Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports

Arizona Cardinals NFL Draft preview: Safeties

After losing Rashad Johnson this offseason, will adding Tyvon Branch be enough to help the Cardinals avoid a drop off in production?

Position: Safety

Draft Need: Moderate Priority

The Skinny: With the departure of Rashad Johnson and returning starter Tyrann Mathieu coming off a torn ACL, it’s a natural fit for the Cardinals to consider drafting a defensive back with a first round or third round draft pick.

There are cases to be made that finding a defensive lineman, a center or a quarterback of the future are more important priorities for Arizona, but the team’s roster composition suggests the Cardinals would benefit from selecting a defensive back with the potential to develop into a multi-year starter.

If you look at the Cardinals’ secondary on a macro level, it appears as though the team has the requisite playmakers to avoid a significant drop off from its spot as the eighth ranked passing defense in the NFL last season.

However, examining the Cardinals’ roster on a micro level reveals a number of key with expiring contracts at the end of the 2016 season. Arizona could look to shore up potential depth issues in the future by drafting a cornerback or a safety early on.

The debate, of course, is whether the team should choose a corner or a safety if it does elect to address its defensive backfield early in the draft. We’re of the opinion that if Alabama’s Ryan Kelly is still on the board with the 29th overall pick, the Cardinals should draft Kelly and plug him into the lineup as the starting center.

If Kelly is off the board, the team can consider waiting on a center and focusing its first round pick on the defensive side of the ball. With such a deep class of defensive linemen available, it’s conceivable the Cardinals could take a corner or safety with the 29th overall pick and wait until the third or fourth round to fill other holes on the roster.

If the Cardinals do decide to take a defensive back, we like the idea of selecting a safety because of how much the team has invested in its corners and how frequently Arizona uses Mathieu as a cornerback in sub packages.

With Mathieu aligning as a corner on roughly two-thirds of the team’s defensive snaps, Arizona already has two of its best players (Mathieu, Patrick Peterson) playing quite a bit of man-to-man coverage on many plays.

By drafting a safety, Arizona could develop a player in a secondary that already boasts veterans like Tyvon Branch and Tony Jefferson and have that player ready to start on an every game basis in 2017, when a number of key contracts will expire.

In all likelihood, Arizona won’t be able to bring Calais Campbell, Chandler Jones and Tyrann Mathieu back in 2017 without making sacrifices at other positions on defense. Drafting a safety early mitigates much of the risk of entering next season with too many moving pieces on defense.

Of course, all the talk of 2017 could be premature on our part, because the Cardinals still have the option to address other needs in this draft and wait until next year’s first or second round pick to find an impact defensive back through the draft.

Recent Draft History

With just three drafts under his belt, general manager Steve Keim has hit on both safety prospects the Cardinals have drafted under his watch.

The significance of Keim’s success is important, too, because both Deone Bucannon and Tyrann Mathieu were selected within the first 70 picks of their respective drafts, when finding impact players is especially critical.

Bucannon joined the Cardinals when the team was flush with defensive backs, and made a successful transition to inside linebacker to help fill a void. Nevertheless, Bucannon is a bonafide playmaker on the defensive side of the ball, and the draft is all about finding players who can contribute early in their careers.

As for Mathieu, it’s hard to say Keim and head coach Bruce Arians have made a better draft pick during their time together. Mathieu was a definite character risk coming out of Louisiana State, but he’s developed into one of the league’s most outstanding defensive backs.

The 2016 draft represents another challenge for Keim and Arians, who probably have to consider drafting a cornerback or a safety with one of their first three selections. Arizona doesn’t have a second round pick, so the longer the team waits, the more likely it is management will need to find a diamond in the rough.

Potential Early Selections

Keanu NealFlorida: Neal’s draft stock lands him as a likely late first or early second round pick, which means he could be available when the Cardinals are on the clock with the 29th pick. Neal had strong credentials at Florida and good measurables, but there’s not much of a wow-factor with this pick. Nevertheless, there’s nothing wrong with having the potential to earn the label of a “solid” draft choice.

Karl Joseph, West Virginia: Coming off a torn ACL, Joseph is another player who has seen his stock drop because of medical concerns. However, Joseph can play all over the defensive backfield, and he was one of our favorite players to watch last season before his injury. If the Cardinals are sold on Joseph, they may be able to trade back and pick up another pick in the process of drafting him.

Potential Mid Round Selections

Von Bell, Ohio State: Bell will likely be off the board by the time the Cardinals make their fourth round selection, but he could be available in the third round. Like Neal and most of the other safeties in this class, Bell lacks a wow-factor, but he can play both safety spots and some experts tout him as a nickel corner candidate, which would give the Cardinals even more flexibility in the secondary.

K.J. DillonWest Virginia: Dillon caught our eye when we watched Joseph last season and though he wasn’t nearly as flashy with his speed and ball-hawking skills, he is a physical defender who could line up at strong safety. Drafting Dillon in the fourth or fifth round would allow him to play behind Branch and give him a year to develop with NFL coaching.

Potential Late Round Selection

Deiondre' Hall, Northern Iowa: Admittedly, we haven’t watched more than a few film clips on Hall, so we’re including him because he’s popped up on a handful of prospect lists. What we do know about Hall is that he’s a Northern Iowa product, and the last time Arizona chose a Panther, the team liked what it found in running back David Johnson. If Hall is around in the seventh round, the Cardinals could consider taking a flier on the reigning Missouri Valley Defensive Player of the Year.


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