Cornerback is a position the Arizona Cardinals can’t ignore this offseason. Not when the pass defense was so generous during 2021.
There’s a lack of blue-chip talent on the back end of the Cards’ defense. The problem can be solved by splashing the cash during free agency to sign the elite cornerback at his position in this market, according to a leading NFL analyst.
It won’t be east for the cash-strapped Cardinals to put together the means for an interception king from a leading AFC contender. Yet, the signing would be the type of win-now move general manager Steve Keim hasn’t been afraid to make in recent seasons.
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Patriots’ Cover Man Perfect for Cardinals
The one player the Cards should break the bank for is New England Patriots cover man J.C. Jackson. That’s the view of ESPN’s Matt Bowen, who believes the Cardinals can offer Jackson the right scheme fit: “Jackson has the upper-tier coverage traits and ball skills to elevate the Cardinals’ secondary. It’s an easy transition here to Vance Joseph’s defensive scheme, where we would see more man coverage and pressure with Jackson in the mix.”
There’s no doubt landing Jackson would be a coup for Keim. The former’s arrival would give Arizona’s defense a true shutdown cornerback opposing quarterbacks would be wary to test.
Their hesitance to look Jackson’s way is understandable when he’s helped himself to 17 interceptions over the last two seasons. Jackson paced the NFL with eight picks last season.
His opportunistic streak found an ideal home in New England, where head coach Bill Belichick lets his cornerbacks stay on islands and take chances in man coverage. Jackson’s met the demands of the system brilliantly, per numbers from Pro Football Focus:
Nobody in the Cardinals’ cornerback room can match Jackson’s playmaking flair. There wasn’t any fear factor for quarterbacks targeting a secondary that allowed them to complete 65.4 percent of their passes and gave up 30 touchdowns through the air.
Injuries suffered by veterans Malcolm Butler and Robert Alford hamstrung coordinator Vance Joseph. He couldn’t dial up pressure as often as he’d like because replacements Byron Murphy and rookie Marco Wilson struggled to hold up on the outside.
Jackson would put an end to those struggles, provided the Cardinals can find a way to afford him.
Jackson’s Market Will Be Lucrative
Finding the money for Jackson will be tough when Keim is facing a bleak salary cap situation. The Cards are projected by Spotrac.com to have just $5,529,584 worth of space under the cap.
That needn’t be a problem, though, according to Patriots Wire writer Isaiah Houde: “Arizona likely won’t re-sign Chandler Jones and they have moves it can make to free up some cap space. The Cardinals have also proved to do what it takes to bring in players who can help the team win. If Jackson were willing to sign for around $17 million with a winning team, the Cardinals may be appealing enough to ink a deal.”
Houde was right about Chandler Jones, whom the Cardinals neglected to adorn with the franchise tag. It’s the same decision the Pats made with Jackson.
The more telling point is Houde’s reference to the Cards’ recent history of signing “players who can help the team win.” Keim wasn’t afraid of those kinds of moves when he gave J.J. Watt a two-year deal and signed A.J. Green last offseason.
Moves are already being made to put the Cardinals in a better position to spend big in this year’s market. Those moves began with the release of inside linebacker Jordan Hicks, per PFF’s Ari Meirov:
Hicks being jettisoned was followed by the smart decision to restructure the deal of versatile linebacker Devon Kennard, first reported by NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo:
There are other options open to Keim, like restructuring or releasing defensive tackle Jordan Phillips. The latter will count for $13,301,444 against this year’s cap.
Keim needs to find significant funds to tempt Jackson into a deal, since the cornerback is expected to earn a contract paying as much as $20.9 million annually, according to Spotrac projections.
That’s an eye-watering sum, but one worth paying for a Cardinals defense that needs improved coverage to offset the loss of a key pass-rusher like Jones. It’s also a defense shorn of a true ball hawk.