Why Mocks are Overrated:
Drafting "to Fill a Need" continues to be overrated - at least so far as the Cardinals are concerned. For one thing, the team's drafting philosophy (at least going back as far as the Dennis Green era) has involved variants of the "best player available" (BPA) philosophy. More recently, Steve Keim and his people have preached the need to address needs prior to the draft -via trades or free agency- in order to avoid reaching for players in the draft. Finally, Coach Arians has installed a staff of assistants who are large in numbers and deep in teachers (If he feels he has a need that can't be addressed by bringing in new personnel, he's got a large group of knowledgeable assistants and has no problem developing the guys he's already got or creating hybrid positions which better fit their individual skills).
Mock drafters and draft pundits love to match team-needs with drafting strategy because it's the simplest road to take, but many teams (including the Cardinals) simply no longer draft that way (at least not all the time) - which means that, not only is it difficult to figure out who the Cardinals will select but even more difficult to predict who the other 28 teams ahead of them might draft. (I liken the process to throwing darts blindfolded at a moving target)
This uncertainty is magnified by those who love to wheel and deal early in the draft. Even though the handful of teams ahead of you have no interest in the stud offensive tackle you're hoping will drop down to you, you can never be sure some GM "who drafts later than you, loves the kid" enough to leapfrog ahead of you to grab the kid you thought you had in the bag.
Or it turns out that a couple of prospects screw up their interviews with one or more teams. Or a couple of other sleepers "ace" theirs. There's a question of whether the prospect is "plug & play" or may need more time to develop. Or your team is in "Win Now" (or conversely, a "Rebuilding") mode. Or his college coach- a former college roomate of your defensive coordinator - sends you a text warning you off the player). Or, on Draft Day, your GM takes a deep breath, decides he addressed the team's OL-need in free agency and rolls the dice on a young, raw QB that nobody ever thought of.
Moral: Don't take mock drafts too seriously because too many different things can happen and "you can't predict the future." Instead, use them to develop "what could happen" scenarios so that you won't have to ""wing it" should the unexpected occur.
So, elsewhere in this Draft Issue, we'll develop one (or more) mock drafts, but suggest you take them "with a grain of salt." I'd rather give you a more general picture of where I think the Cardinals are roster-wise; and (although I'm no mind reader) what Steve, BA and the Cardinal staff may be thinking looking forward toward Draft Day :
Carson Palmer remained healthy throughout the 2015 season, but fell flat against the Panteras in the NFC Championship game and returns with a lot to prove.
Carson isn't getting any younger, but the concensus is that he still has plenty left in the proverbial tank. Key (as it always is) will be how well Palmer performs within the context of his supporting cast: Despite a few FA defections, we expect his blocking to improve (It will have to if we want to reach the Super Bowl). Cardinals remain deep and talented (with room to improve) at wideout. Palmer has a blossoming star to work with at RB, but the Cards will need to retain depth at what is a "collision position." TE is an enigma - a couple of develping youngsters and, perhaps, Gresham, but one or two knee sprains away from disaster. Palmer's backup, Drew Stanton is said to like his role here and has proved in the past that we can win more than 50% of our games when he's been asked to start, but he'll be a free agent, and this might be his final career opportunity to go after the bigger bucks. Matt Barkley was picked up late in preseason last year, and, while considered a promising prospect (who can assimilate and process information), we never got to see him in action last season.
On paper, we could stand pat with the QB'S we have; but common sense suggests that we'll want to make sure we go into preseason locked into a starter, a backup we can win with and a QBOF we can develop. There are a few interesting 2nd-echelon QB's available in first few rounds of the draft. If the right one fell to us, I think Keim might leap on that puppy.
A year ago - with the explosive Andre Ellington continuing to look promising but brittle - the Cards picked up FA Chris Johnson (CJ2K). Cards also used a 3rd round pick to draft David Johnson. With Ellington (predictably) sidelined for most of the season, all C Johnson did was gain 800+ yards. All D Johnson did was contend for rookie of the year honors. A three will be back in 2016. That makes us 3-deep in quality RB's. The only thing missing from the equation is a big bruising short-yardage RB, but if the Cards were do do nothing, 214 lb Stepfan Taylor or 235 lb Robert Hughes could fill the bill. And Kerwynn Williams (think of him as "Ellington Lite") will contend for a backup role).
The Cards are pretty well set at RB (unless they're tempted to trade Ellington in order to regain all or part of the draft pick they gave up in the Chandler Jones deal).
Continues to remain a Cardinal strength. AARP candidate, Larry Fitzgerald is still playing at a very high level (and remains a team leader and positive lockerroom influence). Michael Floyd shows flashes of a Megatron-type upside, but could be a tad more consistent. John ("Smokey") Brown has emerged as a budding star and legitimate deep-threat whenever he lines up. Equally speedy JJ Nelson and Brittany Golden provide backup depth behind Smokey. Jaron Brown provides quality depth behind Fitz and Floyd. That makes six quality receivers - a luxury. Only other WR on the 90 man roster is sure-handed youngster Jaxon Shipley.
Coach Arians has already commented on the "lack of overall speed" in this year's crop of WR's, so it wouldn't shock us if the Cards stood pat and didn't draft a wideout. That said - we shouldn't be shocked if Steve Keim once again reaches deep into a small school like PIttsburgh State, William & Mary, Presbyterian or Tiffin to uncover some undrafted WR we never heard of.
TE hasn't been considered a Cardinal "position of strength" of late, but BA seems to be relatively happy with the group he currently has. This is mainly because there are young guys he likes (i.e. Niklas, Momah and Fells - all over 6-6) ) who were injured last year return healthy and we re-signed veteran mainstay Jeremie Gresham.
Add to this a a relatively weak draft-crop of TE's and a good case can be made for standing pat with the young guys we've already got.
Each year, we repeat the mistake of evaluating RB's WR's and QB's "in isolation", overlooking the fact that a "running attack" depends on a RB and the guys who block for him and a "passing attack" a QB, his receivers and the guys who block for them. Last season, when Carson Palmer had time to throw, he was deadly. And when CJ2K or David Johnson were given just a little bit of daylight, they wizzed right through it. Yet it would be fair to concede that, if our OL play was just a little bit better, Carson would be even deadlier and our running attack more consistent.
Safe to say: "regarding the OL, the Cards will not stand pat." The left side (Veldheer and Iupati) will remain intact, but C Lyle Sendlein and G-C Ted Larsen are not expected to return and G Jonathon Cooper was part of the Chandler Jones trade. Last year's 1st round draft pick (DJ Humphries) has been penciled in at RT (but was thought to be a better pass protector than run blocker and, therefore, drafted to be our LT of the future). Veteran LG Evan Mathis will move over to become our RG and add veteran mentorship to Humphries on his right and our center (whomever that might be) on his left. You'd probably never know it, but on paper, the OL looks like an upgrade, but it will take a little bit more tinkering to fill in the rest of the blanks. This could be a make or break year for OG Earl Watford and Card coaches are said to be impressed by OG Antoine McClain. All told there are 15 O-lineman on the current roster (many with eye-catching size and athleticism) but with young offensive line prospects, "you never really know."
For all the waxing poetic, the Cards still need a starting center (also a quality backup). It would shock no one if the Cardinals were to draft a center within the first 4 rounds. Question is: "Would they defy CW and draft someone like Ryan Kelly at #29? Add to the current crop of draftable centers (like Max Tuerk, Nick Martin, Jack Allen or Evan Boehm), quality guards who, with the right coaching, might develop into outstanding centers (i.e. Joshua Garnett, Christian Westerman, Sebastian Tretola, Landon Turner) and you could see the Cards drafting one of these guys in Round 3 or 4. Or here, too, maybe Keim feels he can snap up a "conversion-project" from the ranks of undrafted free agents.
(First, let me just say that I like the latest trend toward defining defensive linemen as "interior linemen", outside pass rushers as "edge rushers" etc. etc. But I'm not quite ready to do it here, given the unpredictable way DC's move their players around like chess pieces).
I will, however, stick with the the notion that the Cardinals line up with three "tree trunk" sized D-linemen in their base defense - starters expected (if healthy) to be Calais Campbell, Corey Peters and Frostee Rucker backed up in rotation by Red Bryant, Xavier Williams and Josh Mauro with Corey Redding, Ed Stinson and Olsen Pierre fighting for roster spots. (Cards seem to prefer their base edge rushers to come from the ranks of OLB's).
If nothing changed, the Cardinal front-three is at least two-deep in guys who can get the job done and won't embarrass you. If there's one current Pro Bowler in this unit, it's 6-8 Calais Campbell (who isn't getting any younger). I think the Cardinal coaches would feel a bit more secure if they had one or two younger linemen waiting in the wings who were built like Calais. 6-6+ DE DeForest Buckner will no doubt be long gone by #10 let alone #29. Other Campbell-clones might be: 6-7 DE Bronson Kaufusi, 6-7 DE Carl Nassib, 6-6+ DE Dean Lowry, 6-8 DE Shawn Oakman. One other thing to watch for- Defensive Tackle. This year's crop is very very deep, and it never hurts to stack your roster with additional depth at a collision-position.
Here we were, minding our own business, watching "Path to the Draft" on the TV, trying to figure out which edge rusher the Cards would draft (and whether we'd roll the dice on an injury-issue guy like Jaylon Smith or a character-issue guy like Noah Spence) when "Late Breaking News" of a "blockbuster: trade between the Cards and the Patriots flashed across the screen - The Cardinals traded OG Jonathon Cooper and their 3rd round draft pick in exchange for edge-rushing pheenom, Chandler Jones. So much for an edge rusher in the draft. We got our guy.
At present, the Cardinals are carrying 17 linebackers on their offseason roster. A lot of these guys are, at worst, not guys who will embarrass anyone, so you can safely bet that things at LB will be a bit fluxy. . Assuming that, in our base defense, Jones will line up on the right outside. Kevin Minter is expected to nail down one of the ILB spots. Okafor and/or Golden (who have both flashed some pass rush skills) the other OLB slot with Deone Bucannon usually moving up from safety into the other ILB position.
This configuration raises the question of which "old guys" (signed to one or two year deals a year ago) will remain on the roster. We still hoping that Dwight Freeney (& his pass rush talent) will be back (if for no other reason than to provide depth behind Jones). Where would Jason Babin, Sean Weaherspoon and Lamar Woodley fit in? (Note - Jones now wears Weatherspoon's #55 - is that some sort of hint, sports fans)?
That leaves the combination of promising youngsters (like Kareem Martin, Shaquille Riddick, Alan Fua, Kenny Demens) and roster-survivors (like Nealy, G Martin, Reilly, Okpalaugo, Wagenmann) to fill out the "magnificent 17."
The addition of Jones takes the heat off the need for the Cardinals to reach fora pass rushing specialist. That doesn't mean they wouldn't do so if the BPA on their board at #29 happened to be someone like a Kamalei Correa.
Cards are carrying 20 men on their 90-man roster. Barring the inevitable surprises you're likely to get when 20 guys are fighting for 8 - 10 positions - likely starters figure to be Peterson, Bethel, Branch and Swearinger, with Matheiu and Bucannon filling specialty "rover type" roles.
Where things get a bit dicey are at nickel corner (do we or don't we keep Powers) and both safeties (do we keep Rashad Johnson; do we tender Tony Jefferson)?
If we don't re-sigh Powers, we'll need to determine who'll be our #3 and #4 CB's. If Jefferson and Rashad Johnson don't return, we'll have to figure out who'll be our backup free and strong safeties.
You get the feeling that we'll either (a) fill the 3 - 4 vacancies in the secondary from a list of names like Brooks, Byndom, Jackson, Prater, K White, Wilkinson, Clemons, Eskrdige, C White, Person or Zimmerman or (b) look to the draft or free agency.
Corner is not supposed to be that deep in talent this year. I'm not sure I agree. Using the criteria of: big enough. runs 4.49 or lower; good ball skills; breaks aggressively on the ball; can (& will) tackle) - I think there are roughly 6 or 7 guys who fit that description (Ramsey, Hargreaves, Apple, Jackson, T Young, Alexander) plus a bunch of other guys who have the athletic ability or are largely unproven. Add to this a half-dozen free safeties (Mills, Davis Thompson, Houston-Carson, Powell, Frazier) and an equal number of strong safeties (Killebrew, Kearse, Bell, Cash, Byard) and I'd expect Steve Keim to come out of the draft and the UDFA frenzy with at least a little bit of secondary help.
Butler and Catanzaro figure to be back but we'll need a long snapper to replace the retired Mike Leach.. The Cards coverage teams continue to be among the league's elite (difficult to sustain since most coverage guys come from the ever-changing "bottom part" of the roster) but a core group of standouts - including kick blockers Calais Campbell and Justin Bethel (who also doubles as one of the leagues best gunners) along with a healthy Mathieu - figure to keep Cardinal coverage units a force to be feared and respected. We now have enough speed and juke on our roster to make our kick and punt return game dangerous.
Other than LS, I don't expect any moves on ST's.
So that's the deal. Unless a blockbuster deal or two comes down the old pike between now and Draft Day, this is pretty much "it." Stay tuned.