The Arizona Cardinals came into the 2013 NFL Draft with a new general manager (Steve Keim), a new head coach (Bruce Arians), but the same problems they have been dealing with the past few years. Keim and Arians had to find a way to build an offense that had a putrid offensive line, no quarterback to speak of, and one of the worst running games in the league. The defense was built on the strength of their defensive line but could use some help at both the second and third levels. The Cardinals were not going to be able to address all of their problems and they all but confirmed that when they made the deal to bring in Carson Palmer from the Oakland Raiders to be their starting quarterback. That move has been one that drawn scrutiny and will be heavily discussed throughout the year, but Keim did his best to build an offensive line, something that has been an abomination for years and did his best to establish a running game while adding some pieces to the defense that could make an impact early.
There was a great deal of talk that the Cardinals would have loved to have had the opportunity to grab one of the big three tackles if one was available as well as a team that was disappointed that Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan opted to return to college for another year. With those tackles off the board, the Cardinals still made a significant investment in the offensive line by selecting Jonathan Cooper, guard from North Carolina. For as nice as it would have been to bring in a franchise tackle for this team, their situation at guard was arguably even worse. They could not run or pass block and acted as a sieve the past couple years, opting to make free agent and late round additions to try to plug the hole, but refused to make a significant investment on the offensive line at all in the draft, let alone guard. As much as this was an upgrade to the position and the offensive line in general, this was a statement by the new front office about their attitude towards building from the inside out. It is a shame former general manager Rod Graves never bought into this approach considering how good the defense was behind a dominant defensive line.
One of the debates and storylines worth following in this year’s draft was which guard would go first; Cooper or Alabama’s Chance Warmack. Warmack was the pure, power phone booth type guard that operated like a bulldozer in playing a significant role in the Tide’s championship this past year. North Carolina was not as good under first year head coach Larry Fedora and did not have the amount of air time so while Cooper was a talented player, he was not getting the buzz during the year. After the season, when people started delving into the tape, Cooper’s stock rose quickly because of his technique, athleticism, and effectiveness. Warmack was a power guy while Cooper was by no means weak, but not as powerful and was a guy who could move, pull, and play the center position as well. Cooper also ended up working out better which might have operated as a tie breaker if the two were ranked evenly.
Cooper immediately steps in as the starting left guard and he will be expected to come in and protect Palmer as well as help them create some badly needed holes in the running game. With Levi Brown being brought back as a serviceable stopgap, the left side of the line looks promising, but Brown has got to stay healthy or it could be a struggle with Cooper, even as talented as he is, with a weak link at left tackle next to him. The expectations will be high for Cooper and he has the talent to be a franchise guard and even more. The only hiccup with this type of pick is that Cooper cannot merely be good, he has to be great to warrant the pick, but he certainly has the talent to do it. There will be a little back and forth with regards to Cooper and Warmack on their respective teams and who is better; for the Cardinals and Titans, the hope is that both guys will be great and the argument is to who is the greater player.
The Cardinals traded down to gain an extra fourth round pick in a deal with the Chargers and then picked Kevin Minter, inside linebacker from LSU. This is an interesting pick from a couple angles. First, the Cardinals have a great inside linebacker in Daryl Washington, who has unfortunately run into a suspension and off field issues that piled up quickly. They also signed Jasper Brinkley to play the strong inside linebacker spot as a thumping run stopper. Minter is better equipped to play in Washington’s spot, but could play in either spot if needed as well as being able to play on passing downs. They also brought back Karlos Dansby after a stint with the Miami Dolphins, so they have a nice group of linebackers and the question is how they want to use them all, especially when Washington comes back. It would appear as though the Cardinals would want Washington and Minter to ultimately be the set of inside backers when all is said and done, but perhaps they want to move someone to a different position. It is a nice rotation all of a sudden bringing in three talented linebackers in one offseason.
The other interesting aspect of this is the deal that was made with the Chargers was so they could select an inside linebacker themselves in Manti Te’o from Notre Dame. It will be interesting to see who is ultimately the better linebacker between the two and if the fourth round pick makes the difference. While Te’o is basically penciled in as the starter, it appears as though Minter is going to have to fight to earn his spot in the Cardinals defense.
In the third round, the Cardinals made a controversial pick when they selected Tyrann Mathieu, corner from LSU. Mathieu’s talent and instincts for the game are incredible but being weighed against his issues off the field that resulted in him being kicked off of the LSU football team as well as his size for the NFL as he is only 5’9” 186lbs. The Cardinals selected Mathieu with the intention of playing him at free safety and based on what is on their roster, would probably like him to start immediately. Currently, their projected starter is 35 year old Yeremiah Bell.
Mathieu’s incredible instincts and knack for play making suggest he would be better served playing as a nickel and he will have to prove his size will not be a problem as a free safety, both in terms of being able to make tackles but more so in terms of being able to compete for jump balls down the field. The Cardinals have a talented set of corners in place but have questions at safety, so if Mathieu can be effective, it could provide a big boost to their team.
The Cardinals have done their best to insulate themselves against the risk of taking Mathieu and making it so he has a great deal to lose if he runs into more problems with marijuana in the pros and believe having players like Patrick Peterson and Minter could help keep him on track. That is a little risky as it could force them to be babysitting Mathieu which goes beyond the scope of being a football player and has the chance of negatively impacting their play. And ultimately, all the precautions in the world will not matter if Mathieu flops due to poor play or off field issues, regardless of the money, and it would represent the loss of a valuable pick. Typically, when it comes to these types of situations, the player in question stays straight their rookie season and has great results, but the stumbling blocks come into play after the first year when the focus is not on them and they can fall back into bad habits. It is a risky move by the Cardinals but if he can have the impact he had for LSU, it could be a steal. And not only does Mathieu represent a player who can help their defense, but he has been a fantastic returner, especially on punts and he can add to his value by helping the Cardinals there if they would rather Peterson not do it, or not do it as often.
With their first pick in the fourth round, the Cardinals picked Texas defensive end Alex Okafor. Okafor played left end for the Longhorns across from Jackson Jeffcoat before a shoulder injury ended his season and while Okafor has substantial talent and potential, it did not always show up on the field. Okafor would dominate a game like he did against Oregon State in the Holiday Bowl, though Okafor did point out honestly that the Beavers never bothered to help their right tackle block him, so he was able to keep beating him from a wide-9 alignment. Okafor is going to transition to outside linebacker in the Cardinals 3-4 defense where he will compete for the starting job with Lorenzo Alexander and O’Brien Schofield to play opposite Sam Acho.
Okafor has tremendous athleticism and good range as a linebacker as well as the ability to rush off the edge. The fit is a good one here because Okafor’s biggest problem was that he struggles to shed blocks and works better when he can use his speed to gain an advantage as well as having the ability to fly around and make plays. He will still need to improve at how he takes on blocks, but he will be able to have a bigger impact as an outside linebacker on the strong side and if he can do a better job of beating blocks, he can be a tremendous player. One area that makes Okafor really stand out is how well he causes fumbles as a pass rusher. He has extremely long arms and in situations where he is being pushed by the play, he can stab his arm in and knock the ball out or he will simply go for the ball as he hits the quarterback; both are great attributes to bring to a team.
With the fourth round pick they picked up from the Chargers, the Cardinals traded down six spots with the New York Giants to grab an extra sixth round pick and then went back to the offensive line and picked up Earl Watford, guard from James Madison. Watford, along with Cooper represents the full overhaul of the guard position and the hope is that he can come in and win the starting job at right guard. Whether takes the job now or a year from now, it would give the Cardinals a nice nucleus of offensive linemen that can gel together as a group; Watford, Cooper, and the Cardinals right tackle from last year, Bobby Massie, are all just 23 years old.
Watford has the athleticism to move and pull as Cooper does but can also be an effective run blocker with a strong punch and a terrific motor with nonstop effort that will endear him to his teammates as well as his offensive line coach. In that respect, he and Cooper are quite similar. Watford needs to play lower and with better leverage consistently as well as continuing to add bulk and functional strength to be able to hold up against some of the talented defensive linemen that litter the NFC West. Watford has substantial potential in the NFL and could develop into a terrific player giving them a nice set of guards for the foreseeable future.
In the fifth round, the Cardinals picked up Stepfan Taylor, running back from Stanford. Taylor was a guy who was always great on the field but never stood out much in work outs. He played in an offense in Palo Alto that threw as many tight ends and fullbacks on the field as possible and dared teams to try and stop them. After having a good year in the shadow of Andrew Luck, Taylor stepped up as the feature guy in the Cardinal offense and was the work horse for the team. Taylor has been a power back with more agility and speed than he gets credit for as the next time he gets caught from behind in the open field will be the first. He is a terrific blocker in the passing game and uses it as an opportunity to punish opponents who come in and rush him. Taylor is also a better receiver than people realize as well although he did not do much outside of catching screens and dump off type passes for Stanford.
On tape and on the field, Taylor was a second round talent. He struggled in workouts but until the game is played on a track in underwear, the field wins out. Part of the reason people seem to dog him for his athleticism is the scheme Stanford runs. They play their line in tight splits in most situations and load up with big bodies to block so it makes it difficult to really get a head of steam going with speed. As a result, when he was able to get in the open field, he showed a better burst of speed and was difficult to grab from behind. Taylor was patient and reads blocks well, but he also takes pride in the amount of film study he puts in to read defensive tendencies and get a feel for how they are going to attack him, which helped him be a more effective runner.
The Cardinals have Ryan Williams, who is talented but has dealt with injuries and took a flyer on Rashard Mendenhell in what ended up being a free agent exchange between the Cardinals and Steelers as they signed former Cardinal first round pick Chris Wells. Arians was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh when the Steelers drafted Mendenhall and he had his best years, so he will try to get something out of him, but Taylor may have plenty of opportunities to beat him out in camp.
With their first pick in the sixth round, the Cardinals grabbed Ryan Swope, wide receiver from Texas A&M. There was a report that Swope came into the draft with a few concussions and the report from his camp was that he never missed any time as a result of one, which is not exactly a denial and given the league’s new found emphasis on concussions, that is precarious in addition to the fact that it is Swope’s livelihood and his life. Healthy and on the field, this is outright robbery by the Cardinals. Swope is a terrific receiving threat that can play on the outside or in the slot and has been extremely productive with three different Aggie quarterbacks; Jerrod Johnson, Ryan Tannehill, and most recently, Johnny Manziel.
Swope brings versatility to the Cardinals offense as they have Larry Fitzgerald setting the table but Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd as well. Fitzgerald and Floyd are more natural players on the outside and Roberts can play on the inside or outside as can Swope. Watching Swope, his game is similar to that of Victor Cruz in that he runs good routes, changes directions well, can make plays all over the field and is dangerous with the ball in his hands. Swope is also a guy who gives a great effort as a blocker and has a few pancakes on his resume. The only issue that Swope needs to really work to improve is his stance and release, which are both inefficient. Part of the reason that Swope’s 40 time was such a shock is that he put so much effort into his stance and release on the track, but he should take the same diligence to his stance on the field. He is inconsistent in how he stands and how he releases as there are times when he will take false steps and bounce out of his stance, which slows him down. If he can get more efficient out of his stance, he will play faster and take defenders by surprise trying to adjust to what he is doing. Swope also brings a ton of experience to the Cardinals and could make an impact early if he can battle his way onto the field in that talented group. The key here is that Swope simply stays healthy as in virtually every other aspect of the game, he is far, far more talented than the sixth round would suggest.
With the extra pick they grabbed from the Giants, the Cardinals picked up another talented player who fell in Andre Ellington, running back from Clemson. Like with Taylor, Ellington was another player who played far better than he worked out. In Ellington’s case, he was a home run hitter and a blazer on the field but performed poorly on the track at the Scouting Combine. Had either Taylor or Ellington gone several rounds earlier, no one would have blinked, but the Cardinals get both of them on day three of the draft. Ellington’s game is all about speed and hitting the hole as quickly as he can. There is something to be said for patience as a running back and there are times when Ellington will frustrate some with his style, but he is counting on the fact that if he gets the ball and runs as hard as he can, a few of those times, there is going to be a big hole there and he is going to explode out of the backfield and be at the second level of the defense before anyone notices with the ability to take it all the way. His style puts a lot of emphasis on having a strong offensive line which the Cardinals are trying to build, so Ellington can be a big play threat for the Cardinals to come in after their bigger, more powerful backs wear teams down. Part of what makes Ellington look so fast in the open field is he almost never runs laterally. He will make subtle cuts and weave in and out at times but he is always pushing down the field. Ellington is not a guy who stops and jump cuts or tries to run backward, but wants to push his way down the field as fast as possible, which he does quite well. He is also a better blocker than people might expect.
With the running back situation in Arizona, the Cardinals could be faced with an interesting decision at the end of training camp. Williams has a lot of talent but has struggled in part due to injuries and an ineffective line in front of him. Mendenhall was terrific at one time but is coming off of a major injury. Now, they have Taylor and Ellington in the mix competing for time and carries. The question facing the Cardinals is whether they will keep four running backs on the 53 man roster. They could cut Mendenhall or try to sneak either Ellington or Taylor onto the practice squad for a season. With the investment in the offensive line, albeit a young one that will have time adjusting, there should be more opportunity for production there. The other question is with Arians running the show how they view their offense and what they want to do with it, which could shape who they choose to keep for this position and what he brings from his time in Indianapolis as well as Pittsburgh.
With their last pick obtained along with Palmer, the Cardinals brought in Rutgers tight end D.C. Jefferson. Jefferson, a former quarterback, is a work in progress as a tight end with tremendous physical tools to develop if he can stick with a team. And he might be able to stick with the Cardinals by landing on injured reserve due to a pectoral injury suffered at the combine during the bench press. He has the strength and power to be a good blocker along with the athleticism to be a good receiver but lacks the technique at this point for the former and the hands for the latter. If he can be coached up and the light goes on for him in either role or preferably both for the Cardinals, he becomes a steal. This is a flyer in every sense of the world but if he is able to stay on for a year with injured reserve, he could potentially get healthier and start working on his technique before coming back next year to compete in camp. It may not ultimately lead to anything but it is an interesting pick to make because of the upside.
My Thoughts: The new regime in Arizona had an impossible hill to climb in one of the most difficult divisions in the league and will enter the year as favorite to land in the basement this year. Nevertheless, they had a clear plan for this draft and executed it in a way that could pay off now but have a bigger impact later. The defense was largely pretty solid because the defensive line covers up so many issues and having Peterson and now Antone Cason could be a tremendous set of corners coming into this year. They may have to come back and address the defense more next year and beyond, particularly at safety but the defense has the possibilities of being complete if things work out as they hope, which is hopeful but possible. The focus for the Cardinals draft is both in what they took on offense but also in what they did not.
The pair of guards the Cardinals took addressed the biggest weakness in their line and could pay off in a big way in their rookie year but more so next year and the year after because both guards will have experience as will their right tackle, Massie, who had early struggles before settling in and playing good football. Seventh pick is a high price to pay for a guard but he could stabilize that line significantly and if he plays up to his potential, he could be in the conversation with some all-time greats at that position. Watford is similar in his attitude and style to Cooper but has some wrinkles to iron out in his game, but he could be a nice pick up for them as well.
Along with that, they added a couple of talented and cheap running backs that could end up playing a role for the team in their rookie years. I really like both Taylor and Ellington and thought they were underrated in the draft process because they were great when they played the game of football. They do not have to be great in workouts, but they were great at football, which is what they were drafted to do. It could be that I am dead wrong and both of these guys will be marginal in the NFL, but it seemed like the tape was devalued in the draft process with these two and it could be a steal for Arizona as a result.
Concussions present an obvious risk with Swope, but if he can stay healthy, he will be a good pro with the potential to be great. I likened him to Victor Cruz when I evaluated him and Cruz was undrafted. It is a little different coming out of Massachussetts as opposed to Texas A&M but the talent was there and he was the guy for three different quarterbacks and just always found ways to make plays for them. Hopefully, he can avoid the fate that seems to be ending Jahvid Best’s career which could be the reason he fell so far because he is a terrific football player.
I liked Alex Okafor better for the 3-4 defense as an outside linebacker than I did for the 4-3 for the reasons I mentioned earlier. He is better with space and with the freedom to flow around and make plays. He is a terrific athlete with a ton of upside but it will all come down to if he can learn how to take on shed blocks, which is why he was so inconsistent at Texas from game to game. Guys who could get in front of him could beat him; the opponents who could not, he dominated.
I understand the logic with taking Mathieu, but I would not have done it and I would not have done it with the mindset of having him play free safety. He could thrive as a nickel in the middle of the field where he could potentially get his hands on the ball often, but his size was a problem in college; it will not get easier in the NFL. I think the price was steep considering the talent and risks, but he has done nothing but prove critics wrong his entire career, so it would not be a surprise to see him do it again.
I liked Minter over Te’o in my rankings when I broke the two down, so in my opinion, the Cardinals win that trade because they got what I view was a better player in addition to a fourth round pick, which became Watford. In my view, the Cardinals came out really well in that deal. Minter was a tackling machine for LSU and the defense funneled plays into him so he could make tackles and shut down the run. He is not a guy who is great for man coverage but he showed he could handle zone coverage and be a player in that role. The only question I have is their plan with their four inside linebackers and how they plan to employ them all. It is a strength right now and could produce a dynamic group if Washington can get his priorities sorted out, focus on football, and Minter can be the player he showed he could be at LSU.
The notable positions that the Cardinals did not draft stand out; they opted not to take a left tackle or a quarterback. Certainly the argument can be made that since both are premium positions they would not have been able to land someone good enough to warrant the pick and they will make a bigger play for both spots next year. It seems impossible to think that if there is a quarterback available next year at their spot in the first round, they will not pounce on them. And that is perhaps where the investment in the offensive line and running game could pay off the most. If the line plays well and they find the ability to run the football, they have a great set up to draft a quarterback and plug them in, especially with their wide receiver corp.
Levi Brown is not a bad left tackle, but he is not a particularly good one either and when it comes to that position, average is not good enough. This is compounded by the injury history that Brown has had as of late. They have to be hoping and praying he can stay healthy for all sixteen games this year or they are in a world of hurt. If they take a quarterback with their first pick next year, it could be difficult to find a tackle, but they need to get someone that can either step in and start or develop behind Brown and provide depth if he gets hurt.
If the Cardinals really did a good job in this draft, they could make substantial strides towards being a competitor next year, but it is going to be a couple years because they could have a nice offensive group but need the right guy to man it and the tackle to anchor it. And at the same time, they have to find a way to be able to develop and keep that defense together while they work toward getting their quarterback. It could be a delicate balancing act if everything goes right for the Cardinals; extremely difficult if they made any major missteps. All things considered, I think Arizona’s approach made sense, building from the inside out on the offense and adding a few key pieces to the defense. They made more investment in the offensive line than it feels like Rod Graves did his entire tenure there so that feels like a good start, but it is going to be a bumpy ride for the next year or two.
Tags: 2013 Nfl Draft Alex Okafor Andre Ellington Arizona Cardinals Carson Palmer Clemson Tigers Football D.C. Jefferson Earl Watford James Madison Dukes Football Jonathan Cooper Kevin Minter LSU Tigers Footall North Carolina Tarheels Football Rutgers Scarlet Knights Football Ryan Swope Stanford Cardinal Football Stepfan Taylor Texas A&M Aggies Football Texas Longhorns Football Tyrann Mathieu