The Arizona Cardinals still have quarterback Kyler Murray under his rookie contract, and must be in win-now mode as they seek roster upgrades in the 2021 NFL Draft.
With the 16th overall pick, Arizona is in decent position in Round 1 to land an instant-impact contributor, and could even enhance some key positions with its next couple of selections on Day 2.
Let’s take a look at where the Cardinals’ top draft picks fall, and break down some ideal prospects for them to target as they attempt to keep up in the hyper-aggressive, super-competitive NFC West division.
Arizona Cardinals draft picks: Best prospects to target in three-round mock
First round, 16th pick: Jaycee Horn (CB, South Carolina), Gregory Rousseau (EDGE, Miami), Alijah Vera-Tucker (OL, USC)
Many mock drafts have Horn going to the Cardinals, and it makes a lot of sense — especially after word has surfaced that long-tenured franchise cornerstone Patrick Peterson is bound to be gone this offseason in free agency. Peterson denies he’s made his decision, yet even if he stays, it’s still worth the investment in the future of this important position group.
In addition to being the son of former New Orleans Saints receiver Joe Horn, Jaycee Horn is a phenomenal player in his own right. He no doubt understands the main tenets of being an NFL player, but his play can stand on its own and speak for itself. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Gamecocks star played in the SEC and didn’t have it at all easy week in and week out. Nevertheless, he remained tough, competitive and took each opponent’s best shot even as the program around him suffered from subpar play.
Per Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks completed only 33% of 24 passes thrown Horn’s way in 2020 for 116 yards. He picked two of them off, and also recorded six pass breakups in seven games.
As obvious of a fit as Horn is, there are other mock simulations where he was off the board, which would force Arizona to think differently. Rousseau is a fascinating target to pursue, considering he can rush from the inside and also function well on the edge. He had 19.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks in 2019, which is the type of one-year wonder stuff dream prospects are made on.
Alijah Vera-Tucker is almost certain to be available at this juncture, and he could really help the Cardinals up front. As we’ll see in the next section, though, there could be an even better personnel fit later in the draft for the team, and he’d definitely be a third resort if both Horn and Rousseau are waiting at No. 16.
Second round, 49th pick: Creed Humphrey (C, Oklahoma), Javonte Williams (RB, North Carolina), Trey Smith (OL, Tennessee)
Mason Cole was Pro Football Focus’ 31st-ranked center in 2020 and could justifiably be released this offseason despite his very modest salary cap hit, since he’s just not been able to cut it at the center position. There’s a really good chance Oklahoma’s Humphrey is still available, at which point the Cardinals should run to the possibly virtual podium and turn in the card with his name on it.
Humphrey was actually teammates with Murray as a Sooner for a short time, so he’s familiar with Arizona’s signal-caller, which makes his unusual left-handedness not as much of a deterrent for the Cardinals to draft him as opposed to many other teams. The fact that Humphrey was also in a spread Oklahoma offense and Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury uses a similar Air Raid system to accentuate Murray’s strengths in the NFL also makes him an ideal fit.
Other prospects to consider here are an additional playmaker in the backfield in Williams and a bulkier presence in the offensive trenches in Smith. Either one would be great for Murray, because Williams is a powerful, contact-embracing tailback who scored 19 touchdowns on 157 carries last season. He’d take a burden off Murray to run the ball in the red zone.
As for Smith, he’s a mauling, massive guard who’s surprisingly quick for his size. The interior of the offensive line should be addressed in Arizona either way within either the first two rounds of the draft or via a marquee free agent. Smith is a great choice if Humphrey and Williams already have their names called by this point.
Third round, 79th pick: Demetric Felton (RB/WR, UCLA), Michael Carter (RB, North Carolina), Benjamin St-Juste (CB, Minnesota)
Not long ago, Arizona was considered to have the deepest receiving corps in the NFL, at least on paper. With Larry Fitzgerald closing in on retirement, Christian Kirk entering a contract year, Andy Isabella proving to be a draft bust thus far and DeAndre Hopkins being the only go-to option, there’s a need for the Cardinals to explore ways to acquire superior skill players.
If Arizona doesn’t go with Williams in Round 2, it’s possible to get another Tar Heels ball-carrier in Carter, who’s not as big but is a hard-nosed runner who’s more explosive in the open field and averaged a ridiculous eight yards per carry this past year. Carter can also catch out of the backfield, which suits Murray’s penchant for getting the ball out fast in the quick screen game
Felton is an interesting case and perhaps a better fit in that regard, though. The UCLA product actually played in the slot as a receiver during his time with the Bruins, but then moved to the backfield. During his last two seasons in 18 games, Felton had 999 yards rushing and six touchdowns to go with 77 catches, 753 yards and seven more scores. That type of versatility and all-around production is uncommon in most draft prospects.
Since he doesn’t have a clear-cut position, Felton could be the new version of Antonio Gibson, who fell to the third round of last year’s draft before bursting onto the scene as one of the NFL’s best rookies for the Washington Football Team.
St-Juste is the classic toolsy prospect who has excellent length at 6-foot-3 and can break on the ball really well. He’s just a little raw, but if the Cardinals can mold him in the right way, they may be able to really enhance their secondary in the wake of Peterson’s departure by selecting two corners within the first three rounds.
Arizona Cardinals draft picks: Ideal 2021 NFL Draft mock scenario
- First round: Jaycee Horn, cornerback, South Carolina
- Second round: Creed Humphrey, center, Oklahoma
- Third round: Demetric Felton, RB/WR, UCLA
The case for Felton is pretty well-outlined above. Furthermore, Chase Edmonds (41st) and Kenyan Drake (60th) rated poorly in PFF’s 2020 grades at the running back position. Murray is a dynamic runner to the point that Arizona can’t exclude that unique facet of his makeup from its offense entirely, but it would be smart to get someone like Felton who can move all around the formation and confuse defenses with pre-snap motion. He’d be a huge X-factor for the Cardinals.
Humphrey just makes too much sense in the second round presuming he’s not been selected yet, as a reunion with Murray would be ideal for the start of his NFL career and also put the young stud passer more at ease with a higher-caliber player snapping him the ball ever play.
Chasing and reaching for a need can be an issue in the NFL Draft. That isn’t the case in this instance for Arizona. Presuming Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley and Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II are off the board, which is the case in nearly every mock simulation and write-up on the Internet, Horn is the next-best option.
Cornerbacks are too important to ignore in the modern NFL. Horn isn’t such a precipitous drop-off from Farley and Surtain, and he’s definitely the most physically aggressive of the three. That kind of tenacity is necessary to bring to the NFC West, which will face opposing passing attacks triggered by the likes of Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford, and in San Francisco, masterminded by the brilliant play-caller/head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Arizona is definitely the overlooked team in the division right now. With the way the draft could break, there’s a great chance the Cardinals can land a phenomenal rookie class, bounce back from a disappointing 2020 finish and get back to the NFL playoffs.