NFL draft makeover: Cardinals' recent downturn has exposed some roster issues
Every week during the 2021 NFL season, we’re going to — just being honest here — overreact to what we’ve seen on the field for a different NFL team and begin projecting NFL draft prospects at positions of concerning need.
Think of it as a mini one-team mock draft, with early (Rounds 1-2), middle (Rounds 3-4) and late (Rounds 5-7) prospects at each team’s respective position of concern.
This week’s NFL draft makeover is for the Arizona Cardinals.
The Arizona Cardinals started the season 7-0 and survived a three-game stretch with both QB Kyler Murray and WR DeAndre Hopkins out due to injury, winning two of three games.
Even in a somewhat rusty return for Murray and Hopkins in Week 13, they connected for a touchdown and helped take care of business in a win over the Chicago Bears, improving Arizona's road record to 7-0 at the time.
But the two games since have undercut a lot of the positivity for the Cardinals, one of the surprise teams of the 2021 season.
Arizona has lost its past two games, first to the division-rival Rams and then to the lowly Lions in shocking fashion. Hopkins landed on injured reserve, Murray has struggled and fallen from the MVP race and the Cardinals' defense — which was impressive early this season — has taken a few steps back.
Is the season over? No. But the Cardinals' wrong turn this late in the season suddenly casts more doubt on their Super Bowl chances and has exposed some of the weaknesses on the roster.
While noting they still have time to right the ship for this season, the Cardinals have some short- and long-term work to do while Murray resides on his rookie contract. Even with draft selections that will fall closer to the ends of rounds and and roughly $20 million in salary-cap space now for 2022, there will be ample ways to address their shortcomings.
Early round prospect
Penn State EDGE Arnold Ebiketie
We just released our latest mock draft, so we'll let you click on that to see who our first-round projection was for them. Instead let's drop down a round and project some more defensive help for a unit that has dipped in its recent performances.
Ebiketie has had a fine senior season, showing the ability to get off the ball in a flash, counter rush inside and finish. His 2020 performance at Temple was encouraging, but Ebiketie has stepped up his game even more this season after transferring to Penn State, defending the run more effectively and harnessing his length better.
Although Ebiketie is likely less than his listed 256 pounds (he weighed 240 for scouts in the spring) and will measure in under 6-foot-3, his so-so size shouldn't be an issue as a rush linebacker in the Cardinals' defensive system. What helps Ebiketie immensely are his long arms (34 inches, 82-inch wingspan), big and skilled hands, flexible athleticism and a non-stop motor.
Chandler Jones is a free agent-to-be, and Markus Golden has an option in his contract that could also put him on the open market. The Cards must find some potential replacements, and Ebiketie has a good skill set to do just that. He's a Day 2 prospect who could come off the board right around where the Cardinals pick in Round 2.
Notre Dame RB Kyren Williams
The Cardinals lack a fourth-round pick currently, but they could look to address adding some RB talent with their third-rounder if the right prospect falls to that range. James Conner has been reborn this season and might earn another one-year deal from Arizona. But the Cardinals might want to add a third-down option to the mix.
The RB class appears heavier with first- and second-down options, but there are a few in this range who qualify, including Williams. He's had some fumbling concerns as a runner (eight in his past 415 carries) and doesn't always run inside effectively with force. On the upside as a runner, Williams has great vision and really nice feet, able to cut sharply and make would-be tacklers miss.
The 5-9, 199-pound Williams offers great third-down value as a receiver and has excellent potential as a pass protector. The Irish love checking the ball down to him, and Williams has been reliable in this role (42 catches on 45 targets, one drop this season). He's also an extremely willing pass blocker, especially for his size, although his consistency would be aided by some technique work in this area, as he occasionally flies out of control at oncoming rushers.
Still, we love the fit of Williams in the Cardinals' backfield as a complement to Conner, assuming he's brought back. The only other runner under contract right now for 2022 is Eno Benjamin.
UAB TE Gerrit Prince
The Cardinals have five picks in Rounds 5 through 7, and we think they could use one of them at tight end. It's not the most pressing need, as Maxx Williams was great prior to his season-ending injury and Zach Ertz has been a life-saver in his place. However, both are impending free agents and have taken some wear and tear the past few years.
Prince is a super-senior (after a stop at junior college) and a converted wide receiver who is committed to play in the East-West Shrine Game. He earned that invitation thanks to a breakout senior season that saw the Blazers try to get the ball in his hands in a variety of ways — shovel passes, wheel routes and fade passes among them.
Although he has a slimmer build that could use some bulking up, Prince often lines up in-line, is competitive as a blocker and uses his length (6-foot-5, 34-inch arms, 80-inch wingspan) to lock out rushers moderately well. He's also an experienced special teamer with coverage and kick-blocking potential.
But it's Prince's underrated pass-catching ability that is his calling card. He's not especially sudden and might not blaze a fast 40 time. Even so, Prince plays fast, runs fluid routes and is a legitimate threat after the catch, averaging 10.2 YAC (and 19.2 YPC), hauling in 10 TDs this season on only 36 grabs. He closed out his UAB career in style with a two-TD performance in the win over BYU on Saturday.