Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports

Arizona Cardinals: Post NFL draft roster outlook

Even after adding reinforcements through the draft, the Cardinals may still turn to free agency to address team needs.

The Arizona Cardinals entered the draft process with the hopes of creating depth along the offensive line and in the defensive backfield, and general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians accomplished this feat. 

Many NFL teams claim to draft the "best player available" instead of drafting for need, but the Cardinals' selections of players like Robert Nkemdiche and Evan Boehm addressed holes on the roster the draft picks can help fill immediately. 

Even though the team added a pair of offensive linemen and three defensive backs, the Cardinals lacked a second round draft pick and three of the team's selections came in the fifth round or later. While plenty of NFL players like Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson have enjoyed successful careers despite being late round selections or undrafted free agents, it's much more difficult to bank on these players having an impact early in their careers.

One of the main concerns and challenges of coaching late round prospects is their learning curve is often steeper, which means those players may not be able to step in and make a difference right away. With this in mind, it's important to consider roster moves the Cardinals could make moving forward as the calendar marches toward the start of the season.

Though the Cardinals have a fully stocked roster of 90 players right now, Arizona needs to cut that number down to 53 by the first week of the season. 

We know the Cardinals must cut at least 37 players between now and the end of camp, but we also know the team may look to add veterans through free agency if Arizona hopes to play with the necessary depth to contend for another NFC West Division title. 

The Cardinals have less than $5 million of cap space to work with, so any potential deals must be small. Still, that cap space is workable, and we think Arizona may find itself in position to add at least one piece as the offseason continues.

Positions to Watch

1. Cornerback: Arizona devoted two of its six selections in the draft to cornerbacks, as the team brought in third round pick Brandon Williams out of Texas A&M and sixth round pick Harlan Miller of Southeastern Louisiana. The Cardinals desperately need one of these players to develop into a dependable third cornerback, as the team doesn't have anyone on the roster aside from Patrick Peterson and Justin Bethel with meaningful experience.

To complicate matters, there are questions surrounding Bethel's potential effectiveness, as the Cardinals are counting on a player who carved out a career as a special teams warrior to become a full-time starter.

The one factor working in the Cardinals' favor in terms of cornerback depth is the versatility of other defensive players like safety Tyrann Mathieu and linebacker Deone Bucannon. Though Bucannon would rarely come out of the box to play coverage, Mathieu consistently aligned at cornerback last season, especially when the Cardinals wanted to play press-man coverage against opposing receivers. 

Using Mathieu as a third cornerback in nickel and even dime situations gives the Cardinals another elite athlete to pair with Peterson, but it takes away from the team's depth at the back end. After losing Rashad Johnson in free agency to Tennessee, the Cardinals hope the pair of Tyvon Branch and Tony Jefferson can hold down the fort in the secondary at safety when Mathieu plays as a corner or even closer to the line of scrimmage as a run-stopper.

Even with all of the mixing and matching the Cardinals do in the secondary, the team may reach a point where it has to consider adding a veteran on a small one-year contract to ensure Arizona doesn't put Williams or Miller on the field before either player is ready. 

The Cardinals could look to bring Jerraud Powers back into the fold, but such a move likely wouldn't happen until near the end of the offseason or once training camp begins because the team will be monitoring the progress of both of its draft picks. 

The bottom line for the Cardinals is that if neither draft pick can play at a high level right way, it makes sense to add insurance in the short term.

2. Offensive Tackle: Arizona has solidified the left side of its offensive line with the presence of Jared Veldheer and Mike Iupati who are both signed on long term contracts, but the Cardinals lost their starting center, right guard and right tackle this offseason. 

Keim wasted little time adding Super Bowl winner Evan Mathis on a one-year deal to start at right guard, but center and right tackle remain question marks for this unit. 

Veteran reserve A.Q. Shipley and Boehm will compete at center, but at the moment, the team appears to be counting on 2015 first round draft pick D.J. Humphries to develop into the starting right tackle. 

Humphries fell into the doghouse of Arians last fall as he reportedly didn't perform well in camp, and Humphries ended up sitting out the entire season as he learned the nuances of the position at practice. It's difficult to count on a player like Humphries who lacks any NFL experience to start 16 games and beyond at right tackle, but it's hard to imagine the Cardinals would have waited this deep into the offseason to find a player who would compete for the starting job if they didn't believe Humphries could make the cut.

Another factor that could play into team's decision to add a piece at tackle is the progress of fifth round selection Cole Toner. The Cardinals drafted Toner with the intention of him learning every position on the offensive line, which is particularly important considering the team only dresses seven linemen on game days.

With Earl Watford projecting as the team's main backup should an interior lineman go down, we assume the Cardinals would depend on Toner if either Veldheer or Humphries needed a breather or suffered an injury during a game. 

Neither Humphries nor Toner has played a down in the NFL, so if the Cardinals have any concerns about their depth at tackle in fall camp, Keim may add a veteran piece and allow Toner to develop in the same manner Humphries did last season.

3. Linebacker: Within the context of the Cardinals' defense, using the term linebacker is vague because players with varying skill sets and assignments all hold the title.

In the team's 3-4 scheme, one outside linebacker acts as a true pass rusher while the other is a hybrid between a pass rusher and a smaller linebacker who can cover tight ends and backs. The inside linebackers are sideline to sideline players who play critical roles in run fits, and Bucannon has helped improve the Cardinals' schematic flexibility with his ability to cover receivers in the passing game.

With all of that being said, the spots the Cardinals are most likely to consider adding depth at are Kevin Minter's inside linebacker position and behind new addition Chandler Jones at outside linebacker. 

Minter is an every down player who proved his value to the Cardinals last season, but BYU product Alani Fua is the team's only backup inside linebacker with relevant experience. Playing in the box requires a tremendous amount of physicality, and the 16-game season takes its toll. 

The Cardinals would be wise to add a veteran like A.J. Hawk who likely doesn't have the capacity to be a prolific starter so late in his career, but still provides the team value as a backup and comes to the franchise at a menial cost. 

The decision to potentially add depth behind Jones may not take place until the season actually begins, as the Cardinals will want to assess their pass rush and determine whether the team's offseason moves paid dividends. If players like Nkemdiche and Jones can impact the quarterback, the likelihood of Keim adding an outside linebacker diminishes. However, if the team isn't seeing the results it hopes for, Arizona could look at bringing Dwight Freeney back into the mix as a third down specialist. 

The Cardinals have far fewer concerns than the majority of NFL franchises, but for a team with an aging quarterback whose Super Bowl window may be closing soon, adding veterans through free agency can make a significant difference in the season's outcome. 



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