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How long would it take the Arizona Cardinals to be a contender if they nailed every single draft pick?

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Looking back at the Lions from a decade ago shows us how quickly a Cardinals rebuild could happen if everything worked out perfectly.

Sometimes, one play, one moment, one decision can change everything — or maybe only a little bit. Either way, it can be fun to imagine the various timelines if one thing had gone differently. SB Nation NFL is looking at those hypotheticals, alternate universes, and made-up scenarios in our second annual “What If?” week. You can follow along with every story here.

The Arizona Cardinals are in the midst of a complete overhaul. For the second straight season.

In the span of just 15 months, one of the NFL’s oldest remaining franchises has hired two different first-year head coaches and bolstered them with two different first-round quarterbacks. When Josh Rosen and Steve Wilks failed to generate more than three wins, they were replaced by Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury.

That effectively hit reset on the team’s rebuilding clock, creating the expectation of another year of futility while a young team attempts to take root in the pavement of contention like a rogue dandelion.

Kingsbury already got off to a roaring start. He landed a Heisman-winning passer who can run his modified air raid offense to perfection, then surrounded him (and incumbent All-Pro tailback David Johnson) with budding, field-stretching receiving talent like Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler, and KeeSean Johnson.

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, every single player Arizona selected in April this year — all 11 picks — was the best player available at the position. What would their timeline back to contention look like?

A hypothetical look at Detroit’s 2009 team shows us what that could look like after a decade of reflection.

Let’s see how long it would have taken an 0-16 Lions team to become a contender

In order to get a better idea of the Cardinals’ best case scenario, we can turn back the clock to 2009.

Then, a Lions team fresh off the first 0-16 season in NFL history picked up their franchise quarterback with the top overall pick — and followed that up with a relatively disappointing array of role players in the rest of their draft.

With enough time to assess the best players to come out of that ‘09 draft class, we can create an all-Crunchberries lineup of prospects who would have lifted Detroit from its malaise and into contention, along with an idea of how long a total makeover would have taken.

Using Pro Football Reference’s approximate value tool helps determine the most productive players who would have been available at each of the Lions’ picks.

And even if those athletes don’t directly relate to Arizona’s rebuild, they can provide a blueprint for the kind of players who can serve as the foundation for a Cardinals’ Super Bowl run.

Here’s how a Detroit re-draft would have unfolded

2009 IN:

Round 1, pick 1: QB Matthew Stafford
1 (20): LB Clay Matthews
2 (33): RB LeSean McCoy
3 (76): OG Louis Vasquez
3 (82): OT T.J. Lang
4 (115): WR Julian Edelman
6 (192): OG Matt Slauson
7 (228): RB Rashad Jennings
7 (235): DT Clinton McDonald
7 (255): K Ryan Succop

2009 OUT:

TE Brandon Pettigrew
CB Louis Delmas
LB DeAndre Levy
WR Derrick Williams
DT Sammie Lee Hill
RB Aaron Brown
OT Lydon Murtha
LB Zack Follett
TE Dan Gronkowski

Pretty good! By absolutely crushing the 2009 draft, the Lions keep Stafford and get the core of an offensive line that will keep him protected for years to come. They also land an All-Pro pass rusher and a powerful 1-2 combo at running back to supplant Kevin Smith, who’d average 3.4 yards per carry in real world Detroit that fall.

Is that influx plus a rookie quarterback enough to get the club to the postseason? Probably not. The Lions fielded the league’s worst defense in terms of both yards and points allowed for the third straight season in 2009, and Stafford’s learning curve — even with Calvin Johnson still around — would leave them vulnerable in shootout situations.

Let’s say these additions push Detroit from a 2-14 season and into something in the 6-8 win range. Instead of the No. 2 overall pick, that would leave the team with somewhere around the 13th selection in 2010. If we wipe all the team’s draft trades off the board for the sake of argument, Year 2 of absolutely killing the draft would look something like this:

2010 IN:

Round 1, pick 13: S Earl Thomas
2 (45): LB NaVorro Bowman
3 (77): TE Jimmy Graham
4 (109): DT Geno Atkins
5 (141): S Reshad Jones
6 (173): WR Antonio Brown
6 (205): C Ted Larsen

2010 OUT:

DT Ndamukong Suh
RB Jahvid Best
DB Amari Spievey
OT Jason Fox
DE Willie Young
WR Tim Toone

That’s not an especially realistic revision given the plethora of minor trades and supplemental picks that would have sorted out, but it’s close enough for argument’s sake. And it makes the Lions a juggernaut on both sides of the ball.

Stafford now gets to hand the ball off to McCoy and throw passes to Johnson, Brown, Edelman, and Graham. The defense is a little worse off without Suh, but now relies on Thomas, Bowman, Atkins, Jones, and Matthews. That’s a terrifying young core to pair with more senior players like Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch (who we’re assuming still signs with the team in ‘10), and while that certainly looks like a playoff-caliber team, it’s still a bit early to label it a true contender.

Let’s dig into one more aced draft class. This time, we’ll project the Lions wins about 10 games and have an opening draft position somewhere around the 22nd pick, rather than the No. 13th pick they had in reality.

2011 IN:

Round 1, pick 22: DE Cameron Jordan
2 (54): DT Jurrell Casey
3 (86): LB K.J. Wright
4 (118): OT Marcus Cannon
5 (150): CB Richard Sherman
6 (182): C Jason Kelce
7 (214): LB Malcolm Smith

2011 OUT:

DT Nick Fairley
WR Titus Young
RB Mikel Leshoure
LB Doug Hogue
OL Johnny Culbreath

Another major improvement, and enough to give the Lions an explosive team with enough experience to roll into the Super Bowl as a favorite.

This is what the Lions’ three-year perfect draft result looks like

With three A+ drafts, their starting lineup would be something like the following:

QB: Matthew Stafford
WR: Calvin Johnson, Antonio Brown, Julian Edelman
RB: LeSean McCoy, Rashad Jennings
TE: Jimmy Graham
OL: T.J. Lang, Louis Vaquez, Dominic Raiola, Jason Kelce, Matt Slauson, Marcus Cannon, Gosder Cherilus
DE: Cliff Avril, Cameron Jordan, Kyle Vanden Bosch
DT: Geno Atkins, Jurrell Casey, Clinton McDonald
LB: K.J. Wright, NaVorro Bowman, Clay Matthews, Malcolm Smith
CB: Richard Sherman, Chris Houston
S: Earl Thomas, Reshad Jones

That’s a lot of firepower! These players are all on dirt-cheap rookie contracts too, so there would be plenty of room to add veteran free agent talent — and hell to pay once extension season struck in the 2012 offseason. They’re also the foundation of what looks like a Super Bowl favorite. All it took was three years of the greatest drafts the league has ever seen.


So what does this mean for the Cardinals? If Murray is for real, and Isabella, Butler, cornerback Byron Murphy, and defensive end Zach Allen can all reach their Pro Bowl potential, and a couple players escape from Day 3 to become impact players, then congratulations, Arizona! You’re only one more year and another perfect draft away from reaching the postseason — and that’s with the Rams and Seahawks waiting in an extremely tough NFC West.

There is a shortcut to this unlikely three-year plan, however. If Murray can develop into even a league-average quarterback, his average $8.7 million salary over the next four seasons will be an absolute bargain, creating the savings cap space to lure veteran talent to the Phoenix area. And while high-level free agents mostly avoided the Cardinals this offseason, selling players on an ascending team with an actual vision will be much easier than whatever the team’s inadvertently been advertising since 2018.

The other good news is that there’s already some All-Pro talent on the roster between David Johnson and Patrick Peterson, and both can accelerate Kingsbury’s timeline. With 2019’s draft class earning solid grades, Arizona could already be on the road back to prosperity.

Even if that’s not the case, and even if they botch free agency in 2020 and 2021, the Cardinals can still get to the Super Bowl before 2022. All they need to do is put together a series of completely flawless drafts, as improbable as that may be.