals Offseason Roster Analysis

by Brian Umbaugh, @NFLRosters

cardinalsAfter 10 games, Arizona sat on top of the NFL with a 9-1 record, ranking 2nd in the NFL power rankings behind eventual champion New England. The Cardinals accomplished this with a decent run defense, a bend-but-don’t-break pass defense, and a surprisingly effective Carson Palmer-led offense. In Week 10, the first distress call was made from the rocket ship to Houston – Palmer’s ACL was torn. The offense went into game management mode and Arizona never scored more than 18 points in any game the rest of the way. It was enough to make the playoffs, but the odds were against them going to Carolina to play a 7-8-1 team. As they lost, no one was surprised.

The upcoming season holds a few roster-related questions. For example, what is the status of Daryl Washington and Jonathan Dwyer, considering their off the field issues? Can the Cardinals and Larry Fitzgerald come to a restructuring agreement to ease his $23.6 million cap charge? Who should play inside linebacker? Which players should start in the crowded defensive backfield? The time is now to start thinking about who to add, who to part with, and how to take down the Seahawks. In a few months, this team could look very different.

Cardinals Depth Chart

Offense

Quarterbacks

Carson Palmer, Drew Stanton, Ryan Lindley (UFA), Logan Thomas

Palmer was slightly above average according to PFF, echoing his 2013 season. What differed, however, was his snap total. He only played six games around a sore shoulder and eventual ACL tear, which derailed his season. The 35 year-old Palmer is the unquestioned starter in 2015, but it is certainly time to determine if 4th round pick Logan Thomas can develop into the successor or not. Stanton and Lindley have not proven successful, but Lindley could probably be re-signed as an inexpensive backup. He and Thomas can compete for the backup spot. Stanton should be released for cap reasons and because, well, he’s not very good.

Running Backs

Andre Ellington, Stepfan Taylor, Kerwynn Williams, Jonathan Dwyer (UFA), Marion Grice, FB Robert Hughes

After a breakout 2013, Andre Ellington crashed back to Earth in 2014 due to foot and hip issues. He averaged less than 3.3 YPC and ended the season on IR and under the knife for a hernia. The ability for Ellington to be an everyday back at 5’9, 199 lbs. was always a concern, and it becomes important for the Cardinals to have a capable power back and/or backup.

The backups have not proven particularly effective, however. Williams, a September roster addition, was the only back to average more than 4 YPC, but he lacks passing game tools. 2013 draftee Taylor had a few receiving TD’s, but similar rushing numbers to Ellington. The others made little difference, as well. What should be done with Jonathan Dwyer, whose offseason issues may create eligibility issues in the future? Cut him loose, as he is not an upgrade over any other back on the roster.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

WR: Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, John Brown, Jaron Brown, Ted Ginn Jr., Brittan Golden
TE: John Carlson, Rob Housler (UFA), Troy Niklas, Darren Fells

Fitzgerald has not been one of the NFL’s top receivers since 2011, but the Cardinals are on the hook for $23.6 mil if he is on the team by mid-March. Negotiations are ongoing as I write, but both sides are preparing for an unfortunate parting. His arguably declining abilities coupled with consistently subpar QB play have caused him to disappear from the elite WR tier. Should the Cardinals move on? Yes, but I don’t feel good about it. They have cap trouble, and there’s not much chance a renegotiation would save a ton of money. He is still due over $60 million through 2018, so restructuring will create more of a problem during that period. The time may be right to shed that responsibility.

For all the press Fitzgerald gets about his run blocking, Michael Floyd was rated the #1 WR in 2014 with regard to this underrated ability. Floyd and Jaron Brown were slightly above average overall, but when only the passing game is considered, it was a bad year for the wideouts. They are all under contract for at least 2015, so whether or not Fitzgerald returns, this young group needs to accelerate their learning curve. There isn’t much of a chance for Arizona to overtake Seattle in the division unless the passing game makes more of a push.

TE John Carlson was a decent overall player until last year, when he was a dumpster fire of bad blocking and passing game failures. However, with Housler hopefully leaving in free agency and Darren Fells being more of a tackle than tight end, Carlson should be given the opportunity to rebound. Troy Niklas is young and has potential as a pass catcher and blocker.

Offensive Line

L to R: Jared Veldheer, Ted Larsen, Lyle Sendlein, Paul Fanaika (UFA), Bobby Massie
Top Backups: G Jonathan Cooper, G/C Anthony Steen, T Bradley Sowell (UFA)

When discussing the problems in Arizona’s offense, the blame often goes to the QB. The spotlight needs to be put on this line instead. Other than top 10 tackle Veldheer, this line had more holes than a tennis racket. Although the number of sacks and hurries surrendered went down in 2014, the pressure during dropbacks was still evident. RT Massie was not as bad as the rest; he was just very inconsistent from game to game, finishing slightly below average. Guards Larsen and Fanaika were poor pass blockers, with Larsen being 3rd worst in the league. Fanaika needs to walk in free agency; he was rated the 4th worst RG. 2013 1st round pick Cooper was not very effective, either, but it should be his time to step into Fanaika’s spot. Sendlein, who had a decent 2013, was a spectacular wreck at center and better improve unless he wants 2015 to be his last year in Arizona. UFA Sowell was not used much, but if his performance in 2013 is any indication, there are reasons for that. Some massive overhaul needs to take place here.

Defense

Defensive Line

DE: Calais Campbell, Tommy Kelly (UFA), Frostee Rucker, Ed Stinson, Kareem Martin, Josh Mauro
DT: Darnell Dockett, Dan Williams (UFA), Alameda Ta’amu (RFA)

Campbell has been a top 5 3-4 DE each of the last four years, so he has been earning his large paycheck. Kelly and Rucker have also done some good things on the line. Kelly should probably walk in free agency because of the Arizona cap problems, but the others should be fine for now. It would be swell if one of the young guys behind Rucker took a step forward in 2015.

At tackle, the future roles are a little more confusing. Dockett spent the entire season in IR with an ACL injury. During his time away, backup Dan Williams quietly put together another season in which he was stout against the run. He even provided a little pass rush. With Dockett coming back, who gets the job? The Cardinals don’t use a NT very much as they frequently play a 2-4-5 defense, so Dockett often lined up as a DE. He just doesn’t produce enough to warrant almost $7 mil in salary. Dockett has been a one trick pony as a pass rusher, but he is such a liability against the run that he grades out average. Not what you want for that kind of money. Acknowledging he’s been around a while, he may be hard to cut. It just may be necessary right now. Re-sign Williams as a cheaper alternative and continue to develop Ta’amu, who was a beast in college.

Linebackers

OLB: Matt Shaughnessy, Alex Okafor, John Abraham (UFA), Sam Acho (UFA), Marcus Benard (UFA), Lorenzo Alexander
ILB: Larry Foote (UFA), Daryl Washington, Kevin Minter, Glenn Carson, Kenny Demens

In a 3-4, you depend on at least one of the linebackers to rush the passer. That job fell to Okafor, who registered 8 sacks, but rated below average as a pass rusher and worse against the run. Acho and Shaughnessy were tougher against the run, but couldn’t get a pass rush. There is only one complete OLB on the roster, and that’s UFA John Abraham. Sadly, he’s a risk to re-sign because he will be 37 years old and was out with concussion symptoms last season. At his 2014 salary of $4 million, he is too expensive considering the Cardinals’ problems. Acho and Bernard should be re-signed because currently they are the two best run stoppers.

The inside guys need to be run stoppers as well. They are also most likely to have coverage assignments, so when UFA starting LILB Larry Foote rates poorly in both, it’s time to move on. He hasn’t been good for years, and it’s rumored he may retire. Minter has starting experience and would take over one spot. Can Daryl Washington take the other spot? It would be good for Arizona, but he is currently suspended until May as a multiple drug violator and may be suspended further for a domestic violence charge. If Foote retires/isn’t resigned and Washington is ineligible, ILB becomes another area of need.

Defensive Backs

CB: Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie (UFA), Jerraud Powers, Justin Bethel, Jimmy Legree, Ross Weaver
S: Rashad Johnson, Tony Jefferson, Tyrann Mathieu, Deone Buchanan, Chris Clemons

After having a handful of above average players in 2013, last season proved disappointing as only one player (Mathieu) finished above average. Powers was good in coverage, but didn’t defend the run well. Safety Jefferson was good against the run, but not so much in coverage. Stud corner Peterson even finished below average in both. Other than Mathieu and Peterson, the backfield is a bunch of average players. Arizona will probably want to re-sign UFA Cromartie, but he has had a couple of ordinary years and is not worth the money they will have to spend. He will want over $4 mil per year, and it’s not a good time for the Cards to do that. Powers is already getting paid like a starter, and Mathieu can take over the slot. Many of the players in this unit have expiring contracts after next season, so you’d like to think some will step forward and make the future more projectable.

Special Teams

Kicker Chandler Catanzaro was ranked 5th overall last season. He had good ratings particularly on his kickoffs, which are generally low and long. His return rate is high, but that’s only due to the hubris of many kick returners. Punter Drew Butler is in the middle of pack due to his low gross and net averages. He will be challenged by returning punter Dave Zastudil, who has had success in the past. Long snapper Mike Leach is league average and should be re-signed.

Initial cap deficit: $10.1 million

Re-sign: Lindley ($1.3 mil tender), D. Williams ($2.5 mil), Ta’amu ($660K), Benard ($745K), Acho ($1.7 mil), Leach ($1.2 mil)

Let walk: Dwyer, Housler, Hardy, Fanaika, Sowell, Kelly, Abraham, Foote, Cromartie

Best cap cuts to clear up room: Stanton ($3.2 mil), Fitzgerald ($9.2 mil), Dockett ($6.8 mil), Ginn ($2.5 mil)

With a net $2.1 million needed to sign draftees, these moves are projected to leave approximately $1.8 million in cap space for external free agents and extensions.

Biggest Team Needs: ILB, C, RT, WR

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