It goes without saying that the Arizona Cardinals are in a class of their own in the NFC West. This class represents a single team that seems to be relegated to cellar-dwelling status for the immediate future. With the improved play, coaching and front office in St. Louis, it appears that Arizona is well behind the Rams for even third place in the division.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are among the best teams in the conference. San Francisco is coming off a Super Bowl appearance, while Seattle was a late-game loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the playoffs from taking on the 49ers in the 2013 NFC Championship Game.
For its part, Arizona's struggles can be attributed to improved play from the other three teams in the division. That being said, the Cardinals haven't done themselves any favors recently. They have struggled finding the right mesh of proven veterans and youngsters. They have made some horrendous free agent signings and have been nowhere near as effective as other teams in the division in terms of drafting. This doesn't even take into account a disastrous salary cap situation.
No, it isn't good being a fan of the Cardinals these days.
What can they do, if anything, to become viable in an ever improving division? Well, it all starts with the upcoming draft in April. An event that will define this franchise for years to come.
No Quarterback in First Round
Various reports over the weekend, which have since been debunked, indicated that Arizona is high on Southern California' quarterback Matt Barkley and will not let him get past them at seven. This would just be another move in a long line of front office ineptitude by the Bidwell-led Cardinals' front office.
How does Arizona expect any quarterback to succeed behind an offensive line that has yielded 162 sacks over the last three seasons? That's about 3.5 sacks per game during that span.
Arizona needs upgrades at both tackle positions, at guard and possibly even at center if it expects to get decent production from whoever is under center. I don't care if it is Alex Smith, Kevin Kolb or Matt Barkley under center, he is going to need to have protection hold up in order to get the ball to the outside over Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.
Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson should both be available when Arizona selects seventh overall. It would be getting a tremendous amount of value at a need position, rather than reaching for another "need" position that doesn't represent any type of value. Heck, even if Geno Smith is still on the board at seven, I believe Arizona should pass up on him in order to acquire one of the two aforementioned franchise book ends.
Get a Quarterback
While I firmly believe that Arizona shouldn't spend its first pick on a quarterback, it should pick one up in either the second or third round, where the value is going to be much better. Geno Smith and Matt Barkley may not be available when the Cardinals select in the second round, but that doesn't matter. Mike Glennon, Ryan Nassib and E.J. Manuel should all be available there. Heck, the Cardinals could even get value with someone like Landry Jones or Tyler Bray in the third.
Kevin Kolb was decent this past season before he went down with an injury and seems to be open to restructuring his contract. This indicates that the veteran quarterback will be back in the mix in '13. He can hold the starting spot (if he has a solid offensive line) until one of those second-or-third round prospects is ready to grab the job and run with it.
Let's face one reality here. Alex Smith will not be coming to Arizona. That leaves Matt Moore as its only viable option in the open market. Why would the Cardinals go from Kolb to Moore and believe it is an upgrade next season? I just don't see it.
Find a Running Back
It's well known that Beanie Wells will not be returning to the Cardinals next season. This leaves Ryan Williams as the only decent running back currently under contract. The running back position may not be filled with top-tier players n the 2013 NFL Draft, but there is definitely value to be had in the mid rounds here.
Gio Bernard, Johnathan Franklin, Stepfan Taylor and Christine Michael all impressed at the combine. Each one of them could be viable starting running backs in the NFL. Couple a rookie with Williams and you have the makings of a decent run game behind whoever is under center.
Build Through the Draft
There is no reason for Arizona to go out there and sign top of the line free agents next month. It isn't anywhere near ready to compete with the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks in the division. In fact, it has a lot of work to do in order to challenge the St. Louis Rams for third place in the NFC West. Signing veterans, which hasn't worked out well in the past, will not put the Cardinals across the finish line.
In reality, Arizona is a couple years away from contention. It has a solid group of youngsters on the defensive side of the ball, so adding more players there is going to be key.
As it is, the best short-term fix may be the best long-term solution as well. That means building through the draft and avoiding free agency as much as possible.