The Arizona Cardinals were supposed to be the Seahawks topplegangers. Yes, their topple-gangers. The beginning of this foundation for a new start happened in 2013, when they hired Bruce Arians to be the new head coach and Steve Keim as the GM.
Keim, who has been with the Cardinals since 1999, had seen the frequent lows and brief highs in Arizona over that time, but he also saw Seattle and San Francisco’s quick ascent to the top of the NFC in 2012 — an ascent fueled by defense with versatile secondary players. The Cardinals drafted Tyrann Mathieu in 2013, then Deone Bucannon in 2014. Teamed up with Patrick Peterson and Tony Jefferson, the defensive backfield was on its way.
The Cards defense, which was ranked 30th in points allowed as recently as 2010, finished seventh in that category in 2013, fifth in 2014, and seventh again in 2015. Arizona had double-digit win totals in each of Arians/Keim’s first three seasons, culminating in a 13-3 record and a trip to the NFC Championship in 2015; a game they lost 49-15 and they haven’t been the same since.
For a moment, the Cards’ gang had toppled the Seahawks and 49ers. The defense had caught up, but even despite having the NFL’s yards from scrimmage leader at running back and the NFL’s leader in receptions at receiver and Carson Palmer maintaining an average season at QB, the offense was mediocre. Palmer had 14 interceptions and 14 fumbles, and Arizona was 26th in turnovers. They ranked 21st in offensive DVOA and 30th in special teams.
The Cards dropped to 7-8-1 and after losing Calais Campbell, Tony Jefferson, Kevin Minter, and D.J. Swearinger, they have more defensive snaps to replace than any team in the league and it’s not even close. They’ll need young players drafted recently to step up and maintain a level of quality on that side of the ball (AZ was third in defensive DVOA) or risk bottoming out with the offense and special teams, in which case the Cards could be reminded of their lowest lows.
And in the best case scenario, in which Palmer channels his 2015 campaign, David Johnson wins MVP, and Mathieu plays 16 healthy games, Arizona could win the NFC West again — the gang to topple all gangs. That’s how variable the Cards upcoming season — and future — could be.
To get a better idea of who those young players are, I sent over a list of draft picks from 2014-2016 to Seth Cox from Revenge of the Birds. Cox kindly sent back his thoughts on said players, as well as if he saw them as foundation players, building blocks, role players, or Troy Niklas.
The following words are Seth’s:
David Johnson, RB, 86th overall in 2015: Obviously Johnson is among those who seems to be the foundation for the foreseeable future for the Cardinals. The question simply is, can he continue what he has already done? What Johnson did in his second year has only been done a handful of times, and the players that went on to have continued success were Hall of Famers, Marshall Faulk and LaDanian Tomlinson. If Johnson turns in not only a great 2017, but 2018 as well, he’s on his way.
Markus Golden, Edge, 58th overall in 2015: Golden was one of those picks that just didn’t make sense at the time. Seahawks fans understand Sparq and the importance of athleticism on the outside, and Golden just didn’t offer that. Yet, through his first two seasons, Golden has shown that he is a relentless worker and a constant force on the defense. He looks every bit a foundation type player, but the question becomes, can the Cardinals pay a premium for two pass rushers?
Deone Bucannon, LB, 27th overall in 2014: Bucannon is one of those building blocks you talked about. He seems like the type who the Cardinals will continue to build around, but he hasn’t necessarily “arrived” as a player. He looked on the brink in 2015, but didn’t take the next step in 2016. Now, allegedly he played with an injury, so 2016 becomes a big year for him, because the expectations are for he and 2017 first round pick Haason Reddick to be dominant forces in the middle of the field for Arizona.
John Brown, WR, 91st overall in 2014: Another one of those building blocks and not a foundation player. Brown was on pace to be just that, but 2016 was basically a lost season. He played through a cyst on his back as well as dealing with sickle cell trait and how to work through it. Now, he is reportedly healthy and back at his best. If that is true, then Brown will be looking to get paid in the offseason and could command close to $10 million a season based on his body of work. If he doesn’t, well would the Cardinals want him back?
D.J. Humphries, T, 24th overall in 2015: Humphries three game stretch as a left tackle coincided with his best three games of 2016, which gives Cardinals fans hope that he’s a foundational player on this roster. 2017 will really give us an idea, plus, it will give Humphries a chance to prove himself as a left tackle for the next decade for the Cardinals, as he is only going to be 24 this year.
Robert Nkemdiche, DT, 29th overall in 2016: The question mark. There’s no way anyone knows if he is a building block because he just hasn’t been on the field enough. His expectation is to be one, but the reality is, he’s on the second string defensive line to start camp, so nothing is going to be given to him.
JJ Nelson, WR, 159th overall in 2015: Nelson is what every team wants in a wide receiver three: A constant deep threat, with the ability to make a play at anytime, anywhere on the field. The question is, is that considered a building block? I consider it more a glue guy, someone you definitely want on your team, but if you are expecting him to be more than he is, you are likely to be disappointed.
Evan Boehm, G, 128th overall in 2016: Boehm looks like the starting right guard for the Cardinals heading into 2017. That is quite a nice little grab from a fourth round pick. If he plays well enough this year to maintain his grip on the job, then I would say he’s a building block. A young, relatively inexpensive offensive lineman is a great asset for any team.
Brandon Williams, CB, 92nd overall in 2016: Williams is still trying to find his way, even heading into this season, he is not expected to be the second corner, but is that surprising for a player who 500 had only snaps in college at corner? Now, they expect him to be more of a contributor this year, and then take over as a third year pro, so I think you can call that a building block, but I am slightly skeptical.
Cole Toner, OL, 170th overall in 2016: Toner looks like the Swiss Army Knife backup for the Arizona Cardinals. An important role, but not one that I would call a building block. He has lined up at both guard spots and center, and is expected to be the backup for all those positions heading into 2017.
Troy Niklas, TE, 52nd overall in 2014: Yuck. My favorite note on Niklas is that he has more surgeries as a pro than catches. He is getting another shot to impress, but at this point, I think they just want to see him stay healthy for 16 games.
Kareem Martin, OLB, 84th overall in 2014: Martin seems to be more of a roster bubble guy than building block. They have tried him at down lineman, outside linebacker and neither of those positions took. Now he is fighting for a roster spot back at outside linebacker. Remember how we talked about athleticism as an edge player? Well, Martin is like the polar opposite of Markus Golden. An athletic freak who doesn’t know how to use it.
Ed Stinson, DE, 160th overall in 2014: Stinson has been a solid, if not unspectacular defensive lineman for the Cardinals since he was picked, but he also has struggled to stay active on game days because of inconsistency on the field an injuries. He is not a building block.
Rodney Gunter, DT, 116th overall in 2015: Gunter is expected, like Nkemdiche, to help mask the loss of Calais Campbell, but he has regressed in his role and playing time since his solid rookie season. He is still expected to be a contributor and many see him as a nice building block, along with Nkemdiche on the defensive line moving forward.
Harlan Miller, CB, 205th overall in 2016: Miller is another interesting piece. He looks like he is in a battle for a roster spot more than a building block. The Cardinals have made a priority to add versatile pieces at safety and corner every offseason and Miller is one of those. Now, he just needs to find his way onto the roster again. He played well at the end of the season when he was moved to safety against the Seahawks and Rams, but he is not a building block… right now.