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Exit Interview: Arizona Cardinals

New coach but no QB.

Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the Arizona Cardinals.

Record: 8-8

Where do you begin when both your starting quarterback and your head coach retire within a week of each other?

With Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians calling it a career, the Cardinals have decided to take a prolonged approach in finding their replacements. In contrast to every other team with a coaching vacancy, they kept the hiring process open and interviewed as many candidates as possible before deciding on a suitable guy.

Steve Wilks looks to be a sensible choice. He and Arians have similar personalities, though unlike Arians, Wilks is more of a defensive coach. Still, selecting someone with the same kind of mindset will allow the locker room to transition easier to the new regime.

It’s likely that the team will use the same tactics in finding a new signal caller. However, they are in a poor spot to achieve that goal. With their draft pick in the middle of the first round and just $23 million in cap space, the Cardinals are trapped behind every other team looking to add a QB.

Whoever they choose will be coming into a pretty decent situation. The Cardinals had the 6th best defense in the league during 2017, and their offense was actually better than you’d think. Their rushing attack was third worst among all teams, but that was mostly due to David Johnson and Adrian Peterson getting hurt.

Their passing offense was surprisingly ranked 15th, despite injuries to the offensive line and Drew Stanton and Blaine Gabbert starting in place of an injured Palmer. Both sides of the ball have new coordinators in Mike McCoy (offense) and Al Holcomb (defense), but they’re experienced, so they should gel well with Wilks.

Even though they’ll be stuck in a highly competitive NFC West next season, the Cardinals look like they’re trending upward. They must find the right QB before they can continue that progress though, no matter how long it takes.

Current number of draft picks: 6 (#15 in the first round)

Cap space: $23 million

Notable free agents

Tramon Williams, CB: The Cardinals have been struggling to find a suitable corner to put across from Patrick Peterson since Antonio Cromartie left following the 2014 season. Well, they may have finally found one in Williams… for one year anyway.

Signed just before training camp began, Williams didn’t start until week 7, but when he took over, he was very strong, perhaps the best cover man in the secondary. He led the team with 12 pass breakups and tied for second with 2 interceptions. He also allowed just one touchdown in coverage. While Williams will turn 35 in March, a bounce-back season like this should afford him a few more years of regular play.

Tyvon Branch, S: When healthy, Branch is an extremely reliable safety, one of the more underrated players at the position. However, he’s suffered from groin issues and a torn ACL the past two years and has played all 16 games just once in the last five seasons.

Still, he looked great in the nine games he did play in, picking up 66 total tackles and 6 pass breakups. Pro Football Focus graded him as the sixth-best safety in the league in 2017. Branch’s injury history may keep up away from a big money contract, but he could still serve as a dependable starter for any team.

Karlos Dansby, ILB: Dansby returned for his third stint with the Cardinals this season, mostly to serve as a mentor to Deone Bucannon and Haason Reddick. However, he also started all but one game in 2017, leading the team in total tackles with 96. At 36, his time in the league is fading, but if the Cardinals want him back as a veteran presence in the locker room, he’s more than capable of filling that role.

John Brown, WR: Just three years ago, Brown looked like he was on the cusp of turning into a truly elite wideout. He caught 65 passes for 1,003 yards and 7 touchdowns back in 2015, just his second season as a pro. Alas, bad luck has stricken him since then.

In just the past two years, Brown has battled injury problems with his hamstring, quad, back and toe. He also was found to have the sickle cell trait, a condition which leads to more muscle breakdown than normal. As a result, his numbers have plummeted; he only 21 catches for 299 yards and 3 touchdowns. Brown’s health issues could potentially derail his career even further.

Alex Boone, G: What happened to Boone this season? After eight years of generally solid blocking at guard, he fell off a cliff in 2017, allowing 7 sacks and grading out poorly with PFF at just a 39.5, the lowest in his career. Boone has had to sign back-to-back one-year deals with the Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings, so that may be where his career is headed.

Team needs

QB: In addition to Palmer’s retirement, his two substitutes, Stanton and Gabbert, are both free agents, as is Matt Barkley. They literally have no QBs under contract for 2018. That has to change quickly.

G: Boone and Earl Watford will be free agents, and neither was particularly good at guard in 2017. Mike Iupati also struggled before going down with an injury.

CB: Williams and Justin Bethel, a key backup and special teamer, are hitting free agency, which would leave the cornerbacks group extremely thin.

WR: Despite his age, Larry Fitzgerald has continued to play on a high level at wideout. However, he’s liable to retire any day now, and the rest of the position has been uneven. Both John and Jaron Brown are free agents as well. The new QB will need a ton of weapons to throw to.

OLB: Chandler Jones is great, of course, but the other edge rusher spot has rotated between a number of players. One of them, Kareem Martin, is a free agent. Consistency will be key in finding the right guy.

T: Believe it or not, D.J. Humphries wasn’t half bad at left tackle during the five games he was able to play in this year, which is especially impressive considering that he was playing hurt. Still, Jared Veldheer has taken a major step back as a blocker, and both John Wetzel and Will Holden were underwhelming replacements. If the Cardinals aren’t comfortable with taking a QB in the first round, maybe they’ll upgrade here.

TE: While the only free agent at tight end for the Cardinals is Troy Niklas, they should think about investing in the future at the position, considering Jermaine Gresham‘s age and injury history.

LS: Long snapper Aaron Brewer is a free agent.

Best player/building block

Chandler Jones, OLB: When you lead the league in sacks, you must be doing something right. Jones was a very good player for the New England Patriots during his first four seasons. However, since getting traded to the Cardinals in 2016, he’s stepped his game up big time. In addition to the 17 sacks, Jones also had 59 total tackles and forced 2 fumbles. They have him locked up through 2021.

Underappreciated player

Tramon Williams, CB: To add on to the above praise of Williams, PFF gave him an 88.8 grade, 9th best among all corners. In just 9 starts, he surpassed Peterson, the Pro Bowler, in pass breakups, interceptions and touchdowns allowed. The Cardinals definitely need to keep him around for at least another season.

 

AFC East: New York JetsMiami Dolphins

AFC North: Cleveland BrownsCincinnati Bengals

AFC South: Indianapolis ColtsHouston Texans

AFC West: Denver BroncosOakland Raiders

NFC East: New York GiantsWashington Redskins

NFC North: Chicago Bears; Green Bay Packers

NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFC West: San Francisco 49ers

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