Arizona Cardinals' NFL free-agent signings 2021: J.J. Watt leads the way

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Does J.J. Watt make the Cardinals contenders? (1:30)

Dan Graziano and Marcus Spears break down the impact of J.J. Watt signing with the Cardinals. (1:30)

NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2021 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 17 at 4 p.m. ET, meaning free-agent signings can be made official after that. The first round of the 2021 NFL draft begins April 29 on ESPN.

The Cardinals' finished 8-8 after starting 5-2 in 2020 and could look vastly different when they take the field in 2021. Arizona began the new league year with 28 free agents and even though general manager Steve Keim has said he'd like "a number" of them to return, there's a good chance that the Cardinals could see a major overhaul of their roster in coach Kliff Kingsbury' third season.

How the Cardinals fill out their roster could be the difference between the playoffs and another January at home, which could mean the end of Kingsbury’s tenure in Arizona.

Here's a breakdown of every 2021 NFL free-agent signing by the Arizona Cardinals, and how each will impact the upcoming season:

J.J. Watt, defensive end

Watt, who has 101 career sacks, reached a deal with the Cardinals before free agency began in full swing.

What it means: The Cardinals were the unexpected winners of the J.J. Watt sweepstakes, giving them one of the best pass-rushers in the game. The 31-year-old Watt is a future Hall of Famer who will give the Cardinals a top-tier complement in the pass-rushing game across from Chandler Jones. Watt gave the Cardinals' defense more name credibility and gave the locker room a veteran presence who can lead both by example as well as verbally, both of which Arizona could need desperately depending on how free agency plays out.

What's the risk: Watt has a lengthy injury history. He's played 16 games in a season just twice since 2015. But in one of those years, 2018, he had 16 sacks. When Watt is healthy, he's elite. But it's a matter of him staying healthy. Fortunately for the Cardinals, he's coming off a 16-game season but had just five sacks. Arizona, to some degree, doesn't know which Watt they're going to get. The one who's consistently healthy? The one who can put up double-digit sacks? Or the one who gets hurt?


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A.J. Green, wide receiver

Former Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green is coming to the Cardinals on a one-year deal.

What it means: The Cardinals needed a WR2 as bad as any position heading into free agency and the seem to have found that with Green, who will be 33 when the season starts. He has the potential to be a dynamic complement to DeAndre Hopkins, giving the Cardinals a solid one-two punch at receiver. With as much attention as Hopkins gets, Green will face plenty of one-on-ones, giving quarterback Kyler Murray the types of options he's been missing in Arizona. And if Green plays up to his potential, then Arizona could have as formidable of a receiving duo as there is in the NFL.

What's the risk: There are a few risks by signing Green. Even though he played all 16 games in 2020, his injury history is something to be concerned about. If he can play another full season in 2021, that will be considered a success. Then there's the question of his production. He had only 523 yards last season, leaving a lingering question mark about whether he still has what it takes to be a dominant -- or even serviceable -- receiver for the Cardinals.


Malcolm Butler, cornerback

Malcolm Butler has signed a one-year deal with the Cardinals.

What it means: The Cardinals found their CB1 in Butler after losing Patrick Peterson in free agency. Until they brought in Butler, Arizona didn't have a clear-cut top corner. Robert Alford hasn't played a down in two years and Byron Murphy is an elite slot corner. Now that the Cardinals have Butler, their defense is essentially finished. He was the missing piece that can help Arizona be one of the top units in the NFL.

What's the risk: Butler has played 16 games in all but two of his seven seasons but he's 31. Wear and tear is a natural concern for any cornerback over the age of 30 but he's coming off a solid season and hasn't shown any signs of decline. And on a one-year deal the risk is low for signing him.


James Conner, running back

The former Steelers running back signed a one-year deal with the Cardinals.

What it means: Conner gives the Cardinals much-needed depth at running back and another option to be their primary ball carrier along with Chase Edmonds.

What's the risk: Conner's risk is low level because of his injury history. He hasn't played 16 games in a season during his career but hasn't played less than 10, while he's played 13 or 14 games in three of his four seasons.


Markus Golden, linebacker

The Cardinals have agreed to a two-year contract with Golden, the team announced.

What it means: Golden provides the Cardinals with a solid back up for both J.J. Watt and Chandler Jones and will be part of the Cardinals outside linebacker rotation instead of waiting to spell one of the starters. He's had 4.5 sacks last season between his time in Arizona and the New York Giants, who the Cardinals traded with for him. But Golden is two years removed from a 10-sack season and he hasn't lost a step. He just needs the opportunities to get to the quarterback. While he may not get as many of those behind Jones and Watt as he would've as the starter elsewhere, he gives the Cardinals one of the most formidable pass-rushing units in the league.

What's the risk: There's very minimal risk to re-signing Golden. He has the type of personality that can handle not being the main guy. And he's the type of player who'll fill-in where's and do what's needed. The upside, however, is that if either Jones or Watt gets hurt, Golden is a starting-level type of pass-rusher who could step in when needed.


Kelvin Beachum, offensive tackle

The Cardinals have re-signed offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum to a two-year deal.

What it means: Bringing back Beachum solidifies the Cardinals' right-tackle position for the next two seasons. He was brought in as a free agent on a one-year contract before the 2020 season to replace Marcus Gilbert, who opted out of the season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This likely means that Gilbert's time in Arizona is over. His contract tolled after last season. Beachum was solid and consistent while playing in all 16 games last season. He and D.J. Humphries were the only two Cardinals to play in every game.

What's the risk: This is another low-risk move for the Cardinals. Bringing the 31-year-old Beachum back for two years gives them consistency at right tackle. The only real risk associated with bringing back Beachum is a potential future injury, which, obviously, can't be projected. Other than that, it's not a risky move for Arizona.


Matt Prater, kicker

What it means: The Cardinals found a solution to their kicking problems. Prater replaces Zane Gonzalez, who Arizona let walk in free agency. Last season, Gonzalez cost Arizona two games and nearly cost it a third. Had the Cardinals won either of those, they would've likely gone to the playoffs. Prater has made 22-game winning field goals in the final 2 minutes or in overtime. That could be the difference between Arizona making the playoffs and staying home in January. Despite the perception of kickers, few players are as important to a team as the kicker considering how often the balance of games are decided by them and now the Cardinals have one of the best in NFL history.

What's the risk: The biggest risk with Prater is his age. At 36, there's always the lingering possibility that his body will start to break down. He's been playing long enough to know how to keep his body in peak form but nature will eventually take its toll on everyone. As long as Prater can stay healthy, he can be as big of an asset as anyone on the roster.


Dennis Gardeck, linebacker

What it means: Gardeck was a spark on defense last year while becoming one of the Cardinals' best special teamers. He'll give Arizona more depth at pass-rusher -- he had seven sacks last season -- but still be a valuable resource on special teams.

What's the risk: The only risk with Gardeck is how well his ACL, which he had surgically repaired after injuring it last season, holds up.


Colt McCoy, quarterback

The Cardinals are bringing in Colt McCoy on a one-year deal.

What it means: In McCoy, the Cardinals now have a veteran presence in their quarterback room to help mentor Kyler Murray. It's not yet known if McCoy will be the Cardinals QB2 or QB3. If he's the third-string quarterback, then McCoy will likely not dress the entire season unless there's an injury and will be play more of a mentor role than anything.

What's the risk: If the Cardinals need McCoy to play for any reason, then the offense will have to be changed to a point. McCoy isn't the same mobile, dynamic quarterback that Murray is so coach Kliff Kingsbury will have to tailor the plays to McCoy's drop-back style, which could make the Cardinals less multi-dimensional.


Max Garcia, guard

What it means: Max Garcia returns to the Cardinals to give them depth at primarily guard but also at center, if needed.

What's the risk: There's little risk with Garcia, who's proven to be a reliable backup when called up.


Brian Winters, guard

What it means: Brian Winters will come in and compete for the starting right guard now that J.R. Sweezy is a free agent.

What's the risk: Again, a low-risk signing since Winters is a veteran who can give Arizona some quality snaps as a potential starter at right guard.


Chris Banjo, safety

Safety Chris Banjo is re-signing with the Cardinals on a one-year deal.

What it means: The Cardinals are bringing back a solid role player in the secondary and someone who can contribute greatly on special teams, giving them needed depth in both areas.

What's the risk: There's very little risk to bringing Banjo back besides the obvious potential for injury.


Shawn Williams, safety

The Cardinals are adding former Cincinnati Bengals safety Shawn Williams on a one-year deal.

What it means: Williams will give the Cardinals more depth at safety and another option to use on special teams. He didn't start any games in 2020 but was a regular starter the last four years. He also reunites with Vance Joseph, who was his position coach for two seasons in Cincinnati.

What's the risk: Another low-risk addition for the Cardinals because of the depth he'll provide. He'll be part of the rotation at safety and there if needed in case of injury.


Kylie Fitts

What it means: Fitts will give the Cardinals more depth at linebacker and he'll find a role spelling both Chandler Jones and J.J. Watt.

What's the risk: There's really no risk with Fitts unless it's thought he takes up a roster spot without getting much playing time.