How Arizona can address pass rush through free agency
After a 13-3 season that ended in the NFC Championship game, the Cardinals enter free agency looking to improve for another playoff push. With an aging quarterback in Carson Palmer, Arizona’s championship window looks small, but the team doesn’t have many significant unrestricted free agents at risk of going elsewhere, which should allow them to allocate their cap space toward more pressing areas, such as pass rush and the offensive line.
OLB Dwight Freeney
Though he was limited to just 317 snaps last season and is now 36 years old, Freeney still provides above-average edge rush, which is an area that the Cardinals are lacking in. He compiled 41 total pressures in that span, including a solid five-pressure performance in the divisional round against Green Bay. Only five 3-4 OLBs in the league were more productive on a per-snap basis. Freeney isn’t a long-term solution, but he still offers a valuable situational skill-set and should be cheap to retain.
S Rashad Johnson
Arizona’s second-highest graded UFA behind Freeney, Rashad Johnson struggled in the NFC Championship, but graded positively in coverage during the regular season. He is slightly below-average as a run defender for his career, but he’s played more than 96 percent of the team’s defensive snaps over the last two seasons, and retaining him would certainly help to maintain continuity.
T Bobby Massie
Massie has been average to above-average in run-blocking all four years of his career, but pass protection has been an issue. He’s coming off of his worst season as a pass blocker since 2012, grading among the 10-worst tackles there, with a significant drop from his 2014 level. While Massie did improve over the second half of the season, his career performance is enough that the Cardinals should look elsewhere at right tackle, especially with a 36-year-old signal caller who faced the fourth-most pressure of any QB last season (42 percent of dropbacks).
C Lyle Sendlein
Likewise, Sendlein struggled in pass protection over the last two seasons, with a pass-blocking grade that ranked 61st of 65 qualifying centers in 2015, while he’s also been below-average as a run-blocker. Arizona already has A.Q. Shipley on the roster, who’s graded decently in limited snaps over four seasons, and whether they opt to go with him or not, the team should move on from Sendlein.
DE Robert Ayers or DE William Hayes
Arizona’s best case scenario for pass rush would be adding Von Miller or Olivier Vernon if either gets to free agency, but the team has somewhat limited cap space. Less expensive options are Ayers and Hayes. Ayers has been among the most productive edge rushers over the last two seasons, finishing 2015 with the eighth-highest pass rush grade among that group, while Hayes is the more balanced of the two in terms of run defense. Additionally, only six 4-3 defensive ends were more productive on a per-snap basis last season.
Of the players to hit free agency with more experience playing from a two-point stance, Aldon Smith is probably the top option, but comes with considerable off-field concerns.
T Mitchell Schwartz
The Cardinals may have their long-term answer at right tackle in 2014 first rounder D.J. Humphries, but he was a healthy scratch for the entire season, despite subpar play in front of him. In the short term, it’s probably a good option to look at the position in free agency, where Schwartz would be a good target who’s consistently graded above average in pass protection. Last season, he ranked 27th out of 75 qualifying tackles in pass-blocking efficiency and finished as PFF’s sixth-ranked tackle.
G Brandon Brooks
Mike Iupati has been a free agent hit at left guard, but there’s less stability on the right side with injury issues from Jonathan Cooper and poor play in both facets from Ted Larsen. Brooks is a player we’ve suggested as a target for several teams, and he fits here as well, having spent most of his snaps at right guard with enticing age and production. Alternatively, Arizona might consider Geoff Schwartz, but he’s in a similar boat to Cooper, with extensive time missed due to injury.