Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports

Arizona Cardinals NFL Draft preview: Cornerback

The Cardinals have two cornerbacks under contract for multiple seasons, but the team will still consider adding depth in the defensive backfield through the draft.

Position: Cornerback

Draft Need: Moderate to High Priority

The Skinny: With elite athletes like Deone Bucannon, Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson lining up on the defensive side of ball for Arizona, the Cardinals look to be in strong shape moving forward. 

Still, the team could use one or two more pieces to solidify the secondary, and the NFL draft provides an excellent opportunity for the team to capitalize on a class that is top-heavy in terms of cornerback talents.

At a press conference last week, head coach Bruce Arians said the team gave five first round grades to cornerbacks, and with the Cardinals holding the No. 29 overall pick, it’s likely at least one of those players would still be on the board when the team is on the clock.

With that being said, there are still other needs for the team to address, such as defensive line and center, so much of the Cardinals’ decision-making will likely focus on where the team believes it can find the most value with its picks.

For example, if the Cardinals know they need a defensive lineman but believe the class is deep enough that they can add a first or second round talent in the third round, general manager Steve Keim could pursue a defensive back in the first round if he believes the majority of impact players at that position will be off the board when the Cardinals’ next selection comes around.

As we expressed in our roster breakdown of the Cardinals’ cornerbacks, we believe the team has a potentially more pressing need at safety than it does at corner, because of how often the team uses Mathieu as a cornerback in sub packages.

What makes the task of drafting a defensive back more challenging for Arizona this season is the class of cornerbacks is fairly top-heavy, with quite a few high level players available, whereas the class of safeties isn’t as deep.

Arizona has a handful of options it could explore, like drafting a cornerback in the first or third round and asking Mathieu to play a more traditional safety role as he returns from injury this season. The team could also draft a safety, and pick up a veteran cornerback (perhaps Jerraud Powers) to help shore up the team’s depth in the secondary.

The bottom line is that there’s no clear cut answer for how the Cardinals should add depth to their defensive backfield. Still, that’s not necessarily a bad problem to have.

What that means is that Keim and Arians have quite a bit of flexibility moving forward, and they can draft a defensive back they perceive to be the best available, regardless of position, to give the team a boost.

Recent Draft History

Though NFL teams traditionally carry about 10 defensive backs on their roster, Keim has rarely had to consider adding a cornerback through the draft.

In his first three seasons at the helm, Keim drafted just one cornerback in Tyrann Mathieu, who now plays safety in the Cardinals’ base defense. As we’ve discussed, Mathieu is one of the league’s most versatile defenders and aligns as a cornerback on about two-thirds of the Cardinals’ defensive snaps, so Keim and Arians certainly deserve credit for taking a chance on one of the most polarizing players in the 2013 NFL draft.

Aside from Mathieu, the current regime inherited cornerback Patrick Peterson, who is a dream player for an organization to work with. Peterson is signed through 2020, so the Cardinals know at least one side of their defense is taken care of as long as Peterson maintains his current level of production.

In all likelihood, the 2016 draft represents the first time the Cardinals will select a cornerback since the addition of Mathieu, so the outcome of this potential pick and the performance of Justin Bethel, a player the organization has expressed faith in, will impact the perception of how Keim and Arians are able to evaluate talent within this unit.

Potential Early Selections

With Arians suggesting the Cardinals handed out five first round grades to cornerbacks, it’s important to consider one of these players might be the “best available” on the board when the team is on the clock.

Mackensie Alexander, Clemson: At 5-foot-10, Alexander lacks the ideal size for an NFL cornerback, but many draft experts still consider him a first round talent. Alexander was excellent in man coverage and often shut down Clemson’s best opposing receivers. With Peterson and Mathieu already providing versatility within Arizona’s scheme, a skilled cover corner could be a solid option at the end of the first round.

Eli AppleOhio State: Apple will probably be the fifth cornerback off the board next week, but he’s still worth first round consideration because unlike Alexander, he possesses great size. Alexander is a better overall defender, but Apple’s measurables probably give him a higher ceiling to work with. If Arizona is willing to let Apple take the necessary time to develop, he could turn into a valuable pick.

Potential Mid Round Selections

Cyrus Jones, Alabama: If the Cardinals pass on drafting a defensive back in the first round, Jones becomes a definite option when the team is on the clock early in the third round. We loved watching Jones at Alabama because of his tenacity, especially against the run. The knocks on Jones’s game are his size and coverage skills, but he has a championship mentality and think he could develop into a serviceable NFL corner, especially against slot receivers.

Keivarae Russell, Notre Dame: Russell had an interesting journey as a player at Notre Dame thanks to an academic suspension and an injury, but we think his stock would probably be higher if he played out the 2014 and 2015 seasons. There’s obvious risks in drafting Russell, but if he’s on the board in the fourth or fifth round and the Cardinals haven’t drafted a defensive back yet, he may be the cornerback with the most promise available in a middle round.

Potential Late Round Option

Taveze Calhoun, Mississippi State: When teams look at defensive backs in the late rounds of the draft, they have to almost always consider how a player can produce on special teams. Calhoun was lauded for his special teams abilities at Mississippi State, and he had a strong career as a cornerback starting three seasons for the Bulldogs. Though he doesn’t have top end speed, the 6-foot-1 Calhoun might be in consideration for the Cardinals in the later rounds.


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