Another ‘Manic Monday’ sees Cardinals bolster defense

With NFL free agency open, Arizona renovates their defense.
Arizona Cardinals GM, Monti Ossenfort
Arizona Cardinals GM, Monti Ossenfort / Christian Petersen/GettyImages

On a day that saw free-agent chaos throughout the league, the Arizona Cardinals quietly took care of business on the defensive side of the ball. Arizona’s defense was in much need of some attention this offseason after finishing near the basement of the league in numerous defensive categories. With the full-time return of Kyler Murray boosting the offensive output this season, if the defense can decrease their 355.7 yard-per-game average of last season, the close losses could find their way bouncing the Cardinals’ way in the 2024 season.

Monti Ossenfort has recognized this need and started the free-agent season with a hot hand and clear focus on addressing the defensive side of the football. Ossenfort and company signed four defensive players on the first day of the NFL legal tampering period opening.

While the Cardinals wasted no time making moves, their NFC West counterparts made some moves as well. The Rams bolstered up their offensive line with the signing of Jonah Jackson from Detroit while also signing former Seahawk tight end, Colby Parkinson. Seattle stayed fairly quiet signing their own Leonard Williams to a three-year deal and the 49ers added another efficient pass rusher in Leonard Floyd who spent time with the Rams and Bills respectively. 

While San Francisco may have added the biggest name compared to their division foes, the battle in the NFC West trenches is going to become intriguing with the Rams and Seahawks investing in their offensive lines, while the Cardinals went out and signed two interior defensive lineman. 

All four of Arizona’s signings came of the three-year deal variety and allows head coach Jonathan Gannon to build upon his defensive unit.

1. CB Sean Murphy-Bunting

Sean Murphy-Bunting
Murphy-Bunting with the Tennessee Titans / Justin Ford/GettyImages

The Cardinals first signing of the day was probably their biggest, when they signed cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting who most recently played with the Tennessee Titans. With the defensive backfield being a point of emphasis, Murphy-Bunting will be a true corner that can help defend the numerous explosive wide receivers in the NFC West.

If Murphy-Bunting can take even 30-40 receiving yards away from players such as Deebo Samuel, D.K. Metcalf and Cooper Kupp, it could help decrease the 32 passing touchdowns and 212.5 passing yards-per-game that the Arizona defense let up last season. 

At 26 years old, Murphy-Bunting brings a unique mix of youth and experience to the Cardinals defensive backfield. He also has a Super Bowl ring on his resume when he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the first four seasons of his career. With a draft class full of aggressive young corners, Murphy-Bunting’s experience could help refine a potential rookie corner. 

Last season with the Titans, Murphy-Bunting defended eight passes and corralled two interceptions. He also recorded 53 total tackles with 38 of them coming of the solo variety. 

One area that he will have to improve is his penalty discipline that was inflated last season with Tennessee. With only 12 career penalties in his first four seasons, he nearly doubled that number last season with 10 penalties alone

Either way the cookie crumbles, this signing is a step in the right direction for the Cardinals defensive unit.

2. DT Bilal Nichols

Bilal Nichols
Bilal Nichols with the Las Vegas Raiders / Michael Owens/GettyImages

The first defensive tackle signed by the Cardinals on Monday, Bilal Nichols signed a three-year, $21 million contract with $14 million of the contract consisting of guaranteed money. 

Nichols has been nothing but consistent in his career and will be an integral piece of the Arizona defensive line. Impressively, Nichols has not missed a game in four seasons and played in 94 games in total throughout his career with Chicago and Las Vegas respectively.

At 6’4” 313 lbs, Nichols will certainly be the block eater that the Cardinals need in their run defense game. His ability to fight through double teams and move laterally down the line of scrimmage creates gaps for the linebackers to fill. Nichols may not be a big statistical edition, but could be an unsung hero on the Arizona defensive line. 

Last season, Nichols had his second best tackle season when recorded 48 tackles with the Raiders. On average, Nichols is good for around 40 tackles per season with the 238 he has recorded in his six-year career.

Although Nichols may not light up the stat sheet, will clog up the defensive line and move with opposing blockers will help out the second and third level of the run defense. 

3. DT Justin Jones

Justin Jones
Justin Jones with the Chicago Bears / Cooper Neill/GettyImages

The Cardinals dropped a hefty bag of cash on their defensive line where they spent $34.15 million of guaranteed money to bolster their defensive line. With Nichols playing the role of run stopper, Justin Jones can prove to be a game changing interior defensive lineman. These signings back-to-back compliment each other well where the defensive styles will be able to enhance the other.

Coming off of a breakout season, Jones has signed a healthy three-year, $31 million contract with the Cardinals. Last season with the Chicago Bears, Jones had a career high 4.5 sacks with 37 total tackles as well. 

Not only similar in stature to Bilal Nichols, but Jones has shown that he is a consistent player as well. In his last two seasons with the bears, Jones did not miss a game and has played in 85 games in his six seasons in the NFL. 

This was certainly an expensive double dip for Monti Ossenfort and the Cardinals, but if these two defensive lineman can play off each other’s style of play, these moves could change the face of the Arizona front four.

With a good amount of mock drafts having Texas’ Bryon Murphy II going to the Cardinals with the 27th overall pick, it will be interesting to see if the Cardinals still choose to use one of their six picks in the top 100 picks in the upcoming draft on a young interior defender.

4. LB Mack Wilson Sr.

Mack Wilson Sr.
Mack Wilson Sr. with the New England Patriots / Timothy T Ludwig/GettyImages

Rounding out a wild Monday full of free-agent frenzy, the Cardinals made some noise after they signed former New England Patriots linebacker Mack Wilson Sr. to a three-year $15 million deal. After a solid first season with Arizona, linebacker Kyzir White is receiving some much needed help in the middle of the Cardinal defense.

According to Pro Football Focus, the 26-year old received an impressive grade of 80.8 for the 2023 season. Wilson proved effective on passing downs for the Patriots last season and found himself as the tenth highest grade in the league last season. 

After a tough first season with the Patriots in 2022, Wilson came up with his best all-around season in New England last season and has earned his pay day with the Cardinals. In 2023, Wilson recorded 37 total tackles, two forced fumbles and 3.5 sacks to help lead the Patriot defense with PFF’s fourth highest rated linebacker, Jahlani Tavai. 

There was a clear pattern of Monti Ossenfort’s emphasis on consistency as Wilson is the third player signed in one day that did not miss a single game in the last two seasons.

These four signings may not be of the superstar fashion, but have the potential to flip the Cardinalsdefense on its head and start to create the close losses into wins.