PHOENIX – Under new leadership in the front office and coaching staff, the Arizona Cardinals need a successful 2023 offseason to propel themselves to first-year success. After taking part in free agency, the process will continue in Kansas City, the host city for the 2023 NFL Draft, at the end of April.
General Manager Monti Ossenfort and coach Jonathan Gannon have been on the job for only two months, but both face a pivotal moment this offseason. The franchise is coming off a 4-13 performance in 2022 that yielded the third overall pick, building anticipation for the selection and creating options for the front office.
A number of mock drafts predict the organization will trade the No. 3 pick, and speculation continued to ramp up Monday with an ESPN report that six teams have inquired with the Cardinals about trading up for the pick.
Gannon, who served last season as Philadelphia’s defensive coordinator, led an Eagles attack that accumulated 70 sacks last season, 15 more than the second-place Chiefs. Using a successful blitzing scheme – deploying a blitz against 22.1% of dropbacks – a defensive selection would make sense for Arizona.
Most draft experts expect the Cardinals to select former Alabama outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. or former Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter, who had been considered a consensus top-5 pick entering draft season.
Entering the college football season, Anderson was ranked as Pro Football Focus’ second-best 2023 prospect, two spots ahead of Carter. But after Carter captured his second national title with the Bulldogs, he leaped Anderson in PFF’s NFL Draft Big Board, slotting him at No. 2 and Anderson at No. 3.
Since then, however, Carter’s draft stock has dropped in part because of a legal entanglement but also because of his performance in pre-draft workouts.
In his third mock draft, ESPN’s senior draft analyst Mel Kiper slotted Carter to be taken by Detroit with the sixth overall pick and Anderson going to Arizona.
Despite the talent Carter displayed in 2023, the fall in his draft stock began during the NFL Combine. On March 1, Athens-Clarke County Police Department charged him with reckless driving and racing in connection to a car crash, which killed Chandler LeCroy, who was a member of Georgia’s recruiting staff, and Carter’s teammate, Delvin Wilcox, on Jan. 15.
Carter’s draft stock has continued to fall after he weighed in nine pounds heavier at his pro day compared to his combine weight and only took part in positional drills. ESPN’s Mark Schlabach reported Carter was “cramping up and breathing heavily.”
“When you’re in the news, especially when you’re trying to get drafted, you want to be in the news for good reasons,” USA Today’s NFL reporter Tyler Dragon said. “And with him, during this whole draft process and leading up to the draft, he’s in the news for negative reasons.
“And especially not showing up in shape for your pro day, you know when your pro day is. That shows a lack of discipline, that shows a lack of awareness. And how much do you care about the game? How much do you really want to be great? You look at players like Aaron Donald or other players, interior defensive linemen, they wouldn’t show up to their pro day overweight. They were in shape, and they handled their business.”
Generating pocket pressure may be one of the few similarities Anderson and Carter share, but even with the similarity, they accomplish the act in different ways. Anderson’s playstyle begins on the edge, where his speed from the outside gives him an advantage against offensive tackles and causes headaches for blocking assignments. Devoting assets to an edge rusher may leave openings on the inside, which can be troublesome against a solid defensive line.
“Will Anderson Jr. is an edge rusher,” CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd said. “I don’t know how he’ll play in the NFL — depends on the team either, up or a three-technique — but a guy that can beat you, speed rush bull-rush technique. Just a completely different guy (compared to Carter).”
Although Anderson and Carter highlight the defensive prospects, Ossenfort has many options at pick No. 3. Most teams that draft inside the top 5 are in full rebuild mode, searching for a quarterback who can execute an NFL-level offense.
But the Cardinals are tied to Kyler Murray, who inked a five-year, $230.5 million extension last July, making it unlikely they would select a quarterback in the draft. Murray tore his ACL in Week 14, sidelining him for the remainder of the season. Dragon believes it is unlikely Murray will be ready for the start of 2023, but still imagines a defensive prospect with the third selection.
Having a franchise quarterback on its roster allows for flexibility in the draft, which can be helpful when evaluating all options. For the Cardinals, having the flexibility at positions has been a goal throughout Gannon and Ossenfort’s first offseason.
“The other thing I like that Monti and I were kind of in lockstep about, is some of those guys have major versatility,” Gannon said at the NFL League Meetings on March 28. “And so that’s good when you’re kind of, adding pieces in for some competition, but guys can play multiple positions. That also helps you in the draft, that you’re not stuck to, ‘Oh, well we need a guard. Well, this guy can play guard’ or whatever the case may be.”
In his fourth mock draft, Kiper predicts Arizona exchanging first-round picks with Tennessee, which holds pick No. 11. In this case, Ossenfort most likely loses out on drafting either Carter or Anderson, but still maintains a high selection, benefiting the franchise by obtaining a top prospect while accumulating capital for future drafts or to orchestrate another trade.
Kiper compares this situation to the San Francisco-Miami trade in 2021, which saw the Dolphins exchange their No. 3 pick for No. 12 and multiple future selections.
“Tennessee would send Arizona picks Nos. 11 and 41 in this draft, plus a 2024 first-round selection and likely either a 2025 first- or second-rounder as well,” Kiper wrote. “And don’t forget new Titans general manager Ran Carthon joined the organization from San Francisco.”
Anderson and Carter are considered the top prospects in the draft, but with Carter’s issues off the field – and in a division that is highly talented – it’s likely the Cardinals are leaning toward selecting Anderson or facilitating a trade to obtain future draft capital.
“This is a Cardinals team that has a lot of holes in a lot of places,” Dragon said. “You have a starting quarterback in Kyler Murray, who will probably not be able to start next season because of his knee injury, and you need a player that is going to build excitement around the organization.”