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The No. 3 Pick Could Swing the NFL Draft. What Should the Cardinals Do With It?

Arizona has plenty of options to consider: Use the pick, trade it to one of the many teams who are interested in it, or do something even more drastic. And what the Cardinals ultimately decide could determine how the first round shakes out.

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Just 18 months ago, the Arizona Cardinals were on top of the NFL world. They neared the midpoint of the 2021 season as the league’s lone undefeated team, sitting at 7-0 and possessing the NFL’s best point differential. Kyler Murray was playing at an MVP level, Kliff Kingsbury finally had his Air Raid offense working, and the defense ranked second in expected points allowed.

Those were good times in Arizona, but a lot has changed since then. For starters, the Cardinals lost seven of 11 games to finish that season. Then came Murray’s awkward contract negotiations, which may have set an unofficial record for the worst vibes in NFL history. Murray eventually signed a five-year, $230.5 million extension, but he got hurt (again) last season, and the Cardinals finished 4-13. That led to a deluge of retirements and trade requests from the team’s best players—including J.J. Watt, Budda Baker, and DeAndre Hopkins—the firing of Kingsbury, and the resignation of general manager Steve Keim. All of these departures seemed like belated efforts to get off a ship that has been sinking for a while now.

Every key contributor from the 2021 team has either left, been looking for a way out, or had some type of beef with management. It’s not great. But as Arizona learned, things change in a hurry in the NFL—even sometimes for the better. And with the third overall pick in the upcoming draft, the Cardinals have a bargaining chip that should accelerate their rebuilding process—if they use it correctly.

Exactly how they’ll use it, though, remains to be seen, and their decision will not only set the course for the franchise, but also the rest of the draft. The Panthers will likely use the first pick on a quarterback, and the Texans could do the same at no. 2. That’s where things get interesting. Six teams have reportedly contacted the Cardinals about trading up for the third pick. Presumably, those teams would be in the market for a quarterback as well. But will Arizona decide to stay put and draft the top non-quarterback available? Will the team entertain a bidding war to move back? And how far back should it be willing to go with all its roster needs?

This decision is a big one. It’s not a stretch to say the Cardinals hold the keys to the first round of the 2023 draft. So let’s go over all of their options and try to figure out Arizona’s best course of action.

Option 1: Draft Will Anderson Jr.

This is the simplest of Arizona’s options. There would be no trade to work out, and the Alabama edge rusher is clearly the best available player in this year’s class given Jalen Carter’s off-field concerns and his less-than-inspiring pro day workout.

Drafting a defensive player at no. 3 may not be the sexiest use of the pick—and it won’t help the team sell tickets either—but it could be the safest. Anderson has the frame and athleticism to play in any scheme, whether it’s a one-gap defense that asks its players to attack as soon as the ball is snapped or more of a two-gap scheme that requires them to read out the play before attacking their assignment. In Jonathan Gannon’s defense, Anderson would be asked to do a little bit of both, and it’s easy to envision him in the role that Haason Reddick occupied so well last season, when he racked up 16 sacks for the Eagles.

There’s no such thing as a sure thing in the NFL draft, but Anderson is awfully close. He may not be the franchise-altering player Arizona fans are hoping for, but he would be a solid addition to a Cardinals team that’s in desperate need of talent.

Option 2: A Small Trade Down

That desperation is exactly why this option appears to be the most likely—and most sensible—one. Take a look at Arizona’s defensive depth chart. There isn’t one glaring area of need—there are a bunch of them. The Cardinals could use an upgrade at almost every position, and if Baker’s trade request is granted, we would no longer need the “almost” there. Arizona needs talent, and the draft is a cheap source for it. Gathering as many picks as possible should be the goal here.

The next step is navigating the bidding war. At least six teams are reportedly interested in the pick, so the Cardinals should have plenty of options. But their return will depend on how far down the board they’re willing to slide. If first-year general manager Monti Ossenfort wants to stay in the top 10, he should be able to negotiate a deal with one of the several quarterback-needy teams right behind the Cardinals in the pecking order. Teams like the Colts, Raiders, and Falcons may not be willing to pay a huge price just to move up a few spots. But Arizona already owns four picks in the top 100, so it may be looking for quality over quantity—like a 2024 first-rounder rather than a haul of second- and third-round picks in this year’s draft—in which case, a small trade down would make more sense.

Of course, that price could go up with increased interest, which is probably why that report about the six teams leaked when it did. If the Texans trade the second pick, which now looks like a possibility, that could derail Arizona’s efforts—especially if Houston makes its deal first. Letting the bidding war run its course would typically make sense, but in this case, the Cardinals may have to expedite the process to beat the Texans to the punch.

If Houston does trade down before Arizona can make a move and that scares off other possible partners who have picks in the top 10, the next option would make the most sense:

Option 3: A Big Trade Down

Trading out of the top 10 would reduce the chances of the Cardinals drafting a blue-chip prospect, but this option would give them the best shot at finding multiple contributors. It would also make draft night a little more interesting, as it would signal a dramatic, quarterback-seeking move from a team that isn’t currently linked to any of the top prospects.

NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said the Titans are one of the teams that have contacted Arizona about a possible trade; and their new general manager, Ran Carthon, was a part of the 49ers front office that traded up from the no. 12 pick in 2021 to draft Trey Lance third. San Francisco had to give up three first-rounders and a third-rounder to make that happen, and in theory, Tennessee (which currently owns the no. 11 pick) would have to pay a similar price. But the league doesn’t seem to be as high on this year’s class of quarterbacks, so Arizona getting a comparable haul is probably a stretch. Picking up an extra first-rounder along with a second-round pick or two seems reasonable.

Tennessee isn’t the only team outside of the top 10 that could be interested in making a deal, though. Bill Belichick reportedly shopped Mac Jones this offseason, which suggests that the Patriots are in the market for a quarterback. Washington currently has Sam Howell penciled in as its starting quarterback and could certainly use an upgrade. Tampa Bay owns the no. 19 pick, and general manager Jason Licht said he’d be willing to take a quarterback. Whether he’d be willing to trade up to do it is another matter.

Regardless, Arizona shouldn’t have a problem finding a trade partner—or maybe even two. There is a scenario in which the Cardinals combine Options 2 and 3 and make multiple trades down the draft board. We’ve seen smart teams, like Baltimore and Philadelphia, make similar moves in recent years.

Those teams covet draft picks more than others, though, and we don’t really know Ossenfort’s view on the value of picks just yet. But what he decides to do this month will tell us a lot about how he plans to rebuild the Cardinals. And it will also be his first big test as a general manager—one that will have the attention of the entire football world. No pressure.