Upgrade at strong safety among Cards' draft needs

Yeremiah Bell may retire and the Cardinals still don't have Adrian Wilson's replacement on the roster.

Defending the tight end was a problem throughout the 2013 season for the Cardinals.

Ed Szczepanski / USA TODAY Sports

Yeremiah Bell remains unsigned and may be leaning towards retirement, Tyrann Mathieu might not be ready for the start of the season, and the Cardinals have a trio of largely inexperienced players behind veteran safety Rashad Johnson.

A strong safety would seem like a logical choice in the earlier rounds of this year's NFL Draft, which runs May 8-10. 

"We need more depth going into camp," defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said of the position.

But if you're thinking that means drafting a guy who can cover tight ends -- the biggest flaw in a mostly impressive 2013 defensive performance -- that's only part of the equation.

"The strong safety is not necessarily responsible for the tight end," Bowles said. "Everybody had their share of busts. We have to be more aware of the tight end, and I have to prepare our guys better for that this season, but I don't think that's just the strong safety's job. That falls on a lot of positions, including the linebackers."

Even so, the current personnel don'€™t seem to fill the need, even if undrafted Tony Jefferson (202 snaps in 2013) showed promise in limited duty last season. The bar in this organization is set high after Adrian Wilson roamed the field for 12 seasons, although Wilson wasn't known for his coverage in his later years.

"We miss that guy in a lot of ways," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "Adrian Wilson was a great player and a great leader who could do a lot of things, but we have plenty of other leaders on this team, and guys will have to step up."

Mathieu won't give in to the probability he will miss most, if not all, of training camp. Both the coaches and Mathieu say his rehabilitation is ahead of schedule, but his injury was significant. He suffered two torn ligaments (ACL and LCL) in his left knee while returning a punt against St. Louis on Dec. 8. The LCL injury lengthened the rehabilitation time, leading coach Bruce Arians to temper thoughts he'd be ready for camp.

"I still anticipate him on (the physically unable to perform list), but he refuses to believe it," Arians told reporters at a recent charity event. "That's a good thing."

When Mathieu returns, some of the Cardinals' problems will diminish, but the Cards don't seem to like Johnson in a full-time strong safety slot, and while Bowles suggested Jefferson might be ready for a bigger role, the Cardinals could use more length and athleticism at this position. 

"With the emergence of tight ends, especially the basketball-playing tight ends, the traditional, hard-hitting box safety goes around 5-9 struggles covering those guys," coach Bruce Arians said. "The taller, rangier safeties have become a more premium. When you see guys making 10 million dollars a year now at safety, that tells you that it’s changed. (Seattle's) Earl Thomas is a good reason for it, as is (New Orleans' Jairus) Byrd. Those guys are game-changing players now. The emergence of tight ends and backs as mismatches in the passing game, you have to have a more versatile player there."
 
Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said at a press conference this week that there are four or five top-notch safeties near the top of the draft, and then a bunch of players who could help down the road. Some of the Cardinals' draft-day approach could depend on how quickly those four or five players go, although Keim insisted the staff will stick to the game plan formulated before the Draft and not get caught up in the emotion of the moment.

The Cards have been rumored to have interest in Alabama's 6-foot-1 phenom Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville thumper Calvin Pryor, but they could also may help in the later rounds if they choose to address the need for an edge rusher, a quarterback or an offensive lineman in the first round.

Alabama's Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix is generally regarded as the top safety available in this year's draft.

Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images North America

There is also the possibility that Bell comes back on a cheap, one-year deal. Fox Sports 910's Mike Jurecki reported that the Cardinals have offered Bell a one-year deal, but despite public statements, the Cardinals didn't seem overly thrilled with his play last season, and he is 36 years old. There is no guarantee that he'd make the team out of camp.

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SAFETIES ON THE ROSTER

 Name  Age  NFL experience
 Rashad Johnson  28  6th year
 Tyrann Mathieu  21  2nd year
 Tony Jefferson
 22  2nd year
 Curtis Taylor
 28  3rd year
 Orhian Johnson
 24  1st year

TOP SAFETY DRAFT PROSPECT RANKINGS 

CBSSports.com

Louisville safety Calvin Pryor

Brian Spurlock / USA TODAY Sports

Strong safety
1. Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois 5-11 193
2. Deone Bucannon, Washington State 6-1 211
3. Brock Vereen, Minnesota 6-0 199
4. Dezmen Southward, Wisconsin 6-0 211
5. Craig Loston, LSU 6-1 217
6. Vinnie Sunseri, Alabama 5-11 210
7. Ahmad Dixon, Baylor 6-0 212
8. Daniel Sorensen Brigham Young 6-1 205
9. Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State 5-10 211
10. Nat Berhe, San Diego State 5-11 193

Free safety
1. Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama 6-1 208
2. Calvin Pryor, Louisville 5-11 207
3. Terrence Brooks Florida State 5-11 198
4. Dion Bailey, USC, 6-0 201
5. Ed Reynolds, Stanford 6-1 207
6. Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt Sr 6-0 207
7. Marqueston Huff, Wyoming 5-11 196
8. Tre Boston North Carolina 6-0 204
9. Christian Bryant, Ohio State 5-9 198
10. Jonathan Dowling, Western Kentucky 6-3 190

National Football Post

Strong safety
1. Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois
2. Deone Bucannon, Washington St
3. Dion Bailey, USC 6-0 210
4. Ahmad Dixon, Baylor
5. Craig Loston, LSU
6. Hakeem Smith, Louisville 6-1 188
7. Dezmen Southward, Wisconsin 6-2 214
8. Sean Parker, Washington 5-10 195
9. Alden Darby, Arizona State 5-11 195
10. C.J. Barnett, Ohio State 6-0 190

Free safety
1. Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
2. Calvin Pryor, Louisville
3. Ed Reynolds, Stanford
4. Vinnie Sunseri, Alabama 6-0 210
5. Jonathan Dowling, Western Kentucky
6. Marqueston Huff, Wyoming
7. Tre Boston, North Carolina