It's impossible to overstate the importance of the upcoming season for the Arizona Cardinals. It truly feels like a do-or-die campaign and both general manager Steve Keim and head coach Kliff Kingsbury may be held responsible if the 2022 Cardinals collapse in an unfortunate, recognizable fashion. Arizona began the season in haunting form by reigning victorious in their first seven contests. The Cardinals began 10-2 overall but lost four of their last five, including a pair of unacceptable defeats to the lowly Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks. The Cardinals were then blown out 34-11 in the wild-card round by their division rival Los Angeles Rams, bringing an all too familiar disappointing end to the season. The Cardinals must begin laying down the building blocks for sustained success in the upcoming free agency period. It won't qualify as a particularly easy task. The Cardinals currently possess just $2.7 million in cap space, via Spotrac. They're also set to see several high-level players reach the end of their contracts once the new league year commences, including Chandler Jones, Christian Kirk, Chase Edmonds, A.J. Green, James Conner, Zach Ertz, and Maxx Williams, to name a few. We don't envy Keim and Kligsbury as they attempt to navigate through these difficulties. With cap, team needs, pending free agents, and draft selections all put into consideration, here are three offensive and defensive free agents Arizona could target when the signing period begins on March 14.
MELVIN GORDON, RB, DENVER BRONCOSWith both Conner and Edmonds currently set to reach free agency, Arizona's running back room will likely look slightly different in 2022. Conner experienced an excellent bounce-back campaign in Kingsbury's rotated backfield by scoring a staggering 15 touchdowns. Indianapolis' Jonathan Taylor was the only running back to make more visits to the end zone (18). Conner is now due a substantial raise in pay after earning just $1.7 million on a one-year "prove-it" deal in 2021. Conner undeniably does his best work as a power back in goal-line situations, and Keim should prioritize re-signing younger and more versatile Edmonds. Conner's potential departure would force Arizona's hand to sign another running back to pair with Edmonds, who lacks the size and durability to serve as a legitimate three-down bell-cow. The Denver Broncos will almost certainly move on from Melvin Gordon this offseason as they prepare to hand the reins over to sophomore runner Javonte Williams. Gordon is best utilized as a rotational back at this point in his career, and Arizona projects as a beautiful landing spot.
ANDREW NORWELL, OG, JACKSONVILLE JAGUARSThe Cardinals should look to upgrade the interior of their offensive line this offseason. Justin Pugh and Rodney Hudson have been inconsistent at left guard and center, and starting right guard Max Garcia is a free agent. Garcia was particularly ineffective in 2021, and Arizona should look to upgrade the right side of their offensive line. Arizona will have to be somewhat frugal given their cap situation, and signing a free-agent guard that would command $10-plus million annually is likely out of the realm of possibility. Veteran guard Andrew Norvell should come in several million under that figure while falling right into Arizona's comfort zone. Norvell played for the Jaguars in 2021 and the regime and scheme change in Jacksonville likely means he'll be free to test the market and play elsewhere next season. The 30-year-old Norvell is an expert pass protector, which could fit nicely into Arizona's ongoing plans to operate as a high-octane, spread passing offense. Norvell would immediately make the interior of Arizona's offensive line a better unit.
JAMISON CROWDER, WR, NEW YORK JETSChristian Kirk will see his contract expire next month and it's fair to question if Arizona can afford to pay what he'll surely command. Kirk is an expert slot receiver that should land north of $10 million annually. Kirk's ability to stretch the field vertically from the slot is an in-demand trait that's becoming more and more popular in today's pass-happy league. Kirk's impending departure could mean that Kingsbury and Keim search for an alternative option from the slot. Second-round sophomore Rondale Moore is waiting on the wings, as the Cardinals likely foresaw Kirk's upcoming departure when they drafted Moore. Moore is still a young player that must prove he can handle an every-down role in Arizona's passing attack. A shrewd veteran addition would be wise for competition purposes. Jamison Crowder more than fits the bill. While he lacks the field-stretching ability Kirk possesses, his uncanny ability to consistently win underneath would give Murray another option while diversifying their current crop of receivers. Crowder has been effective despite receiving below-average quarterback play for the majority of his professional career. Linking with Murray in Arizona would be a great move for all parties involved.
CHRIS HARRIS JR., CB, LOS ANGELES CHARGERSThe Cardinals desperately need cornerbacks. Plural. Robert Alford served as Arizona's only consistent cornerback and they further struggled when he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 14. Alford's injury paired with Malcolm Butler's surprise retirement thrust rookie cornerback Marco Wilson into a starring role prematurely. Third-year cornerback Byron Murphy also struggled throughout 2021, and the Cardinals can't bank on Wilson and/or Murphy to play a better, more consistent brand of football going forward. Addressing the secondary should be Arizona's biggest priority defensively. Veteran Chris Harris Jr. is set to become a free agent, which represents an excellent opportunity for the long-time playmaker to reunite with Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph in Arizona. Joseph spent two seasons as Harris' head coach in Denver and Harris departed the Broncos following Joseph's firing. Current Cardinals cornerbacks coach Greg Williams followed Joseph to Arizona after previously serving as Harris' position coach in Denver. The Cardinals need cornerbacks, and Harris knows the system. This pairing makes so much sense on the surface.
LORENZO CARTER, EDGE, NEW YORK GIANTSJones is set to depart the Cardinals this offseason. Arizona has consistently refused to award Jones with the long-term, lucrative contract he clearly deserves. Jones has been an extremely effective pass rusher throughout his time with the Cardinals, recording an astounding 71.5 sacks in 84 career games as a Cardinal—including 17-and-19-sack seasons. Appropriately replacing Jones via free agency is going to be an impossible task, and Keim will likely search for a high-upside, ascending cost-effective player to pair with a draft pick or two. New York Giants outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter is a highly athletic defender that has experience playing in Joseph's preferred 3-4 tendencies. Carter has yet to develop into the sack artist he's capable of becoming, but he possesses an exciting all-around skill set that serves him well in coverage and as a run defender. The sky remains the limit for the 26-year-old Carter, who was among the best testers in the 40-yard dash (4.46) and broad jump (10'10") at the 2018 combine. Carter alone won't be the solution, but he could play a sizable role as the Cardinals prepare for life post-Jones.
DEMARCUS WALKER, DE, HOUSTON TEXANSKeim, Kingsbury, and Joseph are going to have to fill out their defensive line with some quality rotational players. Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips will almost surely be released this offseason as the Cardinals explore in-house opportunities to create additional cap space. Injuries have hindered Phillips' ability to live up to the extremely lucrative three-year, $30 million contract he signed in 2020. Corey Peters and Jack Crawford are a pair of veterans that are on expiring contracts, and neither player is guaranteed to return. J.J. Watt and Zach Allen are going to have some new running mates in 2022. Demarcus Walker is a capable defensive end that has plenty of experience in the system. The former Florida State standout has failed to live up to his second-round draft billing but has settled in as a worthy rotational lineman. Walker played the first two seasons of his professional career for Cardinals defensive coordinator Joseph in Denver and has since then developed nicely. Walker has recorded 10.5 sacks in his last three seasons and reuniting with Joseph and several other coaches that were a part of the same staff in Denver during Walker's debut seasons makes sense.
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