The Arizona Cardinals have been at the forefront of free agency so far. After the acquisition of J.J. Watt, the Cardinals added two further perennial talents in A.J. Green and Rodney Hudson. Yet, the team is still to address what is undoubtedly their biggest need: cornerback. With only two currently signed to the active roster and the market thinning, time is running out for Arizona to rebuild its secondary.
Arizona Cardinals Still Need Cornerback Help After First Wave of Free Agency
Steve Keim: ‘Quality over Quantity’ at cornerback
Speaking to media on Monday, general manager Steve Keim preached quality over quantity when asked about the situation at cornerback. Currently, the team has Byron Murphy and Robert Alford under contract for the 2021 season.
Murphy heads into his third season in the NFL entrenched as the team’s slot cornerback. Keim was particularly bullish about his confidence in the former Washington Huskie. He did however note that, although Murphy has the talent to play outside, in his opinion ‘(Murphy) is one of the better inside corners in the NFL’. Therein, he is likely to remain in the slot.
As for Alford, he is technically the team’s only offseason acquisition at cornerback so far; the team cut him before re-signing him. After his two seasons in the desert so far were derailed by season-ending injuries, he heads into 2021 as an unknown, having not played since 2018.
Keim was quick to point out that the team would not ‘panic’ or make any decisions ‘that put you in a tough situation from a cap standpoint. However, in today’s NFL, the passing game rules supreme. With a possible need for five or six cornerbacks on the roster, the Cardinals face a tough task in rounding out the group from a thinning free agency pool
The cornerback market
Patrick Peterson’s departure to the Minnesota Vikings has created a new problem for Arizona. For the last decade, finding a partner across from the eight-time Pro-Bowler has been a consistent theme in the offseason. Now, the Cardinals find themselves with neither a number one nor a number two cornerback.
After the first wave of free agency, the top-ranked cornerbacks have been swiftly snatched up. Former Cincinnati Bengals cornerback William Jackson III, PFF’s best available at the position, secured a three-year/ $40.5 million deal with the Washington Football Team. Kyle Fuller, upon his release by the Chicago Bears, was quickly reunited with Vic Fangio in Denver.
So what remains on the market? The bulk of the significant names left unsigned are older veterans; the likes of Richard Sherman and Casey Hayward Jr are some of the most talented players still without a team. Rounding out the remaining free agents are players such as Gareon Conley or Quinton Dunbar, players who have struggled with inconsistency so far in their careers.
There is still considerable talent in free agency. However, is that it is unlikely, due to either age or performance, that the Cardinals will find a franchise cornerback among this group of players. What is left is a group with the potential to sign cheaper, short-term deals to fill out the position and complement the franchise player that they will hope to find in the first round of the upcoming draft.
Drafting a cornerback
In 2011, the Arizona Cardinals drafted Peterson fifth overall in the NFL Draft. He was their franchise cornerback for a decade. Now, in 2021, Arizona is likely to try and replicate this success. The Cardinals lack of aggression in pursuing a big name at cornerback in free agency is notable, especially after losing Peterson. Picking at sixteenth overall, the Cardinals will hope to snag one of the draft’s top cornerback talents.
In the draft, there is a consensus top three cornerbacks. Patrick Surtain II’s refined skillset is complemented by his NFL heritage and Alabama pedigree. Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley is an electric prospect with limitless playmaking potential. His instinctive and tenacious play saw Jaycee Horn become one of the most effective coverage players in the SEC with South Carolina. Headlining the 2021 class, all three players are likely targets f0r the Cardinals’ top pick.
The assumption before free agency was that the Cardinals would look to draft a cornerback come April. Their strategy in free agency so far certainly adds fuel to this suggestion. If the Cardinals land a top prospect in the draft, then their options in the current free-agent market change dramatically. Aging veterans become wise mentors. Second-tier players become low-expectation stopgaps for developing rookies. The latter is of utmost importance when one considers the struggles of Jeff Okudah, the Detroit Lions‘ top pick in 2020.
Quality and Quantity at cornerback
Steve Keim is not wrong to prioritize quality. However, it is important to recognize the need for quantity in today’s NFL. The prevalence of Nickel and Dime packages across the league stresses the urgency to populate the Cardinals’ barren secondary. You might consider the Cardinals draft-centric approach to their cornerback situation as shrewd. Their patience and resolve in the market have allowed big signings elsewhere on the roster. However, with their options narrowed and needs not yet addressed, Steve Keim has a challenge ahead to execute his vision and secure an integral part of the roster for the 2021 Arizona Cardinals.
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