Draft day: Cardinals on the clock

At this point, the Arizona Cardinals’ needs are obvious.

With an aging quarterback, Carson Palmer and no successor in place, Arizona needs a signal-caller to become the future of the franchise.

With franchise pillar Larry Fitzgerald nearing retirement, the Cardinals are in the market for the organization’s next marquee wide receiver.

After losing nearly half of the team’s starting defense to free agency, general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians know the team needs immediate impact contributors on that side of the ball, especially in the secondary.

So what will the team do with the 13th overall pick on Thursday night? We’re glad you asked.

The 13th slot in the 2017 NFL Draft should be a coveted one, because there’s well over a dozen capable players who teams would love to draft in the middle of the first round, but not nearly enough high-end talent at the top of the draft. This year, the theme emerging from teams with the first seven-to-eight picks in the draft has been their willingness to trade back. The only issue? Seemingly everyone wants to trade back.

The Cardinals are among the teams who might benefit from trading back, perhaps to a slot in the late teens or early 20s. Arizona could certainly move a few selections in either direction if the right deal presented itself, but we tend to think Keim and Co. will stay put at 13, and use trade talks elsewhere in this year’s draft.

Plenty of prominent mock drafts have linked the Cardinals to Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes or Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer with the 13th overall pick, but we tend to think those players are lower on Arizona’s draft board than most experts anticipate. If the Cardinals take a quarterback at 13, it wouldn’t surprise us to see Clemson’s Deshaun Watson come off the board, because the organization wants a signal-caller with intangibles, and Watson is a proven leader who won on the big stage in college. 

If Watson is off the board already or the Cardinals don’t feel pressed to take a quarterback at 13, the organization will likely prioritize defense.

Alabama teammates Marlon Humphrey, a cornerback, and Reuben Foster, an inside linebacker, are both in play at 13, and if the Cardinals hold their ground in that slot, either player could hear their name called by a franchise that loves SEC defenders. 

Though both Humphrey and Foster have been linked to Arizona, we think LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White and Temple inside linebacker Hasson Reddick are better schematic fits for the Cardinals. White is considered a lesser prospect than Humphrey while Foster is more of a sure bet as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme than Reddick, but the Cardinals like cornerbacks with press coverage skills and linebackers with versatility which makes White and Reddick more ideal fits. 

One name we haven’t mentioned much throughout the draft process who could emerge on the Cardinals’ radar Thursday evening: Ohio State’s Malik Hooker. The Cardinals have a need at safety, and quite frankly, we assumed Hooker would be off the board by the time Arizona is on the clock. In the past few days, Hooker has slipped in mock drafts, and if he’s available, the Buckeyes’ safety could fit the mold of a high-ceiling player the Cardinals essentially give a redshirt year to similar to what the organization did with D.J. Humphries and Robert Nkemdiche. 

If the Cardinals are on the clock at 13 and Humphrey, Foster, White, Reddick and Hooker are all still available, we think there’s a strong chance Arizona elects to pursue safety help and drafts Hooker. 

The final possibility the Cardinals may pursue with the 13th pick is less likely than drafting a quarterback or a defender, and that’s choosing an offensive player. Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams, Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis and Washington wide receiver John Ross are theoretically all options for Arizona, but Keim and Arians believe there’s plenty of skill position talent to be had in the middle-to-late rounds and will likely wait things out.

Another twist that makes this year’s first round so interesting is the possibility of the Cardinals swapping picks with another franchise to move back into the first round of the draft. In this scenario, Arizona would keep the 13th overall pick and select a defensive player, and then trade back into the first round to select the team’s quarterback of the future. 

Arizona has the ammunition to make this a reality even though the Cardinals only have eight picks in this year’s draft because the franchise is projected to pick up compensatory selections next offseason. After losing Calais CampbellTony JeffersonD.J. Swearinger and Marcus Cooper to free agency, the Cardinals could wind up with two, three or potentially even four compensatory picks next year. This should give the team comfort in trading its 2017 second round selection, and an early to mid round selection in next year’s draft to move back into the first round.

We believe that if the Cardinals follow this strategy, Arizona will move into the late 20s or early 30s to select Mahomes or Cal quarterback Davis Webb. Doing so would still net the Cardinals a potential immediate impact contributor at 13, and give the organization the security of having a first-round talent at the quarterback position to build around.

Final projection: Though the Cardinals’ draft plans will obviously be impacted by how the selections in front of them unfold, we project Arizona to take a defensive player with the 13th overall pick. Ohio State’s Hooker, Alabama’s Humphrey and Temple’s Reddick all have their flaws, but all are very legitimate possibilities at 13. If Arizona does opt for a signal-caller at 13, we project Clemson’s Watson to be the quarterback the Cardinals opt to build around. We’re of the mindset that the Cardinals will wind up with just one first round selection on Thursday night –either Hooker or Humphrey– but with plenty of ammunition to trade back into the first round, Mahomes or Webb could wind up donning Cardinals’ red as well.  

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