On the hunt: Arizona Cardinals strategize for upcoming NFL draft with pressing need at receiver

Arizona Cardinals general manager Monti Ossenfort plans to utilize this week’s NFL combine to ‘fill the gaps’ in the team’s evaluations of draft prospects. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – When the Arizona Cardinals and DeAndre Hopkins parted ways last offseason, coach Jonathan Gannon said he was pleased with the wide receiver corp entering the 2023 season.

Fast forward almost nine months, and the organization has yet to find a replacement for Hopkins. The Cardinals leading receiver last season was tight end Trey McBride, who had 825 yards on the year. No wide receiver for the Cardinals had 600 yards. Marquise Brown led all Cardinals wideouts with 574.

While that was in part due to quarterback Kyler Murray missing over half the season, it’s clear the Cardinals will be looking for someone to fill the role that was occupied by Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald before him – and the team’s scouts and decision-makers will take their first in-person look this week at the annual 2024 NFL Combine.

Thanks to a first-round trade last year with the Houston Texans, the Cardinals hold the fourth and 27th picks in this year’s draft. At pick No. 4, they have a good chance at getting one of the top players in this year’s draft, and they may have gotten lucky with the way the board has turned out.

With all three teams ahead of them in need of a quarterback, and Arizona having Murray locked up for the foreseeable future, they have a shot at taking their next star receiver: Malik Nabers, Rome Odunze or Marvin Harrison Jr. All three are in the top 10 of most player rankings, and Daniel Jeremaiah, draft analyst for NFL Network, has them all in his top four.

“To me I think you need some firepower if you are the Arizona Cardinals,” Jeremaiah said. “(Y)ou need some guys who can go get and make plays. I was pulling up their numbers here – 26th in passing yards per game, 24th in points per game. Let’s get some firepower. I would love any of those three guys.”

Harrison, the 6-4 receiver out of Ohio State, is the highest-rated of the three receivers in most player rankings. Jeremiah puts him at number two in his top 50 player rankings for the draft, only behind quarterback Caleb Williams.

Kyle Odegard, former Cardinals beat writer and writer for bettingodds.com, says the Cardinals could trade back if Marvin Harrison Jr. comes off the board early. While Harrison Jr. is still his top choice, if he’s not there, one of the top three quarterbacks (Caleb Williams, Drake Maye and Jayden Daniels) will be, and he thinks many teams will be looking to move up.

“Malik Nabers is probably the guy if they stay,” Odegard said. “(B)ut if one of the quarterbacks is still there, the Giants, the Falcons, the Vikings, a trade down is in play. If you drop down, ideally to the Giants (at the sixth pick), you can still get Malik Nabers or Joe Alt. I would also look at the Falcons, Vikings and Raiders, because you could get an extra first-round pick in return for moving back that far.”

Jeremiah describes Nabers as “a stick of dynamite” and calls him “super, super explosive,” but also mentions the LSU receiver is a better route runner than some project. Still, Odunze is his favorite player in this year’s draft, and likens him to a former Cardinals legend.

“I think you’ll see similarities to Fitzgerald in terms of how he attacks the ball and goes and gets it,” Jeremiah said. “I like big, fast, physical, smart, tough guys who can go play above the rim and who have some route polish to them … I love there’s a bounce and an energy to him that I love. I love the fact that even though you might have to coach some of this out of him, he hates running out of bounds. You’ll see the competitiveness in him.”

Harrison and Nabers look unlikely to participate in drills at this year’s NFL Combine, however, Odunze is expected to compete. In a podcast interview, Odunze said he has been training for the combine and aims to run a 4.4-second 40-yard dash .

The combine takes place at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana. Odunze’s drills will take place with his fellow receivers, as well as the quarterbacks and running backs on Saturday. The defensive lineman and linebackers will go Thursday, the cornerbacks and tight ends on Friday, and the offensive lineman go on Sunday.

The Cardinals’ approach to the combine will be to put the finishing touches on their player evaluations. Cardinals general manager Monti Ossenfort said that his staff will use the combine to “fill in the gaps,” using player interviews, medical evaluations and the official combine measurements to complete scouting of each player.

Ossenfort also said the Cardinals are “not in a position” to be looking at players based on positions the team needs. Instead, he said they would “look at talented players that fit what we’re trying to do both culturally and also on the field. Our list of needs is good players that fit us.”

Asked about the three receivers, Ossenfort said, “I think all three of those are very talented players,” but then said, “We look at every position in the draft and we’re in the middle of that process right now.”

In terms of their other first-round pick, Jeremiah floated the idea of a potential trade back. With the Cardinals being very aggressive in the trade market last year, another trade could be possible, and Jeremiah likes the idea of them adding more draft picks and still getting quality players at the beginning of the second round.

“I would definitely entertain the phone call if you were to get it there at (number) 27, knowing that you already have the playmaker in the bag there at pick number 4,” Jeremiah said. “You are picking 27. You want to slide out. Somebody wants to come back up … there’s interior offensive line and corners at the top of the second round, you’re going to have starting level players there.”

If the Cardinals stay at the 27th pick, they’re going to have plenty of options. Odegard agrees with Ossenfort’s philosophy of taking the best player available as opposed to positions of need. However, he believes that Ossenfort and the Cardinals will prioritize “premium positions,” those being wide receiver, cornerback, offensive tackle and edge rusher. And he had one player he felt the Cardinals should watch for at pick 27.

“Amarius Mims, out of Georgia. He plays mostly right (tackle), but they can move Paris Johnson to left tackle if you need to,” he said. “He played left tackle at Ohio State. (Mims) has potential, he’s 21 years old, and has a huge frame. He’s raw, but that’s ok if you’re the Cardinals, you have time to develop him. Somebody like that, but he’s a guy I’d look at.”

John Busker jahn BUS-ker (he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

John Busker expects to graduate in December 2024 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Busker has interned in media operations with the FOX Corporation.