"Making the Cut"
As the Arizona Cardinals begin their quest to cut the team's roster size from 90 to 53 by the end of the preseason, we're taking a look at the key players at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Age: Swearinger: 24, Christian: 21
Experience: Swearinger: 4th NFL season, Christian: 1st NFL season
Contract status: Swearinger: 2016-$1,671,000, Christian: 2016-$502,550, 2017-$592,550, 2018-$682,550, 2019-$772,551
2015 season quick review: Swearinger began his NFL career with the Houston Texans, but spent part of the 2015 season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before the team cut him in November. Swearinger signed with the Arizona Cardinals in December and was elevated from the practice squad to the active roster late in the season and saw critical playing time after Tyrann Mathieu suffered an ACL injury. Swearinger performed well in the action he saw over four regular season contests, and developed a reputation as one of the most physical players on the Cardinals' defense. Christian spent the 2015 season at Midwestern State where he won the Cliff Harris Award as the nation's top small school defensive player. Former Cardinal Adrian Wilson fell in love with Christian's skill set, and helped convince general manager Steve Keim to bring him aboard in the fifth round of the NFL draft.
Projected roster status: Neither Swearinger or Christian is a guaranteed bet to make the roster, but we believe if the Cardinals keep eight defensive backs, both players will be squarely in the hunt for a roster spot. The Cardinals' final roster makeup in the defensive backfield is more complex to forecast than that of the average team because defensive coordinator James Bettcher uses Mathieu interchangeably as both a safety and a corner. Additionally, Keim has mentioned draft pick Brandon Williams and new acquisition Tyvon Branch as potential nickel corners, so it's clear the Cardinals have put a premium on versatility. Swearinger has the ability to walk up into the box and play closer to the line of scrimmage, and the Cardinals have indicated they would like Christian to develop similar skills. If both players are able to aid the defense in a run-stopping capacity, their likelihood of making the team increases. However, if numbers get tight and the Cardinals are forced to pick just one member of this pair to keep active, we think Swearinger is the more likely candidate because Arizona could keep Christian on the practice squad.
Projected depth chart status: While both Swearinger and Christian have useful skills the Cardinals can take advantage of schematically, neither player projects as an every down defensive back heading into the season. Swearinger could see more playing time early in the season if Mathieu is still working his way back to full strength, but with Tony Jefferson and Branch in the fold, it's hard to see Swearinger or Christian sitting atop the depth chart when camp breaks. If both players make the final roster, it's likely Swearinger and Christian will see their most playing time in sub-package situations where the Cardinals have five or six defensive backs on the field. However, if a player like Williams falls behind and Arizona needs to use Mathieu as a corner more frequently this season, Swearinger and Christian could see more playing time than their spot on the depth chart might indicate.
Moving forward: After losing cornerback Jerraud Powers and safety Rashad Johnson, the Cardinals' secondary is a bit more in flux heading into the 2016 campaign than it was a season ago. Patrick Peterson and Justin Bethel both underwent minor medical procedures this offseason, and there's still a definite possibility Mathieu may not return to full strength until deep into the season. The uncertainty in the secondary is likely why the Cardinals tendered a qualifying offer to Swearinger this offseason, as the franchise probably views him as more of a short-term role player. Though there's the possibility Swearinger could develop into a multi-year contributor for Arizona, the glowing reviews the team gave Christian following the draft suggest he's viewed as the more likely long-term option. At this point, the Cardinals will use 2016 to evaluate Swearinger's future, but because Christian is under contract on a rookie deal, the franchise has much more time to determine how he fits into the grand scheme.
Key skill: Run-stopping
It seems counter-intuitive to suggest run-stopping is one of the most important part of a safety's game considering safeties are typically considered the last line of defense. However, Swearinger's physicality is well known, and though it was often on display against receivers on passing plays, both Swearinger and Christian have the propensity to deliver a blow when they walk down into the box. With Jefferson and Branch likely to play more traditional roles this season, and Swearinger and Christian likely to see much of their playing time in sub-package situations with more defensive backs on the field, they will often be the defensive backs asked to step up in run support.
If Swearinger or Christian are successful walking down into the box in nickel and dime situations, Arizona could foreseeably use nickel and dime packages more often than it has in the past. With versatile players like Mathieu and linebacker Deone Bucannon, the Cardinals have a pair of players who have the body types of safeties but the run-stopping abilities of linebackers. Because of this, adding a piece to the puzzle like Swearinger of Christian could increase the team's schematic flexibility because Arizona will have more players on the field who are equally comfortable against the pass and the run.
Simply put, the Cardinals value versatility at almost every position on their defense, and the more they are able to use their players interchangeably, the easier it is for the defense to disguise its blitzes and coverages.
Overall value: This season marks the final time in which the Cardinals will be able to extract tremendous value from Mathieu's contract as he is playing out the final year of his rookie deal. There's a possibility a deal gets done before the season to extend Mathieu, but at the moment, Mathieu, Jefferson and Swearinger are all making between $1.6 and $1.8 million this year. If you consider Swearinger's overall value compared to that of his fellow safeties, his contract is the worst of the trio for the Cardinals. However, if you consider Swearinger's overall value compared to the rest of the league, it doesn't look so bad. Swearinger's contract represents the 62nd largest cap hit of any safety in the league, so if the team is able to receive quality production in a depth role, the Cardinals will certainly take it. As for Christian, the fifth round pick will begin the first year of his four-year rookie deal in 2016, so it will be impossible to assess his overall value until the season begins. However, if the Cardinals get any sort of meaningful production from the Midwestern State product, it won't come at much of a cost as contracts for fifth round draft picks don't exactly break the bank.