The 2022 NFL offseason is now underway and free agency promises to be beyond intriguing.
The Arizona Cardinals, having qualified for the playoff for the first time since 2015, are already busy. Earlier this week, the team re-signed its starting tight end and running back in Zach Ertz and James Conner, respectively. However, the Cards also suffered a pair of crucial departures on Monday, when Christian Kirk and Chase Edmonds joined the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Miami Dolphins. In addition, outside linebacker Jordan Hicks was shown the front door as he was released.
The Steve Keim-led front office has some tough work ahead, with salary-cap restrictions not doing them any favors. As of writing, the Cardinals have a little more than $9.8 million available. Crucial 2021 names such as A.J. Green and Chandler Jones have not been re-signed yet while the team’s weaknesses have not magically disappeared either.
Here is who the Cardinals should target to make the inaugural step towards remaining within striking distance of a postseason berth in 2022.
Will Fuller, Wide Receiver
The wide receiver spot has been amongst the biggest focuses of the Cardinals organization for the past two offseasons. Firstly, the team traded for star Texans pass-catcher DeAndre Hopkins in 2020. Although the price they paid for his services was not dramatic, it was, in a way, a gamble. Despite that, Hopkins, by virtue of his strong performance thus far, has justified the move made by Steve Keim’s front office.
Then, the 2015 NFC Championship runner-up brought in former longtime Bengal A.J. Green on a one-year deal which was immensely important. With Hopkins absent for more than half of the campaign, Green and Christian Kirk, as well as QB Kyler Murray, confidently led an Arizona air raid which was the fourth-most productive (yards/attempt) and the most efficient (completion percentage) in the NFL.
This March, two of the former Oklahoma prospect’s favorite weapons are set to leave in free agency. Green is expected to hit the market come Wednesday when the period officially opens. In the meantime, Kirk already guaranteed himself a four-year contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars worth about $18 million per year.
Given the unpleasant state of the team’s running unit, even with the return of James Connor, keeping the air-attack ship afloat should be a top priority. This potential task requires also addressing a hole that has opened up in the offensive line but that is a matter of a different discussion.
The Cards have thus far lost one pass-catcher in the intermediate game (Kirk, 12.8 yards/rec) and one in the downfield passing game (Green, 15.7 yards/rec). Their best remaining weapon, Hopkins, averaged 13.6 in seven starts last year and 12.2 across a complete 2020 campaign. DeAndre, as showcased two years ago, can handle a heavy workload while the deep-threat game is virtually inexistent. Rondale Moore, the last reliable threat, is even more dedicated to short distances, with a per-reception average of 8.1 in 2021.
Therefore, the long-threat position seems like a bigger shortcoming and one person, suitable for ARI’s cap space, stands out on the market. The answer to this issue could be Will Fuller, who spent 2021 with the Dolphins and was a teammate of Hopkins’ in Houston. Fuller was not consistently remaining on the field last year but his consistency in the seasons that preceded 2021 was impressive. Fuller’s last two campaigns with a yard/rec figure over 15.0 were 2020 and 2018. In these two campaigns, he was targeted 45 and 75 times respectively and had a catch percentage north of 70.0% on both occasions. In the year in-between, he registered similar accolades but in a more intermediate role (13.7 yards/reception).
Fuller made $10 million in his lone year as a Dolphin. His asking price can be expected to remain in the $13 million-$15 million range this spring. At the same time, his efficiency is incredible considering the distances at which he has been targeted in the last three seasons.
James Daniels, Guard
Another notable exit from Arizona’s offensive is the departure of starting guard Max Garcia. Garcia started eleven games in an injury-ridden 2021 campaign after spending the previous two years as a backup.
The 30-year-old has played for the Cardinals on one-year deals in each of the last three seasons, each worth less than $1.5 million. Therefore, re-signing the former Broncos starter again is not off the table. However, Arizona does not just need to fill a hole – they need an improvement over the levels of their O-Line last winter. Cards linemen combined to allow 39 sacks, 15th-most in the league.
With the rest of the line back intact and its stability being below-average, the move at this position should resemble the aforementioned upgrade.
As already mentioned, the Cardinals might not have enough salary-cap space to add high-profile names to their roster. Yet, there certainly are multiple underpriced assets at this post that may have the potential to push Arizona higher on the offensive hierarchy within the NFL.
James Daniels is an example of such a free agent. Daniels, a 24-year-old 2018 Bears second-rounder, has been a wildly valuable contributor ever since entering the pro ranks with Chicago. Apart from an injury-rich 2020 season, James Daniels has only missed six career starts, posting four straight campaigns with a grade of at least 60.0, including a career-high of 71.0 last winter, according to Pro Football Focus. Furthermore, Daniels has allowed just three sacks in the past two years.
These numbers might look like figures of a player who could earn north of $10 million a year. Yet, Spotrac’s algorithm thinks differently. The popular transaction-centered sports website projects James Daniels to earn an average of $7.3 million per season, possibly on a four-year deal.
Adding a guard of Daniels" caliber would be a bargain for Keim and his staff. Moreover, with a few additional roster cuts, the Cardinals will have little problem signing the former Iowa product and still addressing their other needs.
D.J. Jones, Defensive Tackle
Finally, Arizona’s struggles when facing the opposing run have been noticeable. In 2021, the team’s front defensive line allowed an average of 4.6 yards per carry. This was tied for the fifth-highest mark in the entire NFL.
Similar to the offensive line, the upcoming offseason provides a fitting opportunity to fill in a hole and, at the same time, fix one of the team’s weaknesses. However, that can likely only happen to a limited extent.
As mentioned, the Cardinals will have trouble completely turning this unit around because of their financial limitations, as well as the FA class itself. Yet, upon further review, there looks to be enough talent on the market to satisfy the Cards’ needs and desires. If Arizona’s biggest defensive headache is replacing DT Corey Peters and stabilizing the group, at a low price at that, D.J. Jones might prove to be the most suitable medication.
Jones spent his first five NFL campaigns with the 49ers, particularly breaking out in the latter two. The 2017 sixth-round pick has started 31 of 33 games since the beginning of the 2020 season. In that span, the East Mississippi Community College alum took part in about half of his team’s defensive snaps and earned PFF grades of 61.3 in 2020 and 71.8 in 2021.
The sixth-year defensive tackle would need to up his game even more if he wants to maintain his previous levels of efficiency over a heavier workload. Yet, D.J. Jones seems to provide the best value for his potential cheap price (he earned $3.5 million last year).
In addition, the Cardinals might want to allocate more resources to their offensive holes, which are undoubtedly more urgent. Besides an abysmal run defense, Arizona’s defense is, all in all, fairly decent. Last year, its secondary ranked in the top half of the league. Meanwhile, the Cards’ pass-rush enjoyed similar success. At the same time, the O-Line and the receiving corps represent the cornerstone of the offense, especially if Kliff Kingsbury plans on running the ground game through the unconvincing Conner.
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