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Arizona Cardinals Offseason Preview: Cornerback

Arizona Cardinals Cornerbacks Offseason Preview: How is Arizona's cornerback situation looking in the 2023 offseason?
Arizona Cardinals Offseason Preview Cornerback

The Arizona Cardinals had a disappointing 2022 season by all accounts. Despite a strong roster at the start of the year, injuries decimated their depth chart. By the end of the season, the Cardinals thin depth at cornerback was truly exposed. This offseason, Arizona will need to look to rejuvenate their secondary with new GM Monti Ossenfort at the helm.

What makes Ossenfort’s job easier is Arizona’s youth at cornerback, and support from safety. The Cardinals currently have Marco Wilson and Byron Murphy Jr. around, two young and promising cornerbacks. Supporting them is arguably one of the league’s best safety tandems. Budda Baker was the Cardinals most valuable player in 2022 and Jalen Thompson is highly underrated. Thompson was also among one of the few players that played the full season for Arizona.

With this in mind, Ossenfort may have a large task ahead, but reconstructing Arizona’s cornerback room should be easy enough. Both the New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans value the cornerback position more than Arizona recently have. This suggests that Ossenfort could look to put extra focus here, depending on the head coach appointment of course.

This is quite different to Steve Keim’s approach from before. In 2022 and 2021, Arizona’s cornerback spending accounted for less than 4% of the cap in both years. With less than $7 million spent at the position, the Cardinals were placed in the bottom two of cornerback spending. This figure was higher in 2020 and before the Kliff Kingsbury era due to Patrick Peterson’s huge salary. However, even then, Keim was constantly under fire for his inability to find an adequate cornerback partner for All-Pro Peterson.

Arizona Cardinals Offseason Preview: Cornerback

On the Roster: Marco Wilson

Wilson was a starter for the Cardinals in both 2021 and 2022. A fourth-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Cardinals gambled on Wilson’s athleticism and raw traits as Keim opted to trade up to select him. In his rookie year, Wilson struggled. He exceeded expectations but was still the weakest link in the Cardinals secondary. This was something that teams exploited, especially in the redzone. On the whole, Wilson’s rookie year was positive for the fact that he was thrust into a starting role and flashed his potential. He was, however, liable to rookie mistakes and was clearly targeted by opposition quarterbacks.

2022 started disappointingly. Wilson looked like he had suffered a severe regression from his rookie year. However, in a strange turn of events, Wilson stepped up after Murphy’s injury. From Week 6, Wilson only had one below-average performance. Outside of that week, Wilson performed as good as any top-15 cornerback in the league, notching PFF grades above 60 in both defense and coverage in most matchups. His year was highlighted in Week 16 with a two-interception performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In this game, he intercepted Tom Brady on two separate occasions. He was also the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Week for Week 7 after a pick-six against Andy Dalton and the New Orleans Saints.

Wilson will be the Cardinals’ CB2/3 next season. He has shown improvement over two years, despite some inconsistency. Should Wilson continue where he left off, he certainly has the potential to be a consistent top-20 cornerback in the league. Part of this will hinge on Arizona’s new coaching staff but most of it depends on Wilson’s own development as he finds his feet in the NFL.

On the Roster: Christian Matthew

Christian Matthew was a seventh-round selection in the 2022 NFL Draft. Drafted out of Valdosta State, few fans knew about Matthew. However, he seemed like a good pick given that he was prototypical size and showed good athletic traits. Few expected him to see the field in his rookie year but, due to injuries, he ultimately saw plenty of game time.

In 2022, Matthew played in 14 games and started three. In those games, he managed 19 total tackles, three pass defenses, and no interceptions. While the numbers are not exciting, the amount he saw the field was impressive for a rookie seventh-rounder. He did an adequate job in man coverage situations and showed his upside, especially with regards to his athleticism. Matthew was able to hang with most receivers and was mostly serviceable. With his rookie year now done, expect Matthew to stick around and compete for a rotational role in 2023.

Free Agent: Byron Murphy Jr.

One of the biggest personnel questions heading into the offseason is the future of Murphy. Drafted in 2019, Murphy has been an underrated player for the Cardinals ever since his selection. As primarily a slot corner, Murphy has shown some versatility. He is a secure tackler and willing blitzer. As well as this, he is great in zone coverage and has been particularly effective in variations of press.

Murphy’s impressive four-year tenure with the Cardinals should warrant a new deal from the Cardinals. The team has seen Murphy improve every year, and he is considered one of the league’s best young slot cornerbacks. Arizona would be foolish to let him walk. While 2022 was an injury-riddled year for Murphy (he played just nine games), Murphy has shown that he is not an injury-prone player in years prior. Thus, expect him to be back to his best at the start of the 2023 season.

Given Murphy’s age (25) and quality, the team would likely offer him a long-term deal worth over $12 million per year. If the team are able to bring him back for less than that, it would be a steal. While some would consider $15 million per year an overpay, Ossenfort cannot afford to overthink this re-signing and take any risks in his first offseason with the team. Given how much Murphy has improved, a slight overpay now will likely work out best in the long term. Murphy has been crucial to the team’s fortunes of late and it would be foolish to let him walk if it means the team are without a CB1. It seems, then, that Ossenfort and the Cardinals are forced into re-signing Murphy at whatever price necessary.

Free Agent: Antonio Hamilton

Antonio Hamilton had his most promising offseason in his career in 2022. Kingsbury hyped up the 30-year-old before the regular season, with the depth chart suggesting that he had overtaken Wilson in the pecking order. Unfortunately for Hamilton, he ended up starting the season on IR due to a freak accident where he burned his feet.

Despite the setback, Hamilton came back with a fire. He was involved in 10 games this season, starting five of them and logging his first career interception. He seemed to play with an urgency and passion that few other Cardinals had this season. Expect Hamilton to be back on a cheap two-year deal.

Free Agent: Jace Whittaker

As has been established, the Cardinals were down to their last legs at cornerback by the end of the season. Jace Whittaker was not a player that many expected to see, but he ended up starting four games for Arizona. Over six games, Whittaker logged 24 tackles and defended three passes. He was serviceable and has shown improvement from his awful displays in 2020 and 2021. However, Whittaker is ultimately replaceable, and the team could find a replacement fairly easily.

The Outside Options

While the Cardinals have some talent at cornerback, the main issue is depth. Many believe that the team will look to draft a cornerback at some point in the 2023 NFL Draft. This could be as early as the second round or as late as the seventh. However, the team have found a lot of success in drafting secondary players recently. Among the team’s recent drafts, they have selected Baker, Wilson, Murphy, Thompson, Deionte Thompson, and Tyrann Mathieu.

Despite this, a veteran presence would not go amiss. In 2021, Robert Alford performed excellently. However, the team failed to bring him back on a cheap deal for 2022. Before him, the team had Dre Kirkpatrick who was borderline serviceable. While Hamilton is expected to return on a cheap extension, the team ought to look to bring in some veteran help at the position.

On the assumption that Murphy remains, this will only need to be a depth piece. Look out for names such as Fabian Moreau, Artie Burns, Eli Apple, and Amani Oruwariye, among others. Should Murphy seek greener grass, Arizona will likely need to make a trade for a top cornerback or sign one of the top free agents. As usual, however, the free-agent market has virtually no top cornerbacks. Marcus Peters and James Bradberry are among the top defensive backs who could leave their teams, but they are far from ideal CB1 options. For the Cardinals, the best-case scenario is holding onto Murphy and Hamilton and signing one extra veteran as well as drafting some rotational depth in the mid or late rounds of the draft.

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