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Looking at Steve Keim’s moves to create the Arizona Cardinals 53-man roster

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Cap’n Crunch Keim: Genius or Scapegoat

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Ah, the early days of September…pre-season football has finally come to a close and parents and kids are putting the finishing touches on their back to school shopping.

For Cardinals’ GM Steve Keim, his back to school shopping began as far back as Monday December 19th, the day after an alarming 48-41 home loss to the Saints when Keim alerted the players that they would be playing for their jobs over last two weeks,

Keim’s edict had an immediate impact, as the sluggish Cardinals suddenly came out like gangbusters at Seattle and at Los Angeles. Carson Palmer looked like a new man, despite playing behind a makeshift offensive line that was missing Humphries, Iupati, Mathis and Veldheer. Playing versus two of the most talent front 7’s in the NFL that makeshift line did more than hold their own. The defense was suddenly sack happy and breaking up passes that earlier would have been easy, wide-open catches. The Cardinals even made a kick from the Cat Man to win a game!

In assessing the two sweet wins at the end of the year, Keim drew the following conclusions:

  1. Evan Boehm could be the 2017 starter at RG.
  2. A healthy Justin Bethel (with a pay cut) and a one year older Brandon Williams were capable enough to battle for the starting CB position opposite Patrick Peterson.
  3. T/G John Wetzel could take over as the T/G swing 6th man role that was occupied by Earl Watford.
  4. A healthy Tyrann Mathieu and healthy Tyvon Branch (with a pay cut) could be the 2017 safety starters in place of UFAs Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger.
  5. DT/DE Josh Mauro could start at RDE in the place of UFA DT/DE Calais Campbell.
  6. OLB/DE Chandler Jones was worthy of a 5 year $82M contract with a whopping $51M in guaranteed money.
  7. RB Kerwynn Williams was deserving of being the #2 RB behind David Johnson.

Moreover, during this two game stretch, Keim decided it was time to move on from DE Calais Campbell, SS Tony Jefferson, FS D.J. Swearinger, CB Marcus Cooper, K Chandler Catanzaro, TE Darren Fells, CB Mike Jenkins, LB Kevin Minter, LB Sio Moore, LB Alex Okafor, RB Stepfan Taylor and G Earl Watford.

The most precarious aspect of Keim’s decisions was to move on from three of the team’s most productive tacklers and defensive playmakers in Campbell, Jefferson and Swearinger who combined for 215 tackles, 12 sacks and 4 forced fumbles.

But this is where Steve Keim deserves the nickname “Cap’n Crunch.” He and his director of football administration, Mike Disner, are number crunchers extraordinaire. For right or for wrong, they quickly and very accurately determined that the Cardinals’ UFAs Campbell, Jefferson, Swearinger, Cooper and Minter would be offered contracts well above what Keim and Disner considered to be their fair market value.

With a mass exodus of free agents heading out of the door and with all kinds of potential cap space opening up, many of the fans and pundits expected Keim to make two or three splash signings in free agency.

Not Keim. No sir, not Cap’n Crunch.

Instead, he was like the guy who orders chicken parm every time he dines out --- Keim went with what he considered to be the sure thing, at near discount prices.

Enter veteran S Antoine Bethea who wanted out of SF and who had previously developed a rapport with BA in Indy, veteran Cardinals alum LB Karlos Dansby who could provide some much needed locker room energy and playmaking ability, and venerable veteran PK Phil Dawson who was pleased as punch to play for a contender that just so happened to be near his Texas home.

As the days of free agency elapsed and Keim was sitting on his poker hand, many fans and pundits wondered what was going on. But, as more and more of the Cardinals UFAs signed elsewhere, it became clear that Keim viewed this off-season as an opportunity to accumulate compensatory picks in the 2018 NFL Draft. It appears that the Cardinals will be awarded a 3rd, 4th and 2 6th round picks.

For depth purposes Keim signed OLB Jarvis Jones, G/C Tony Bergstrom and CB Jumal Rolle to deals near are at the veteran minimum.

In the 2017 NFL Draft, Keim had his eye on a couple of the top QBs and at one point made an offer to trade up from the 13 spot…but he couldn’t make the trade work and thus wound up missing on what appeared to be his top choice: Patrick Mahomes.

Again, with the draft Keim kept an eye on the future by drafting depth and potential starters at positions where the Cardinals might be needy next year or the following due to free agency or key contract decisions: LB Deone Bucannon (Haason Reddick); SS Tyrann Mathieu (Budda Baker), WRs Larry Fitzgerald, Jaron Brown, and John Brown (Chad Williams), G Mike Iupati (Dorian Johnson), T Jared Veldheer (Will Holden), RBs Kerwynn Williams and Andre Ellington (T.J. Logan) and S Tyvon Branch (Rudy Ford).

Following the draft and having missed out on drafting a QB, Keim signed UFA QB Blaine Gabbert to one of Keim’s patented one-year-prove-it deals. He then signed CB Tramon Williams and LBs Philip Wheeler and Josh Bynes to similarly inexpensive prove it deals. At BA’s urging, Keim brought back veteran RB Chris Johnson.

This week Keim added veteran 3 time All-Pro punter Andy Lee to pair up with Lee’s old-time SF buddy Phil Dawson (for this year and next).

The question is: has Keim’s very conservative and frugal approach to free agency this off-season been enough to make the Cardinals a legitimate Super Bowl contender this season?

As a team, the Cardinals have had a solid camp. BA has done a very good job of trying to keep the veterans (oldest roster in the NFL) and key players fresh, while making camp more rigorous and physical. In the pre-season games, the Cardinals looked like last year’s 7-8-1 team at home versus the Bears and looked like the 13-3 2015 team on the road versus the Falcons. But these are pre-season games. So, who knows?

The Offense:

  • QB Carson Palmer looks rejuvenated and the QB room in general was energized by the addition of Blaine Gabbert who might not be the #2, but could he secretly be the #1B?
  • RB David Johnson has been kept as fresh as possible so that can pursue his personal goal of 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving. Per Keim’s vision, Kerwynn Williams is the #2 and is taking over the kickoff and punt return duties until T.J. Logan returns from the IR.
  • WR Larry Fitzgerald is now free to come out of pre-season moth balls. He should be fresh. There rest of the unit had an up and down pre-season, health and production-wise.
  • TE Jermaine Gresham is the bell cow and now a $24M one, joined by Troy Niklas and Ifeanyi Momah both of whom appear healthy, knock on wood.
  • The OL has question marks regarding the flipping of tackles Humphries and Veldheer and the development of their chemistry with G’s Iupati and Boehm respectively. C A.Q. Shipley is as eager as ever, but he looks like he is struggling to hold up physically. John Wetzel is the all-purpose 6th man that Keim envisioned. But enter surprise roster addition C Daniel Munyer, who will now assume the backup C role.

Much depends on how quickly the offensive line can gel. And whether playmakers like John Brown, J.J. Nelson and Jermaine Gresham can take advantage of defenses loading up to stop David Johnson and doing their best to contain Fitzgerald. Teams are going to run blitz Johnson and try to pressure Palmer relentlessly.

The Defense:

  • The DL minus Calais Campbell this pre-season was mediocre at best, especially after emerging playmaker Robert Nkemdiche injured his ankle. The hope is that Mauro can stop the run and Pierre can rush the passer, while Rucker, Peters and Gunter can make their fair share of contributions.
  • The ILB situation is iffy at the moment with Deone Bucannon trying to make it back to the lineup asap and Karlos Dansby being hampered by injuries. Rookie Haason Reddick flashes excellent athleticism as a chase, blitz and cover ILB, but has yet to establish himself as a reliable or instinctive tackler. Bynes and Wheeler are coming off mediocre pre-season performances.
  • The OLB unit looks especially good if Reddick adds depth to Golden, Jones and Martin.
  • The CB situation is just as Keim prescribed it, with Peterson and Bethel as the starters and Brandon Williams and Tramon Williams as the backups. Thus far Bethel has looked the part, but can he prove it in the games?
  • There is depth and versatility at S with Mathieu, Branch, Bethea, Baker and Ford. The biggest question mark is whether Branch can be effective at FS, both storming the alleys to take down runners and in offering rangy deep help in coverage. Like Bethel, in pre-season, Branch looked the part.

So much of the defense’s success will be dictated to the play of the front seven. Do the Cardinals have a legitimate 4 man pass rush? Yes, on the edges, but up the middle? Will teams continue to be able to exploit the CB opposite Peterson? How badly will the defense miss Calais Campbell, particularly in stopping the run? Will the tackling improve? That’s a big if. Shoddy tackling has been an on-going issue with the defense, as has a plethora of missed coverage assignments.

Special Teams:

  • The kicking game now features two well-tested grizzly veterans in Dawson and Lee, who can make the difference in close games.
  • LS Aaron Brewer has been solid since his signing last October.
  • Amos Jones has to figure out what players to fill the roles of the likes of Hakeem Valles, Zaviar Gooden, Scooby Wright, Jeremy Ross, Gerald Christian, Ironhead Gallon and Tre’Von Johnson who were the mainstays on STs throughout the pre-season.

This is a big year for Amos Jones. If the STs mishaps continue, not only will this confirm what pundits and fans have been fearing, but it will come back to haunt Bruce Arians, who has gone as far as calling Jones a “brilliant coach.” Having Phil Dawson’s leadership as ST’s captain should be a plus.

Steve Keim said on Doug and Wolf this morning that he is confident that the roster is solid and that the locker room is solid and that “now it’s time to win games.” Thus, coming this Sunday in Detroit, we will begin to see if Keim’s ultra-conservative “Cap’n Crunch” approach to this off-season was a stroke of genius or a questionable series of miscalculations.