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The Clock Is Ticking in Arizona, So the Cardinals Went Into Win-Now Mode

Signings like JJ Watt and A.J. Green have given Arizona’s free agency a retro feel

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Oftentimes, NFL roster-building resembles attempts to answer proofs in a precalculus class, with league executives trying to solve the same problem: Build a Super Bowl–caliber roster. This is the time of year—more than any other—when they have to show their work. The two fundamental requirements remain the same for every team: Get a starting-caliber quarterback and field a good defense. But methods of achieving the ultimate goal may vary. The Arizona Cardinals are having a moment at the whiteboard. They already solved the most elusive part of the NFL’s winning equation by unearthing a franchise quarterback in Kyler Murray, a proven difference-maker. Great. Now comes the hard part.

Nearly two years ago, the Cardinals drafted Murray, pairing him with former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Expectations have often far outpaced Arizona’s performance, and the second half of 2020 exposed the shortcomings—namely Kingsbury’s and Murray’s—that prevented the Cardinals from becoming a genuine playoff threat. But Arizona is intent on accelerating its timeline. Murray is entering the final two years of his rookie deal, meaning time to build a talented roster around a signal-caller on a cheap rookie contract is running out. The Cardinals’ free-agency efforts are the latest test case of a team-building project in which a budding franchise attempts to construct a championship roster without getting in its own way. It’s going as well as a high schooler’s bouts with logarithms, with moments when it seems to be coming together, but there are still too many missing variables. It’s hard to assess whether Arizona is a winner or loser of free agency so far, but the strategy seems clear: The Cardinals aim to prioritize high-impact veterans whose best days might be behind them while protecting Murray at the line of scrimmage.

According to Over the Cap, Arizona had $11.2 million in cap space after signing defensive end JJ Watt. The Cardinals entered Wednesday with $4 million in cap space available. Here’s a list of the major moves they’ve made so far:

  • DL JJ Watt signed a two-year, $31 million deal ($23 million guaranteed)
  • CB Robert Alford released; re-signs on a one-year, $990,000 contract
  • LB Markus Golden re-signs on a two-year, $5 million deal ($2.5 million guaranteed)
  • OT Kelvin Beachum re-signs on a two-year, $4 million deal ($3.1 million guaranteed)
  • WR A.J. Green signs a one-year, $6 million deal ($6 million guaranteed)
  • Acquire C Rodney Hudson and 2021 seventh-round pick from Raiders in exchange for third-round pick
  • K Matt Prater signs a two-year, $6.5 million deal ($3.8 million guaranteed)
  • OG Brian Winters signs a one-year contract
  • OG Max Garcia re-signs on a one-year contract

Let’s start with the offense, where inconsistent interior offensive line play and growing pains for both Murray and Kingsbury upended Arizona’s early success last season. Re-signing Beachum to man right tackle opposite left tackle D.J. Humphries was a fine decision, considering the cost. The more noteworthy investment came when the Cardinals acquired center Rodney Hudson—one of the top players at his position—in exchange for only a third-round pick. That’s a phenomenal pickup, akin to Arizona’s theft of receiver DeAndre Hopkins from the Texans last offseason.

Hudson could prove to be a significant acquisition when considering the domino effect he could have on the rest of the interior. He’s a massive upgrade from Arizona’s past combo of Mason Cole and Lamont Gaillard at center. Veteran left guard Justin Pugh—who restructured his contract to return—was tied for the most penalties committed among offensive guards last season (nine, including four holding calls, per Football Database). Hudson’s presence should help alleviate the stress that the interior line felt down the stretch last season when Arizona had to rotate players to keep starters fresh. Right guard is still a question mark after J.R. Sweezy entered free agency, though veteran acquisition Brian Winters could compete with Josh Jones, a 2020 third-round pick whose natural position is tackle; OL coach Sean Kugler has touted Jones for his positional flexibility. Backup guard Max Garcia also offers depth behind Winters and Jones. Having a sturdy offensive line is key for the NFL’s best offenses to thrive, and Arizona has assembled a good-looking cast. But what about the flashier positions? The Cardinals lost veteran tailback Kenyan Drake to free agency but will return Chase Edmonds, who was the more effective of the pair last season. The bigger focus is on Arizona’s receivers.

After the Cardinals drafted Murray in 2019, they stockpiled rookie wideouts with the hopes they’d develop alongside him and selected second-rounder Andy Isabella, fourth-rounder Hakeem Butler, and sixth-rounder KeeSean Johnson. Isabella and Johnson have not logged more than 25 receptions in a single season, while Butler was cut after sitting out his rookie year with a broken hand and now plays tight end for the Eagles. Last year, the Cardinals invested in Hopkins, who perhaps surpassed expectations and tallied 115 catches for 1,407 yards and six scores. But Hopkins’s X receiver role limited him to almost exclusively lining up on the left side of Arizona’s formations. Without any big threats opposite him, the Cardinals’ passing game stagnated at times. Christian Kirk flashed promise in his third year but didn’t stay healthy for the full campaign; Larry Fitzgerald—who still hasn’t decided on retirement—posted career lows across the board in his 17th year. Tight end Dan Arnold, who caught 31 passes last year, signed with the Panthers in free agency. It was very clear entering free agency that Arizona needed to upgrade its receiving corps.

Enter A.J. Green, who signed a one-year deal worth up to $8 million, including $6 million guaranteed. Green, 32, is coming off 47 catches, 523 yards, and two touchdowns in his final season with the Bengals. He’s clearly on the tail end of his career. And while he sprinkled three decent games down the stretch of 2020, it’s an unlikely bet he’ll warrant consistent double-teams in coverage, if any at all. Green, who’s battled his fair share of injuries in recent years, will slide into the Z role opposite Hopkins, but the signing was still odd, especially when there were (and still are) younger and better options on the receiver market, such as former Cardinals speedster John “Smoke” Brown, whom the Raiders signed to a one-year, $3.8 million deal not long after Green’s deal was reported. Green has a cap hit of only $3.5 million this season, which makes much more sense, and his contract includes two voidable years. Furthermore, adding a veteran presence in Green is sagacious for two reasons: his consistency catching in traffic (Green secured 19 contested catches last season, the NFL’s third most, per PFF) and his experience. Should the Cardinals decide to draft a new young receiving option for Murray in another deep wideout class, that player will be able to study under Green and Hopkins, two of the game’s best pass catchers in the past decade. Arizona is picking 16th overall and likely out of range for one of the draft’s premier receiving options in LSU wideout Ja’Marr Chase and Florida tight end Kyle Pitts. The Ringer’s Danny Kelly projects the Cardinals to select Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle in his latest mock draft. However, it’s not a guarantee Waddle (Kelly’s no. 13 overall prospect) nor his former teammate and Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith (no. 9 overall prospect, projected to fall to the Bears at 20th overall) will be available. It would be risky for Arizona to expect to find a serviceable pass catcher in the draft.

One week into free agency, the Cardinals’ plan for surrounding Murray with dynamic outside playmakers hasn’t come to fruition yet. Even as Murray’s legs and high-charged arm can mask deficiencies, the ceiling for the offense’s production is lowered. Arizona’s moves have suggested urgency to win immediately, increasing the pressure for Kingsbury to raise the Cardinals’ level of play. He’s yet to firmly prove himself as the coach who can push them into the playoffs. Attaining star power alongside Murray could help Kingsbury further grow into his role; without top players, his task will be tougher.

Watt’s signing was as much about opportunity as it was about the Cardinals’ long-term strategic approach to their defense. He hit the market, and they pushed hardest to get him. Watt said he texted Murray that he joined Arizona because he believes in the former Heisman Trophy winner. “I’ve always said in this league, you have to have a quarterback to have a chance,” Watt said in his introductory press conference. “And there’s a young, extremely talented quarterback here who can do big things and is going from Year 2 to Year 3, and can take an even bigger jump to continue to grow and progress and be even better.”

Watt joined the Cardinals after leaving Houston and an organization that had similarly found a franchise quarterback in Deshaun Watson but botched nearly everything else ahead of Watt’s departure. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is a worthwhile addition to defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s unit. The departure of pass rusher Haason Reddick and cornerback Patrick Peterson leaves holes, but none that are too big to fill. Arizona re-signed pass rusher Markus Golden, who’s coming off a 4.5-sack campaign in which he generated 55 total pressures, tied for 19th most last year, per PFF. Similar to the receiver free-agent market, cornerbacks haven’t seen as much action signing new deals—instead, several starting-caliber defensive backs have hit the open market, mostly as cap casualties. The Cardinals re-signed cornerback Robert Alford to a league-minimum deal after briefly letting him go, but there’s still potential to continue building the defensive backfield.

The jury remains out on just how much the defense has improved. Perhaps that depends squarely on the health and play of Watt, but it won’t be clear unless Arizona makes more strong veteran additions or identifies young talent in the draft. Where general manager Steve Keim has been particularly impressive, however, is in how he’s managed to nimbly acquire talent on cheap deals by manipulating the bit of cap space available to him.

According to PFF’s Kevin Cole, the Cardinals entered Wednesday as the league’s fourth-most improved team, based on the outlet’s Improvement Index, which is a percentage improvement of PFF wins above replacement this offseason. The past decade served as another reminder that spending the most during free agency does not guarantee a winning season or a Super Bowl.

The Cardinals have made attempts at improving the talent on their roster, but have arguably overcommitted to older, injury-hampered players who are likely to not live up to their deals. Perhaps they do live up to their deals—then what? Per Spotrac, the Cardinals have the seventh-oldest roster (26.85). In attempting to maximize its current window with Murray, Arizona is betting on former stars finding the Fountain of Youth. It’s not the best method, but at least the star QB is in tow. The Cardinals are navigating a space between an urgent, win-now mentality in the short term while still preserving financial flexibility beyond it. If their current aggression doesn’t pan out, then in two years, when Murray is due for an extension, they’re projected by Over the Cap to have the sixth-most effective cap space of any team. They’ll be able to make another aggressive push down the road. So it might not be clear if Arizona has solved the all-important question of whether or not it’s built a Super Bowl–caliber squad just yet. There’s still plenty of time.