Now that the 2016 Arizona Cardinals season is (thankfully) at an end, it's time to take a look back and grade some of the moves done by Steve Keim over the past year and how they turned out.
We're going to go through this quickly month-by-month, focusing on the biggest additions (or subtractions) of the month and corresponding with a grade for each (Note that this being a 2016 focus, it does not include Justin Bethel's extension).
Let's start in the beginning of the year:
-Signed John Wetzel & Antoine McClain to futures contracts
Keim and Arians might have had McClain in at right guard as a starter at times during preseason but the true find may have been Wetzel, who started at no less than FOUR different positions on the offensive line: left tackle, right tackle and right guard. He might factor in more to long-term in their plans and seemed a natural fit on the inside especially.
-Signed Darren Fells to one-year deal
-Re-signed P Drew Butler
-Traded Jon Cooper and a 2nd for Chandler Jones
While some Cardinals fans might think the Butler re-signing was one of the worst moves Keim made this season (and that might be justified given the team's special teams struggles) in the same month made a move for a veteran pass-rusher that addressed the team's biggest need in a dire way.
Jones' play affected fellow pass-rushers Markus Golden and Calais Campbell, and the team came one sack short of having three players with double-digit sacks. That's absolutely incredible. To make things better, Darren Fells was once again a solid contributor at the tight end position, if not on Jermaine Gresham's caliber.
In fact, the only thing dragging this month down from that being an A+ trade is how poorly Butler performed during the season and how Keim didn't exert more effort into finding a better alternative.
That said, Jones is in the Cardinals' long-term plans and probably remains Keim's best move of the 2016 season.
2-year contract w/ Drew Stanton
2-year deal for Tyvon Branch
-Mauro and Momah 1 year contracts, Gresham, Chris Johnson, Evan Mathis
While the deal for Stanton certainly led to a win in a fill-in role for Palmer against the Niners on Thursday Night Football, there's really only one Keim "one-year special" deal that worked out at the start of free agency, and that's Jermaine Gresham (with a tip of the cap to the consistent Josh Mauro).
Gresham ended up, for a while, as the team's 3rd receiver behind Fitzgerald and Johnson while they struggled to find good play from a #2 wide receiver. Other than that, the team struggled to find a capable starting right guard and backup running back due to injury-plagued years for Mathis, Momah and Chris Johnson.
Branch, in particular, was the team's prized Day One of free agency acquisition and the past health concerns surrounding him were only exacerbated when he was sent not once, but TWICE to Injured Reserve.
That's about as bad of a free agency signing as you can get in trying to replace/upgrade Rashad Johnson.
-Released Cory Redding
-Signed Jaron Brown, Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger to one-year deals.
While Jaron Brown's role of a solid 3rd receiver and core special teamer might not be a "sexy" move, the dual tandem of Jefferson and Swearinger in the backfield was incredibly impactful for Arizona. Swearinger did nothing but make plays all year, and Tony Jefferson graded out as one of the best safeties in the NFL per PFF.
And while teams toyed with the idea of giving Jefferson an offer, none did, in part because they were likely afraid Keim would simply match the offer (of which he may have had no intention).
Steve Keim effectively sat at the Poker Table of the NFL and convinced teams that he had the third queen of a full house when he was holding two pair in his hand. Whether he intended it or not, no team put in an offer and Keim got one cheap year of Jefferson's outstanding play and Swearinger as a bonus. Whether or not they can keep them is the only question that is left.
The reason this month isn't an A+ is a bit petty, but Jaron Brown tore his ACL and if Keim wanted to keep Jefferson long-term, he might have been cheaper before his fantastic season.
May (NFL Draft):
2016 Rookie Class:
-DT Robert Nkemdiche,
CB Brandon Williams,
C(/G) Evan Boehm,
G Cole Toner,
CB Harlan Miller
-Signed Long snapper Kameron Canaday
It's tough to like the first-year impact that Keim's rookie class did (or didn't) have on the field in 2016. Not to mention that their choice of Canaday may have indirectly cost the Cardinals TWO games this year in New England and the momentum in the Buffalo game.
That said, the majority of Keim's class DID show some positive signs at the end of the year, especially the last two games, which is the reason this is a D+ and not a straight D grade.
Nkemdiche was a major disappointment after a promising start but did seem to gain a work ethic before being sidelined by an ankle injury, and Evan Boehm, Brandon Williams and Cole Toner all saw some playing time in Week 17, and are factoring into Arizona's 2017 plans.
Yes, Cardinals fans have a right for some disappointment but there are at least some positives, and it's about the long-term results.
Time to move on from this season's rookie class and see what they do now with a year under their belt and hope that they go the D.J. Humphries route in their second year rather than turn into a Logan Thomas.
-1 year deal for CB Mike Jenkins & Alan Ball
-5 year deal for Tyrann Mathieu,
-1-year extension for Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald
While Jenkins and Ball ended up on IR (forcing Brandon Williams to start) and Mathieu's deal has struggled to stay healthy and make impactful plays, Keim had very little choice but to keep three of his most important players locked up for the 2017 season (2018 in Palmer's case). He gave the team's quarterback security for the next two years, and there's nothing wrong with that. If Mathieu struggles to re-gain his old form, this grade might look differently, but the team's injury guarantees should put those doubts to rest.
Good GM's keep their best players, and if Fitzgerald returns, perhaps this pro-active deal will seem a bit brighter.
September-December (In-season Moves):
-Traded conditional 2018 pick for Marcus Cooper
-Claimed CB Tharold Simon
-Signed QB Zac Dysert, Kerwynn Williams LB Sio Moore to active roster
-Released Marqui Christian, signed P Ryan Quigley
-Cut P Drew Butler, re-signed, cut again for P Matt Wile
-Signed LB Scooby Wright from Cleveland Practice squad, promoted CB Harlan Miller
Some of Keim's best under-the-radar moves came during the season...along with his worst. To keep struggling punter Drew Butler, Keim released a promising 5th-round draft pick in Marqui Christian and ended up releasing Butler after the fact anyway. Butler's time on and off the roster is indicative of the team's struggles on special teams, which has been written about to death.
Instead, let's focus on the true "Keim Time" signings that we saw in Keim bringing in Marcus Cooper, Sio Moore, Scooby Wright and Kerwynn Williams.
Cooper might have turned into Keim's 2nd best move. He acquired a cheap veteran who played instinctually and with few big mistakes for Arizona on the outside, well enough that Arians would like him back.
Moore and Wright both had big hands in the last two games of the season, with Moore especially taking apart Russell Wilson on the read-option and looking like a solid fill-in after Deone Bucannon went to Injured Reserve. He's possibly the "D.J. Swearinger-type" mid-season signing that could see an impact in 2017.
OVERALL GRADE FOR 2016: C+
When adding up the grades for each month, the final grade reflects how most Cardinals' fans would feel about the season. While there were indeed some high points and great steals, ultimately some of the bigger signings ended up disappointing and fell short of expectations. Keim locked up quite a few core players, got good value out of others and had a few key mistakes that loom large at the end of the year.
There are some major issues for Keim to address now in 2017 with some of his core players, but there is also room for optimism from this year.
New years bring about new promises, and if the Cardinals can get true contributions from this year's rookie class and some of their midseason signings, perhaps they'll be back in the playoffs in 2017 because of the efforts of their former General Manager of the Year.