Cardinals beef up defense, add protection for Murray
The Arizona Cardinals focused on two major needs in the NFL draft: Improving a defense that was among the league’s worst last season and protecting young franchise quarterback Kyler Murray.
On Saturday, the Cardinals selected two defensive linemen in the fourth round — Utah’s Leki Fotu and LSU’s Rashard Lawrence — and California linebacker Evan Weaver in the sixth round. In the seventh round with their final pick, they added Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin.
The four players join Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons, the No. 8 overall selection, and Houston offensive tackle Josh Jones, who was picked in the third round. Both players slid to the Cardinals after being projected to go earlier.
“In the time I’ve been doing this, I really do feel the board fell to us this year as good as it’s ever fallen,” Arizona GM Steve Keim said. “In terms of guys that we really, really liked and valued for what we do and for our organizational needs.”
The one player expected to make an immediate impact is Simmons, who many consider the ideal defender in today’s NFL. The 6-foot-3, 240-pounder is listed as a linebacker but lined up just about everywhere during his college days, including edge rusher and in the secondary. He could have a similar role with the Cardinals.
“I’m not really opposed to honing in on one position and mastering that, but I’m also very, very open to being able to move around and play a similar role I did at Clemson,” Simmons said.
Many mock drafts had Simmons being picked in the top five, and Keim had him high on his board.
“I’m not going to give you the number but he was top five,” Keim said. “I truly feel like he is one of the best players in this draft and a guy who is going to have a tremendous pro career.”
The Cardinals also felt like they got a steal by adding Jones with the No. 72 overall pick. Keim mentioned he had the lineman ranked in his top 30 and was “shocked” he was still available so late.
Benjamin was rated higher than a seventh-round selection by most draft prognosticators. He ran for at least 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons for the Sun Devils.
The Cardinals didn’t have a second-round pick after dealing the selection to the Houston Texans in March. Arizona is pretty happy about what it got in return, though: The pick was part of the deal that brought three-time All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the desert.
Hopkins has been one of the most productive and durable receivers in the NFL over the past seven years and has at least 1,000 yards receiving in five of the past six years.
Arizona also didn’t have a fifth-round pick but got a good return for sending it to the Miami Dolphins last fall. That deal brought running back Kenyan Drake to the Cardinals.
Arizona felt comfortable selecting Jones to help their offensive line because of some good connections. Kingsbury recruited Jones when he was the coach at Texas Tech and Jones played in college at Houston for Dana Holgorsen, who is one of Kingsbury’s mentors.
There was also a close connection to Lawrence. LSU’s receivers coach Mickey Joseph is the brother of Cardinals’ defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, so the Cardinals felt confident about the information they received.
RUGBY TO FOOTBALL
Fotu has imposing size at 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds and gives the Cardinals an interior defensive lineman to groom as an eventual replacement for veteran Corey Peters. Fotu has the reputation as an elite run stopper who is still developing a pass rush.
Fotu was a standout rugby player and was good enough to play for the U.S. junior national team before switching to football full-time.
Lawrence already has some good memories in the desert. He had the self-described best game of his career as a junior in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl, a two-sack performance that earned him MVP honors.
Lawrence was a three-time captain at LSU and returned for his senior season, helping the Tigers win the national championship in January.
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