Arizona Cardinals’ roster rebuild under new regime starts in NFL draft

The Arizona Cardinals entered the offseason facing a plethora of questions surrounding the roster. After opting for a more conservative approach in free agency, first-year coach Jonathan Gannon, right, plans to find answers in this week’s NFL draft as owner Michael Bidwill hopes for a “quick turnaround.” (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

TEMPE – Following a tumultuous 4-13 season, Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill told reporters that he believed a quick turnaround is possible for the franchise.

“We were the hottest team in the league just 13 months ago,” Bidwill said in January. “There are teams that have been down a few years ago that have flipped around and are now in the playoffs. I feel like we can (make) a quick turnaround.”

If the franchise is going to make a quick pivot, it will be under new leadership.

Bidwill hired Monti Ossenfort to replace former general manager Steve Keim in January and about a month later, they tapped Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon to replace Kliff Kingsbury as the team’s coach.

Bidwill’s remarks led many fans to believe the team intended to be aggressive during March’s first wave of free agency, but that turned out to be relatively quiet, despite a roster with a lot of holes, an injured starting quarterback, a star wide receiver believed to be on the trading block and a defensive stalwart reportedly asking to be moved.

Ahead of this week’s NFL draft, the Cardinals did not land any of the top free agents from this year’s class and instead opted to find smaller, bargain deals. It created some frustration from fans on social media, but it’s clear now the team’s rebuild is likely to begin largely with the upcoming NFL draft.

There is speculation the team will try to move down from the No. 3 overall pick to acquire more draft capital. There may also be more draft picks on the way, but not in the way many Cardinals fans would have hoped.

Multiple media outlets have reported that All-Pro safety Budda Baker requested a trade or a new contract extension from the Cardinals front office. Baker, who has two years left on his deal, is one of the league’s premier safeties and would fetch a high price if dealt.

However at 27, Baker fits the Cardinals’ rebuild timeline and, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the team has no intention to deal him at this time.

Whether the team opts to deal Baker or not, it’s a clear sign that a complete overhaul of the roster is underway and will continue through the draft.

National media has also reported talks are heating up between the Cardinals and other teams seeking a trade for All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins. The potential trade of the team’s best receiver, paired with the injury to quarterback Kyler Murray has left the offense in flux.

USA Today reporter Tyler Dragon understands the impatience of fans when a team is committing to a rebuild, but cites teams like the Bengals who had huge success in the NFL draft and quickly became title contenders.

Sometimes, a team needs to tear it all down and start building back up.

“And there’s nothing wrong with that,” Dragon said.

As for the reasoning behind the team’s lack of major free agency additions, Dragon noted that a new coach and general manager are going to want to build their own roster, and their blueprint might not include many of the players currently under contract or any of the free agents on the market this offseason.

“When you hire a new head coach, you want to at least mold the team in his vision,” Dragon said.

Some teams have been successful in free agency. Others have dug their franchise into serious financial trouble by overpaying players that ended up not working out.

While many Cardinals fans are disappointed the team didn’t make a splash in free agency, Ossenfort and Gannon may have a longer-term team-building strategy knowing that Murray is likely to miss a chunk of next season.

And free agency hasn’t always been kind to the Cardinals, anyway.

During Keim’s tenure as general manager, the Cardinals were consistently aggressive in free agency and while that worked at times, there were more misses than hits. The team often spent a ton to sign free agents that did not live up to their contract, such as defensive lineman Jordan Phillips and linebacker Devon Kennard.

As a result of spending premium dollars on free agents in March, the old regime saw a number of homegrown talent depart the team due to an inability to meet their salary demands. Defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, receiver Christian Kirk and now cornerback Byron Murphy are examples of priced out players that were drafted by the Cardinals organization.

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Under Ossenfort, the Cardinals are prioritizing a much more patient process through value signings and through the NFL draft. Many of the elite teams in the league today build their team from the collegiate ranks, finding Pro Bowl talent every April.

Under the previous regime, the Cardinals struggled mightily with developing first-round selections, which put them in a position to have to overpay for free agents in the spring.

Teams such as the Chicago Bears were not spenders last offseason and allowed their cap space to roll over into this year. Then they proceeded to be by far the biggest buyers of free agency this offseason.

Perhaps the Cardinals view next year’s projected free agent class as a better time to be aggressive.

Some Valley sports media are even questioning the lack of urgency from the Cardinals, who are less than a year and a half removed from being one of the top teams in the NFL. USA Today reporter Jess Root is looking at the injury to Murray as possible reasoning for their conservative approach thus far.

“Since you’re going to miss Kyler for half the season, maybe they’re trying to set themselves up for next year’s team,” he said.

Root added that the holdover from the previous regime makes it difficult to navigate the cap space situation this year, as the team is still paying a number of veterans who won’t even be suiting up for the club this season, including defensive end J.J. Watt, center Rodney Hudson and receiver A.J. Green.

Pair that with the injury to a two-time Pro-Bowl quarterback that could see him miss up to half the season, and perhaps the team is right to play it cautious during free agency this season, despite the frustration from the fanbase.

Fans must also realize that it takes two to tango. Perhaps the Cardinals were in contact with many of the top free agents, but given their struggles last season, convincing them to play for a team with many question marks might have been difficult.

With premium draft capital in the next season near the top of every round, the team likely has their sights set on young talent to develop under the new regime.

While some were hoping the Cardinals would be aggressive buyers this March, the team will be kick-starting their rebuild through the NFL draft next month. And with the No. 3 overall pick, the team might have a lot of options on draft day.

It can be difficult in the short term, but building through the draft is often a much more sustainable team-building process. The team went all in for a championship the past few seasons and it didn’t come to fruition.

It’s time for a rebuild in the desert and, as Dragon put it, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Alex Sutton A-leks SUH-tin (he/him)
Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Alex Sutton expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business. Sutton, who is assigned to Cronkite Sports Phoenix this semester, is going on his fifth year of covering the Arizona Cardinals for USA Today.