With a new general manager and coaching staff, the Arizona Cardinals free agency period was as chaotic as it has been in recent memory. Cardinal fans had to say goodbye to fan favorites such as Paris Lenon, Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson and at the same time, happily saw Beanie Wells, John Skelton and Kevin Kolb run off faster than Pee Wee Herman’s prom date.
The chaos that has brought unnerving change to the organization has led to a surplus of new faces. Free agency brought veteran depth, with the additions of several players who will fill some of the holes created. The rest of those holes left open agency will be filled with a new crop of rookies, making their professional debuts with the Cardinals.
Jonathan Cooper is the shining gem of the group, coming in at 6’2” and 311 pounds. He is an athletic juggernaut, as e benched 35 reps at 225 pounds, he ran the 40-yard dash in 5.07 seconds (extremely fast for a 311-pound guard) and he impressed in all other measurable areas during the combine and his pro day. Don’t be surprised to see him start at left guard from day 1. Scouts had him graded as an elite pass blocker, something the Cardinals have been lacking since… well… forever…?
Fans usually cringe when they hear their team took an offensive lineman in the first round. However, to Cardinals fans, the Cooper selection was as beautiful as an Arizona sunset. Cooper may not be as dynamic as a Larry Fitzgerald or a Patrick Peterson, but he has the chance to impact the team more than those two ever have. Cardinal fans should be excited to see what an offense is supposed to look like this season thanks to Cooper. Carson Palmer will have an extra second or two to throw the ball every play and help open up holes so running backs will churn out a couple extra yard every time they run the ball.
Two running backs Cooper will be blocking for this season are also rookies; Andre Ellington out of Clemson and Stefan Taylor from Stanford. Taylor is the most likely to see playing time, and he is the career rushing leader for Stanford and plays a lot faster than his 4.7 40 time suggests. He will bulldoze a defender or make a quick juke to get more yards. What I like most about him is that he is always falling forward for a couple more yards. It’s more than a handful of trouble for defenders to put him on his back.
For Ellington, the lower pick the Cardinals used to take him will mean he has to work harder to get on the field. But I am sure that if you asked him, he wouldn’t care. He’s quick, agile and has the ability to embarrass defenders. Both of these running backs will be assets on special teams and could be used in passing situations since they both know how to block the blitz. Ryan Williams and Rashard Mendenhall, the two running backs presumed to be competing for the starting job were put on notice when the Cardinals drafted these two rookies.
The NFL does not wait for players to heal from injuries, especially at the running back position where teams can draft Pro Bowlers in later rounds such as Alfred Morris from Washington, and Arian Foster from Houston. Fans of the Cardinals have been desperately waiting for a running back that will make plays. As their highlights will show, these backs can run. Here is a clip of Taylor and his highlights from Stanford and here is Ellington. The Cardinals hope they can bring that relentless play to the Cardinals this year.
One player who the Cardinals drafted this year who will see a lot of balls go his way and make Larry Fitzgerald bang his head against the wall to get some attention is Ryan Swope. Swope clocked in a sub 4.34 40 time at the combine. Last year Swope was a major contributor to Johnny Manziel’s Heisman Trophy, racking up 913 receiving yards and scoring eight times. If Manziel didn’t run the football so much he would have found the speedy Swope for a lot more yardage. Bruce Arians has been talking all offseason about how he likes to stretch defenses, and in the words of the great Randy Moss, Swope will, “take the ball deep and take the top off the defense.” When Carson Palmer sees this highlight reel of Swope, he’ll probably be foaming at the mouth, just waiting to throw the ball to the speedster.
Speed wasn’t a problem for the Cardinals defense in 2012. But with the departure of several veterans from last year’s squad, it was of the utmost importance for the organization to replace and upgrade some of those positions. The Cardinals added three pieces that will all see significant reps this year playing on the defensive side of the ball. Those three pieces are Kevin Minter, Tyrann Mathieu both from LSU and Alex Okafor out of UT. Minter is a solid middle linebacker that makes few mistakes. With all of Daryl Washington’s trouble, the Cardinals are going to count on this rookie to step up and fill the gaps that he did so effectively for LSU.
Mathieu didn’t play last year but still garnered enough respect from the organization to risk a third-round pick on him. He likely won’t start at free safety right away, and he might not even start this season. But that doesn’t matter in the long run. He hits like a freight train and is a cheetah when he runs, and no team in the NFL is going to want to cover him on special teams. Whether he’s running back kicks or blasting returners, Mathieu will be a handful for opponents. Okafor is looked at more as a 4-3 defensive end than a 3-4 OLB, so if the Cardinals run a 3-4 he will have some learning to do.
Regardless, his 12.5 sacks for the Longhorns last year don’t care about what kind of defense the Cardinals will play next year. It may take a few weeks into the season, it may take less, but when Okafor takes the field he has the ability to annihilate quarterbacks and bring some consistency to a pressure position the Cardinals have been lacking. If you want to see some highlights here’s a video of Minter, Okafor and the most entertaining of them all: Mathieu.
Unfortunately for the Cardinals, the other two players the Cardinals drafted will not see much playing time this year. Earl Watford, another guard, from James Madison and D.C. Jefferson a tight end from Rutgers. Both rookies are developmental projects. Watford will secure a roster spot and be groomed to be Daryn Colledge’s successor, while D.C. Jefferson will have to learn to play tight end at the NFL level. As a seventh-round pick, he is as vulnerable as the undrafted free agents the Cardinals have signed to not make the team.
All in all the Cardinals had their best draft since 2004, when they drafted Larry Fitzgerald, Darnell Dockett and Karlos Dansby in the same class. It’s refreshing to see the organization pick players for value and not for need. So many draft classes have come and gone under the last regime. No one remembers some names like Will Davis, Cody Brown and Herman Johnson. The names they do remember like John Skelton, Beenie Wells and Anthony Sherman didn’t produce enough to be missed. This class has more potential than any class Cardinals fans can remember. Sure, the Cardinals could have drafted players to fill holes that have yet to be covered, but instead they chose to draft players that for the most part will impact the team this year.