Michael Bidwill and Steve Keim went into the 2018 off-season on a mission----a mission that would swiftly attempt to take the Arizona Cardinals into the 21st century. The plan was to abandon the team’s more anachronistic approaches by hiring a new head coach with modern ideas and by continuing to turn over a roster that had quickly become one of the oldest in the NFL.
Along the way, Bidwill and Keim, and now with the help of new head coach Steve Wilks and his coaching staff, the Cardinals have managed to catch up with a number of the evolutionary trends of the modern NFL.
Trends in Point (which the Cardinals have been addressing):
QBOF---every team lusts for a franchise QB. With Keim’s adroit move up to #10 in the NFL Draft it appears the Cardinals have finally drafted a franchise QB in Josh Rosen from UCLA, whom some believe was the most talented young passer in the draft.
QB Depth---one of the vogue positions in the NFL these days is the backup QB. No longer are teams satisfied with having a backup who could be a decent short-term answer should the starting QB go down early or in the middle of the season. Case Keenum took over for the injured Sam Bradford and led the Vikings to the NFC Championship game. Nick Foles, taking over for the injured Carson Wentz, led the Eagles to their first Super Bowl win. This off-season, Steve Keim stockpiled the QB position by signing veteran QBs Sam Braford and Mike Glennon and drafting Josh Rosen.
RB Dual Threat Tandems---teams have recognized that the days of a workhouse, bell cow RB may be numbered, in light of the wear and tear at that position. Teams have also started to place more emphasis on playing RBs who excel in the passing game. The Cardinals have helped make the latter in vogue with David Johnson so heavily involved in both the rushing and passing games. Now they have added a running/receiving mate in 4th round pick Chase Edmunds of Fordham. And like the Patriots who like a stable of RBs, the Cardinals have two other dual threat RBs in T.J. Logan and D.J. Foster.
Strength at Center---teams have started to make strength at the center position a priority in feeling that the center sets the tempo for the entire offensive line. Young, strong athletic centers like Philly’s Jason Kelce and Dallas’ Travis Frederick are the current trend setters. This is why we saw two centers go off the board at picks #20 and #21 in the draft in Frank Ragnow (Lions) and Billy Price (Bengals). The Cardinals drafted center Mason Cole in the 3rd round and have played him exclusively at center thus far.
Featuring Slot WRs---in recent drafts, slot WRs are being taken higher than ever before and one could make the argument that teams are valuing the slot more than the traditional perimeter WR. In this year’s draft, 4 of the first 5 WRs (D.J. Moore, Calvin Ridley, Dante Pettis and Christian Kirk) can play in the slot. Perhaps the most talented WR with the ball in his hands is the Cardinals’ 2nd round pick, Christian Kirk of Texas A&M. For the past few years, the only Cardinals’ WR who was productive or even serviceable from the slot was Larry Fitzgerald. Not only did the Cardinals draft Kirk, they have added a number of UCFA slot WRs in Trent Sherfield, Jalen Tolliver and Corey Willis.
RPOs---the NFL’s new version of the NBA’s pick and roll is the run/pass option. Some teams with running QBs have double running options (RB & QB) and pass options. While the Cardinals’ QBs are not typical running options themselves, they have a strong ability to play action off the fake to the RB and make throws downfield. Sam Bradford liked the RPOs he ran at Minny and Mike McCoy has integrated them into the Cardinals’ offense.
1 Gap Integrity on Defense---teams want to do everything they can on defense to play fast, which is why 1 gap schemes are in vogue. With each player in the front 7 given a gap responsibility, it allows the players to be super aggressive without having to think too much. Steve Wilks and Al Holcomb are big proponents of this style of defense and have implemented it in Arizona.
Coverage Disguises---because of teams having to defend a high number of RPOs and dual threat RBs and QBs, there has become a premium on disguising coverages (off man, press man, zones, man/zone combos). The Cardinals have been doing this for years, but this time around the rules of the disguises are so clear that Patrick Peterson has happily proclaimed “there are no gray areas!”
Speed Linebackers---the Cardinals helped to set this trend when they started Daryl Washington in the middle and then inserted Deone Bucannon at money LB. Seeing as offenses are passing the ball 67% of the time or more, speed at the linebacker position is of paramount importance. Now that Steve Wilks has implemented his version of the 43, the defense is dependent on the athleticism and speed of the three linebackers.
Versatile DBs---ideally teams want ultra-athletic DBs who can be playmakers outside on the perimeter or deep third and inside the box. The Cardinals have a gem in Budda Baker, who can thrive as a strong safety in the box and switch over to nickel CB over the slot on passing downs.
Trends the Cardinals Still Need to Address:
Go-To TE as the QB’s Security Blanket---the good news is that the Cardinals have QBs who are adept at getting the ball to the TEs. The question is whether Jermaine Gresham (if and when healthy), Ricky Seals-Jones or Gabe Holmes can emerge as the go-to TE. When you look at Josh Rosen’s game tapes, one thing that repeatedly stands out is how gifted he is in connecting with his TEs up the seams, in the flats and over the middle. This is one of Sam Bradford’s strengths as well.
Tall Hybrid DBs---every team needs a one or two taller DBs who can match up with the opponents’ taller WRs and TEs...Tyvon Branch was able to do so with sustained success last year before his injury. He is currently unsigned and is rehabbing. The team has visited twice with Tre’ Boston, but he remains unsigned. The coaches have been using Bene Benwikere in this role. Benwikere is at most 6’0”, although he can compensate height differentials in coverage with his impressive 40” vertical. Regardless, it appears the Cardinals need to add some valuable depth here.
The Cardinals are quickly evolving and making a number of positive changes and upgrades. Perhaps no change is more significant than the Cardinals’ new 21st century coaching pedagogy, which is for the coaches to embrace the players’ personality differences and quirks, rather than to try to force them into a cookie cutter mold. As the saying goes---“if a person shows you their true colors, don’t try to repaint them.”