The good news for the Cardinals: The seemingly unending losing streak has actually ended. The bad news: This will be the third straight playoff-less season regardless, and the situation at quarterback — which is clearly the determining factor for this team’s success/failure — still isn’t settled heading into 2013.
Since Kevin Kolb’s season-ending rib injury, at which time the Cardinals were 4-1, the Cards have lost eight of nine, in large part due to a passing game (or lack thereof) that ranks near the bottom of the NFL in ever relevant category. John Skelton and Ryan Lindley have been similarly disastrous, and even if Kolb is the legitimate starter he appeared to be before his injury, his inability to stay on the field in his two years in Arizona and his contract situation (due a total of $11 million next year) collectively make his future with the Cards uncertain.
Of course, there appear to be few, if any, viable options in free agency, and since there aren’t a lot of teams out there looking to trade starting-caliber quarterbacks … well, you know where this is going.
ESPN draft expert Todd McShay released his first 2013 mock draft late last week, and while the quarterback draft class isn’t considered strong at the top, he doesn’t think that’ll matter for the Cardinals, as he has West Virginia’s Geno Smith as their pick at No. 8 (draft order pending final records). It should be noted that Smith is the only QB listed in McShay’s first-round projection, with USC’s Matt Barkley nowhere to be found after a somewhat disappointing senior year that ended with a shoulder injury; Georgia junior Aaron Murray is also considered a first-round prospect but hasn’t yet announced whether he’ll leave school.
“There is still a lot of work to do on the top quarterbacks, but the question at this point is how high a team will reach for the top player a the position. It’s easy to argue the Cardinals need a quarterback as badly as any team in the NFL right now, and when Smith is on, his mechanics, footwork and confidence make him an effective passer.”
To define “effective,” Smith completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 4,004 yards with 40 touchdowns and six picks this season and was at one point the Heisman frontrunner before West Virginia lost five of its last seven games. Accuracy isn’t much of a concern, nor is his size (6-foot-3, 214 pounds); his ability to throw under pressure and effectively manage an offense that doesn’t operate entirely out of the shotgun might be, though.
There’s still a strong possibility that Kolb will be back (with a reworked contract) since the Cardinals presumably have little interest in going into next season with a rookie quarterback as the starter, but whether he’ll be able to stay healthy is another matter. The Cards need a viable alternative since Skelton and Lindley have made it clear that they aren’t that.
The question is whether they need that alternative more than they need to address anything else (read: the offensive line). Even with Levi Brown returning next year from a torn triceps, an upgrade at right tackle — or left tackle, in which case Brown could switch sides — is desperately needed given the revolving door there this year. And this draft isn’t lacking for quality tackle prospects: McShay has the consensus top tackle in the draft, Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel, going fourth overall, Michigan junior Taylor Lewan (by way of Chaparral High in Scottsdale) going ninth, just one spot after the Cardinals are projected to take Smith, and Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews and Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher going in the mid-teens.
The Cardinals might have had the opportunity to take Joeckel with a loss to the Lions and a 4-12 finish, but that would’ve been too simple. The choices get a little tougher toward the bottom of the top 10, where the Cards are headed, especially when said choice requires taking a significant chance at quarterback one way or another.