This is the first installment of FOXSportsArizona.com’s three-part NFL draft preview featuring analysis from FOX Sports NFL draft analyst Taylor Jones.
4/23: Assessing the Cardinals’ needs 4/24: Sun Devils in the draft 4/25: Wildcats in the draft
While the Cardinals were happy to win seven of their final nine games and end the 2011 season 8-8, the strong finish put them in a bit of an awkward position heading into the NFL draft, which kicks off Thursday with the first round.
The Cards have made no secret of their need to upgrade the offensive line, particularly at tackle, but with the 13th pick in the first round and no second-round pick (they traded it as part of the package for quarterback Kevin Kolb), they may face a difficult decision.
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FOX Sports NFL draft analyst Taylor Jones believes offensive tackle is indeed the Cardinals’ greatest need but also predicts they could have to decide between taking a lesser-valued tackle or the best available player at another position of need.
With the Minnesota likely targeting USC product Matt Kalil with the third pick and St. Louis (sixth), Buffalo (10th) and Kansas City (11th) also in need of offensive linemen, the Cardinals’ top targets might be unavailable at No. 13.
“At worst, they could be taking the fifth-best tackle,” Jones said. “Or, if St. Louis takes a receiver and Kansas City goes interior (offensive guard), the third-best tackle.”
With Kalil certainly gone and Iowa tackle Riley Reiff likely off the board by the time the Cardinals pick, the best case scenario might be 6-foot-5 Stanford product Jonathan Martin. Jones has the Cardinals taking Martin in his most recent mock draft but wonders if the pick makes sense considering that the team re-signed left tackle Levi Brown, who showed improvement at the end of last season.
Could the Cardinals shift Brown to the right side, allowing Martin to play on the left where he’s most effective? Or might they instead turn to other available options?
“To me, Martin is still the best guy there at that pick, over Mike Adams and Cordy Glenn” Jones said. “The more I watch Cordy Glenn, the more I like him, but I just don’t think 13 is the right value place for him.”
Glenn, a 6-foot-6, 345-pound tackle who played at Georgia, would offer the Cardinals a little more flexibility, as he can also shift inside to play guard. Adams might be the last tackle the Cardinals would take in the first round before considering other positional needs. Still, offensive line is the team’s greatest need, and they would have to wait until the third round to take a lineman should they not get one with their first-round pick.
That doesn’t mean the team is guaranteed to take a lineman just because of need — coach Ken Whisenhunt said Thursday that the team won’t reach for an offensive lineman “just because that’s what you think you have to do” — but it does underscore the Cards’ first-round dilemma.
The Cardinals’ deficient offensive line, Jones said, was likely half the reason Peyton Manning spurned the Cardinals to play in Denver. The other half? Wide receivers.
Jones noted that the Cardinals’ receiving corps has needed help since the team traded Anquan Boldin. They have since lacked a solid No. 2 receiver to complement Larry Fitzgerald and command some of the coverage typically allotted to him. Drafting a wide receiver in the first round, though, might be a little trickier than taking an offensive lineman.
Oklahoma State product Justin Blackmon is regarded by most as the best receiver in the draft and is widely expected to be the first off the board. Jones notes, though, that Michael Floyd out of Notre Dame has recently closed the gap a bit and could go in the top 10. After that, there’s a bit of a dropoff at the position.
So might one of those two fall far enough for the Cardinals to land him?
“I think one of them could be there at 13,” Jones said. “If Floyd is still available after seven when Jacksonville picks, I think there’s a great chance that he’s there at 13.”
Blackmon falling that far seems almost impossible, as either St. Louis or Jacksonville will likely snap him up. But if Floyd, who had a private visit with the Cardinals last week, remains available when the Cardinals are on the clock, they might have to consider his potential as a big-time playmaker.
“I think wide receiver is the deepest position in the draft,” Jones said. “(The Cardinals) have already got one of the best in the game, so they don’t necessarily need another No. 1 receiver. But it wouldn’t hurt them to have another No. 1, because it was arguably hard to tell between Fitzgerald and Boldin who was the No. 1 receiver then.”
While the thought of two elite wide receivers might have fans salivating as they recall the combo that helped the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in 2009, Jones doesn’t expect the team will use its top pick on a receiver. That need, he believes, is more likely to be addressed in the third round or later.
With receivers such as Juron Criner (Arizona), Marvin McNutt (Iowa), Ryan Broyles (Oklahoma) and Nick Toon (Wisconsin) likely available between the third and fifth rounds, the Cardinals can afford to wait.
After offensive tackle and wide receiver, the Cardinals’ needs shift to the defensive side, with a number of positions needing to be bolstered. Jones notes that there is some need at linebacker, even with a solid group of young linebackers that features Daryl Washington in the middle and Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield on the outside.
“With the Steelers-type defense they’re trying to run, you can never have enough outside linebackers,” Jones said.
With that in mind, the Cardinals might consider South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram, considered by some the best pass rusher in the draft, should he still be on the board at No. 13.
There’s also some need at defensive back given Richard Marshall’s departure in free agency, but that’s another deep position in the draft, so the Cardinals should have quality options there in the middle rounds.