Current Cardinals safeties work, not ideal

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Yeremiah Bell's absence from the roster has left the Arizona Cardinals with a sizeable gap in the secondary.

Without a true strong safety on the team, the Cardinals will be looking to fill the position in May's NFL draft. If Arizona is forced to, though, it can turn to the two free safeties currently on the team -- Rashad Johnson or Tony Jefferson -- to move to strong safety. That's not an ideal situation, said ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson.

“Neither is ideal and either might be best suited to be the third safety, but I think it depends what they want from the position,” Williamson said. “To me, Johnson is clearly the better cover guy and Jefferson is the better run player.”

Arizona's safety corps is in flux until Tyrann Mathieu returns from his ACL and LCL injuries and until a strong safety is signed. Last season with Bell, currently a free agent, on the field, Mathieu became the starter in Week 4 after Johnson lost the tip of his left middle finger. Mathieu played well enough to supplant Johnson until Mathieu got hurt in Week 13.

But when Arizona' safeties are restocked, Johnson and Jefferson would give the Cardinals “great” depth, Williamson added.

Until then, however, Johnson would be the presumed starter at free safety while Jefferson would fill in at strong safety. Both are 5-11, not the ideal size for a tandem of safeties. Last season, it was often Bell's responsibility to defend opponents' tight ends. That didn't work in the Cardinals' favor because of a combination of Bell's declining speed at 35 and lack of size. Of the 29 touchdowns thrown by opposing quarterbacks, 17 went to tight ends.

Ideally, the Cardinals would like a safety taller than 6-foot who can run with tight ends such as St. Louis' Jared Cook and San Francisco's Vernon Davis, but it's not necessary, Williamson said.

“I don't think they need that guy,” he said. “He would be great to have, but they also don't grow on trees.”

They do, however, grow in the draft.

Two prospects who Williamson identified as good fits in Arizona are Louisville's Calvin Pryor and Washington State's Deone Bucannon. They're the second- and third-ranked safeties, respectively, in this year's draft class according to ESPN.com. Pryor is listed at 5-11 1/8 while Bucannon is 6-1.

Williamson doesn't think Pryor gets past the first round, in which Arizona picks 20th, and he doesn't think Bucannon falls out of the second.

The Cardinals' needs are minimal, Williamson added, but safety is one position that can be upgraded. However, to Williamson, filling the void left by Bell may not be vital to Arizona's success in 2014.

“I think the rest of the defense is strong enough and will get stronger through the draft that if they open the season with Jefferson and/or Johnson in that role, this team is still a strong contender and should have a top-10 defense either way,” Williamson said.