FOX Sports Arizona is conducting a position-by-position analysis of the Arizona Cardinals, examining their personnel’s strengths and weaknesses, the team’s free agents at that position and the team’s draft or free-agent needs.
SS Yeremiah Bell, FS Tyrann Mathieu
Much angst was spent over the loss of starting safeties Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson. While Bell wasn’t the game-breaker Wilson was earlier in his career, he wasn’t a drop-off over the aging Wilson, who was released in the offseason.
Bell is a physical specimen who was added to provide run defense, but he struggled in coverage against tight ends — an Achilles’ heel for the defense most of the season. He will be 36 in March so it is unlikely he’ll return (perhaps on another one-year deal). The Cardinals are more likely to pursue a physical safety in free agency and maybe draft one for the future.
Mathieu was considered a risk when the Cardinals selected him in the third round, but that risk quickly turned into a massive reward. Despite his size (5-8, 186), Mathieu was a sure tackler with great instincts and a nose for the ball and big plays.
Mathieu eventually replaced Rashad Johnson as the starter in base defenses and became the nickel corner in passing situations. He finished with 69 tackles (65 solos), a forced fumble, a sack and two interceptions.
Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Mathieu went down for the season with torn LCL and ACLs on Dec. 8 against the Rams. His recovery may not be complete before the start of the season, so the Cardinals have some gaps to fill.
Rashad Johnson, Tony Jefferson, Curtis Taylor, Orhian Johnson (futures contract)
Johnson was the starter until he lost a fingertip in a freak play against the Saints in Week 3. He eventually returned and played well when he did, but he couldn’t supplant Mathieu later in the season. Regardless of how that battle plays out in 2014, the Cardinals have enviable depth at free safety.
Jefferson was an undrafted rookie free agent who played well on special teams, in spot duty and as an injury replacement. If he can take another step in the offseason, he has a chance to win a starting role with Mathieu out and Bell possibly gone.
Yeremiah Bell (unrestricted)
Much depends on Bell’s situation, but the Cardinals are likely to seek a younger alternative in free agency for strong safety.
The belief here is that a strong safety is still one of the franchise’s greater needs in the draft, along with a left tackle, a defensive lineman and a quarterback.