One of the biggest debates during the time leading up to the NFL Draft is whether your team should draft the “best available” player or draft a player that fits a team need. Very few teams have the ability to do both with the same draft pick. Sometimes the draft falls just right so that your team’s biggest need is also the best player still on the board.
For the Arizona Cardinals a good example of this happened in the 2011 draft. With the fifth pick, the Cards selected Patrick Peterson from LSU. He started at cornerback his first year and set records for return yardage and touchdowns. He is considered a top five corner in the NFL and continues to be a leader for the Arizona defense.
Going into the 2016 offseason the Arizona Cardinals had one major deficiency in a team that went to the NFC Championship game before losing badly to the Carolina Panthers. They needed an edge rusher. Dwight Freeney signed a one year deal in 2015 and ended the season with 8 sacks, leading the team in that category. However, Freeney is 36 and was a situational player only. The Cardinals have not re-signed the free agent to date. The same is true of Nick Fairley, a free agent acquisition that plays specific snaps. Everyone assumed the Cardinals would go after an edge rusher in the draft. General Manager Steve Keim had stated before the free agency period that finding a capable pass rusher was harder than it sounds.
Enter Chandler Jones. The Cardinals made a surprising trade with the New England Patriots to take Jones in exchange for Jonathan Cooper (OL) and the 2nd round pick of this draft. Cooper was a number one pick in 2013 but injuries and ineffective play made him a backup on the Cardinals 2nd ranked offense last season. Jones, on the other hand, had 12.5 sacks for the Pats but was deemed too expensive to re-sign to the max contract and still keep Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. Jones will be much better than any player the Cards could have picked up with their 29th pick as long as he keeps his nose clean. The Cards are just the team for that – ask Tyrann Mathieu.
So the biggest need is filled. Second biggest need – offensive line. Arizona also addressed that in free agency by signing Super Bowl Champ guard Evan Mathis to a one-year, incentive laden contract. He will step in at the spot on the roster vacated by the Cooper trade and the departure of Bobbie Massie. Neither of these departing players will be lamented by local fans and Mathis will hope to impress in his first year with the team.
So the two biggest needs from 2015 have been addressed. That allows some freedom for the Cardinals to go after the best available athlete to address their other needs and add depth. Since this draft seems heavy with defensive talent the 29th pick could be used on any number of defensive players that would be available at the end of the first round. Some of the names mentioned in mock drafts include William Jackson III (CB/Houston), Reggie Ragland (ILB/Alabama), Keanu Neal (SS/Florida) or Robert Nkemdiche (DT/Mississippi). Any of these players could add depth and possibly compete for starting minutes in their first year.
However, an intriguing name comes up when talking about the offensive side of the ball – quarterback Paxton Lynch of Memphis. Most of the talk about Lynch has been as the future quarterback of the Manning-less Denver Broncos. The Broncos select last in Round 1. Why not make Lynch the future quarterback of the Cardinals, learning under the tutelage of Carson Palmer?
As Lynch’s draft stock continues to rise he may not last until the end of the first round, but if he did, Arizona would be an ideal fit. He wouldn’t have to play right away. He would be sitting behind a quarterback who was in the running for MVP in 2015. He would have the opportunity to learn an offense that is loaded with veteran weapons without the growing pains of most rookie quarterbacks – no pressure and no expectations.
Lynch may not fill an immediate need and he may not be the best player available – but he might be the perfect blend of both for the Arizona Cardinals.