Arizona Cardinals pre-NFL Draft safeties outlook

Arizona's defensive backfield will feature a new face in Tyvon Branch this season which should help offset the loss of Rashad Johnson.

Current Roster Number: 9 (Tyvon Branch, Deone Bucannon*, Chris Clemons, Durell Eskridge, Tony Jefferson, Tyrann Mathieu, Brandon Person, D.J. Swearinger, Tyrequek Zimmerman)

Ideal Roster Number: 4-6

Returning Starters: 1.5 (Mathieu-1, Jefferson-.5)

Draft Need: Moderate Priority

Roster Composition: Much like the Cardinals’ cornerback situation, the team’s plans for its safeties are fluid heading into the NFL draft.

Starting strong safety Rashad Johnson signed a free agent contract with Tennessee in the offseason, but the Cardinals’ still have plenty of players with experience returning this fall. 

As we discussed in our cornerbacks breakdown, Arizona considers Tyrann Mathieu a safety on its roster because that’s the position he plays in the team’s base defense. However, Mathieu plays the majority of his reps, about two-thirds of the team’s defensive plays, as a cornerback. 

For roster composition purposes, we’ll still consider Mathieu a returning starter at the safety position because he can be one of the NFL’s elite players as an every down free safety, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he continued to fill any role the team needs when he returns from an ACL injury this fall.

The other key returner in the secondary is Tony Jefferson, a free safety who saw considerable time in the defensive backfield last season when the Cardinals used sub packages. Jefferson actually started seven games and finished the season with 78 tackles, so we consider him the other .5 of the returning starters at safety.

Aside from cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Justin Bethel, the Cardinals don’t have many of their defensive backs locked up under contract beyond 2016. This could create a challenge for Arizona, as the team will presumably need to pay Mathieu significantly more in the future than the $1.74 million he’s scheduled to earn on an expiring contract this season.

To help address the team’s depth, the Cardinals added free agent Tyvon Branch on a two-year deal this offseason, and Branch could slide into the role previously occupied by Johnson. Branch was second in line on the Kansas City depth chart behind strong safety Ron Parker last season, and he could end up playing a larger role for the Cardinals, especially in the team’s nickel package.

Another player who could factor into the rotation at safety is veteran D.J. Swearinger, who joined the Cardinals late last season after being cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Swearinger had a tough 2015 season as he bounced from team to team, but he’s a physical presence at safety who was a former second round pick.

Outside of Branch, Jefferson and Mathieu, there’s only one other safety on the roster who’s a virtual lock to make the roster this fall: Deone Bucannon. Yes, despite being an inside linebacker on the Cardinals’ depth chart, Bucannon is still a safety on the team’s roster, so we wouldn’t be doing due diligence without listing him in this breakdown.

Arizona appears set on keeping Bucannon at inside linebacker despite drafting him as a safety in 2014, so the team’s other considerations at the position include veteran Chris Clemons, Durrell Eskridge, Brandon Person and Tyrequek Zimmerman.

Clemons is the only member of that group with NFL experience, but he only played in seven games last season and appeared in just one the year before. If faced with the choice, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to us if the Cardinals ended up favoring a draft pick over the 30-year old Clemons when the team settles on its final roster this fall.

Draft Outlook

Aside from Branch, the Cardinals don’t have another safety under contract for the 2017 season. Arizona appears on decent footing heading into this year, but the team knows it will need to pay Mathieu a significant amount of money if it hopes to keep him beyond this season.

The Cardinals only recently secured the returns of Jefferson and Swearinger, who both signed qualifying offers to return on one-year deals.

With the overall situation in the secondary in flux, Arizona could do itself a favor by adding an impact defensive back early in the draft.

The Cardinals have a luxury of being able to draft either a cornerback or a safety because of the versatility players like Bucannon and Mathieu bring to the team’s sub packages and pass defense, but many experts believe the team would prefer to pursue drafting a cornerback.

However, with Peterson and Bethel under contract and the team facing more uncertainty at safety, we think the team might be better off drafting a safety, especially if the Cardinals are sold on Bethel’s ability to become a dependable starter at corner.

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