Cardinals Replace Chandler Jones and Christian Kirk in PFF Mock Draft

Chandler Jones

Getty The Cardinals replace their best pass-rusher and slot receiver after the 1st round in this mock draft.

Free agency wasn’t particularly kind to the Arizona Cardinals. The franchise lost two key starters from last season, pass-rusher Chandler Jones and slot receiver Christian Kirk.

Both became fundamental to what the Cardinals were able to do on each side of the ball. Jones was the dynamic edge defender opposing teams needed special plans to contain. He made everybody along the front, including last season’s sack leader Markus Golden, better.

Jones signed with the Las Vegas Raiders, after Kirk had already agreed to lucrative terms with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Kirk was the most productive playmaker inside the numbers for a passing game hamstrung by DeAndre Hopkins’ injury woes and A.J. Green’s struggles.

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Little wiggle room under the salary cap, along with a mostly conservative approach to the market, mean general manager Steve Keim has been unable to replace Jones and Kirk. Fortunately, the Cards hold eight picks in the 2022 NFL draft, and a leading analytics site has Keim replacing Jones and Kirk in the second and third rounds.


Size and Versatility Keys to Replacing Jones

In his three-round mock draft for every NFC West team, Pro Football Focus’ Seth Galina has the Cardinals choosing an edge-rusher in Round 2. He identifies San Diego State’s Cameron Thomas as the ideal replacement for Jones with the 55th pick.

Galina explains how Thomas would replace both facets of Jones’ game: “After losing Chandler Jones in free agency and not having much depth or big-play ability on the interior of their defensive line last season, the Cardinals find a versatile player in Cameron Thomas, who can mitigate a little bit of both problems. He’s a bigger end (6-foot-4 and 272 pounds) who can slide down inside and wreak havoc on guards with great lateral explosiveness, as he wins with an inside move quite a bit.”

Thomas would be a bargain in the second round, at least based on his production. He logged 10.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss during his final season with the Aztecs, per Sports Reference.

Plays like this strip-sack of Nevada’s Carson Strong from December, relayed by NOLA.com’s Devin Jackson, highlight the hustle and flair for big plays that made Jones so important in Arizona:

More than numbers, the level of flexibility Galina outlines in Thomas’ skill set is important. Jones made his biggest impact as an edge-rusher, but he was also versatile enough to move around the front and alter his alignment to create mismatches.

His time with the New England Patriots and Bill Belichick’s hybrid schemes got Jones used to playing multiple positions. He could win as a traditional defensive end, a standup outside linebacker, or as somebody who tucked inside in certain alignments.

The Cardinals welcomed that versatility and gave Jones the freedom to become the franchise sack leader. His flexibility was summed up nicely by his five-sack display against the Tennessee Titans from Week 1 last season.

Jones began with a sack from each side of the line, one standing up, the other from a three-point stance. He closed out the day with two sacks from inside moves:

Cardinals’ defensive coordinator Vance Joseph needs an edge defender who can take on a similarly roving role. There are already some intriguing moving pieces on the roster, including Golden and Devon Kennard, but neither will frighten offensive linemen the way Jones did.

Selecting Thomas would make the pass-rushing weapons at Joseph’s disposal look a lot more imposing.


Experienced Slot WR Chosen to Replace Kirk

After tabbing the right player to replace Jones, Galina named Boise State’s Khalil Shakir as the perfect wideout to replace Kirk: “Shakir is one of the few top receiver prospects who worked from the slot the majority of his time in college. He is a smooth strider who can make up ground, gain separation and even make contested catches if needed.”

That level of experience in the slot should have the Cardinals taking a long look at Shakir for the 87th pick. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury got a career year from Kirk after moving him inside more often in 2021, according to Compare.bet’s Kyle Odegard:

There isn’t an obvious replacement on the roster, despite the presence of Rondale Moore. He’s a multi-purpose weapon, but one who may be required to play outside more often with Green still a free agent. The Cardinals have also allowed Andy Isabella, another possible fit for the slot role, “to seek a trade.”

There’s room for a player with Shakir’s comfort level working between the hashmarks. He’d also give Kingsbury another playmaker able to attack defenses in a myriad of ways.

Those ways have been detailed by Evan Lazar of CLNS Media:

Using Shakir and Moore all over the field would reduce the predictability of the Cardinals’ offense. It would also limit the ability of defenses to isolate Hopkins, while also leaving tight end Zach Ertz with enough room to pick up some of the slack over the middle, sans Kirk.

There’s a lot to like about the Cardinals choosing Thomas and Shakir. The only note of caution is whether Keim should wait until after the first round to address either position.

This draft class is loaded with quality edge-rushers, including Purdue’s George Karlaftis, who could still be on the board when the Cardinals pick 23rd overall. Equally, there’s also a cadre of game-breaking wide receivers, any one of whom could offer more than Green managed last season and finally give Hopkins the elite running mate he needs.

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