Position capsule: Safety
Contracts: Mathieu: 2017-$8,100,000, 2018-$14,100,000, 2019-$14,100,000, 2020-$14,100,000, Branch: 2017-$4,187,500, Bryant: 2017-$615,000, Hartfield: 2017-$540,000
Current Roster Number: 2
Ideal Roster Number: 4-5
2016 performance: The Arizona Cardinals entered the 2016 season expecting to have one of the top safety duos in the league, and that's exactly what they ended up with. However, not everything went according to plan.
The Cardinals thought Mathieu and Branch would team up to form one of the most formidable duos in any defensive backfield, but both players wound up finishing the season on injured reserve while Jefferson and Swearinger emerged as two of the team's most important defensive playmakers.
Mathieu began the season coming off the second ACL tear of his career and spent the first portion of the season playing as a deep safety instead of in his traditional role as a nickel back to allow his knee to get back to full speed. Though he performed well at times, it was clear Mathieu wasn't fully healthy at the start of the year. The dynamic playmaker suffered another setback when he suffered a subluxation of his shoulder, which wound up forcing him onto injured reserve for the second straight season.
Branch, meanwhile, made two trips to injured reserve thanks to a groin injury he suffered against Los Angeles in week four and re-injured later in the season. When he was on the field, Branch was a serviceable nickel corner, proving capable of contending with slot receivers. However, he couldn't stay healthy, and the free agent signee has just one season left on his contract in Arizona.
As for Jefferson and Swearinger, the duo filled in admirably, ranking as two of the top 10 safeties in the league according to Pro Football Focus. Jefferson finished the season with the team lead in tackles and was extremely effective stepping up in the box and playing against the run. Swearinger was solid for most of the season, enjoying his best year as a pro and proving he deserves another shot to start in the NFL, whether it's with the Cardinals or another NFL franchise in 2017.
2017 readiness: Because both Mathieu and Branch are injury-risks coming off of seasons in which they landed on injured reserve, it's hard to determine exactly how ready the Cardinals are for 2016. Both players are versatile playmakers capable of aligning all over the defensive backfield and providing Arizona's defense with schematic flexibility, but if one or both can't stay healthy, Arizona is going to be in a difficult position depth-wise.
The Cardinals had the luxury of relying on both Jefferson and Swearinger in 2016, but because of the hefty salaries Mathieu and Branch will command next season, it's unlikely the franchise can afford to bring back both of those players. Swearinger is the cheaper option, but Jefferson is the more consistent option and the Cardinals would love to be able to pair him with Branch at the back end of the defense as long as Mathieu can still handle the demands of playing nickel corner.
Arizona could face a really significant depth issue if it is priced out of signing both Jefferson and Swearinger this offseason, because it's highly unlikely they'll find a third or fourth defensive back to compliment the safety unit as well as either player did in 2016. The Cardinals have a long list of high-profile free agents and meeting every player's contract demands is going to be an impossible task, so it's uncertain how the team will prioritize re-signing its free agent safeties.
The long haul: By extending Mathieu a significant contract extension prior to the 2016 season that makes him the highest-paid safety in the NFL moving forward, the Cardinals are placing all of their eggs in a basket carried by a player who has torn his ACL twice already in his young career. It was a risky venture, but if the risk pays off, there's no defensive back in the sport who can change the game and alter an opponent's game plan in quite the same fashion Mathieu can.
Arizona's commitment to Mathieu was practically a necessity given what he's meant to the franchise since it drafted him, and now, the Cardinals are tied to Mathieu for the long haul. Whether he ever returns to the level at which he played prior to his second ACL tear remains to be seen, but Arizona won't have much flexibility in its pay roll to add safeties as long as Mathieu remains on the roster. In the coming seasons, Arizona may elect to draft a true free safety to pair with Mathieu, who is more of a nickel corner to begin with, but there are other pressing issues in the more immediate future.
Draft need: To be determined
Position overview: The Cardinals' draft need at the position is undetermined because so much of their draft strategy at safety will depend on whether or not they can sign Jefferson and or Swearinger to extensions this offseason. If the Cardinals can't sign either player, the draft, not the free agent market, might be the best place for Arizona to find a potential playmaker at safety because the Cardinals will have committed their resources to other areas of the roster during free agency. If the Cardinals do bring back one or both of their key free agents at the safety position, then it's unlikely Arizona will pursue a safety in the 2017 Draft.