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Two Months After the Draft: Josh or Lamar?

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Still Pondering The Road Not Taken.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals-Josh Rosen Press Conference Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Going into this year’s NFL Draft my hopes for the Cardinals were pinned on drafting QB Lamar Jackson of Louisville. I viewed Jackson as a unique, once in a generation type of QB who could electrify the team and its fan base.

Picking at #15, I was convinced that the Cardinals would not be in a position to draft Sam Darnold, or Josh Rosen unless they offered the farm to move up. I figured that the Cardinals might be able to move up as far as #8 to take Baker Mayfield or Josh Allen. But---I liked Lamar Jackson better than Mayfield or Allen, so my only worry was whether a team would sneak up in front of us to snag Jackson the way the Chiefs and Texans did last year with Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.

Perhaps because I had ruled out Darnold or Rosen, I found myself believing that I liked Lamar Jackson as much, if not more. Neither Darnold nor Rosen seemed like a slam-dunk. Darnold’s interceptions and Rosen’s concussions were immediate causes for concern. Darnold seemed too laid-back for my liking and Rosen too precocious.

Jackson, on the other hand, exudes a quiet confidence and supreme mental and physical toughness. Rosen sat out his bowl game. Darnold chose not to throw at the Combine. Jackson did everything but run the 40.

Pundits were worried about Jackson’s accuracy, but I wasn’t. Bobby Petrino’s offense is not a dink and dunk---it’s a swing for the home run attack. During the course of three years, I saw Lamar Jackson do it all with average talent around him and do it with superior composure and toughness.

During the draft, I was shocked to see Baker Mayfield go first to the Browns (although yes they are the Browns). I was equally shocked to see the Giants pass on a franchise QB in favor of sticking with an over-the-hill Eli Manning. The Jets were smart in taking Darnold, as he seemed to fit their QB criteria the best.

The Browns then threw another curve ball by taking CB Denzel Ward over consensus #1 prospect DE Bradley Chubb---which prompted the Broncos to keep their pick at #5 to take Chubb. We learned later that Steve Keim had a deal in place with John Elway---we never learned the terms, but it must have involved at least two 1st round picks and likely a 2nd and 3rd.

It was surprising too that John Elway would pass on taking Josh Rosen, Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson, which signaled that Elway is perfectly content with a QB room of Case Keenum, Paxton Lynch and Chad Kelly.

The Bills traded up to #7 and I thought for sure it was for Josh Rosen---only, no, they took Josh Allen (the most enigmatic, but rocket armed QB in the pool). I figured that some team would hop in at #8 or #9 to take Rosen---but no.

When I saw that Steve Keim had swung a deal with the Raiders for the #10 pick, to be honest, I was begging for the Cardinals to pick Lamar Jackson, whom I considered to be a turbo, supersonic version of Deshaun Watson, the QB we missed out on last year.

When I saw the trade was for Josh Rosen, I understood the pick---taking the best pure thrower in the draft. But, I couldn’t get Lamar Jackson out of my head; he had won me over to the point where I had no doubts.

As it turned out, it appears the Cardinals could have stayed put, taken QB Lamar Jackson at #15 and kept their 3rd and 5th round picks. Those picks turned out to be DE Rasheem Green (6-4, 275, USC) by the Seahawks (via trade) and S Dane Cruikshank (6-1, 200, Arizona) by the Titans (via trade).

Does anyone believe the Cardinals would have been better off with QB Lamar Jackson, DE Rasheem Green and S Dane Cruikshank in place of QB Josh Rosen? Coincidentally, the Cardinals remain a little thin at DE and S.

Combing though the mini-camps, the most positive rookie QB buzz has gone in favor of Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson. The Browns, Jets and Bills have designated Mayfield, Darnold and Allen as the #3 QB on their depth charts heading into training camp. The early word is that all three are having the typical ups and downs of learning a new system to the point where none of them appear to be in the immediate running for the starting position behind Tyrod Taylor, Josh McCown and A.J. McCarron respectively.

In Arizona, the expectation is for Sam Bradford to be the #1 QB, but head coach Steve Wilks hasn’t ruled out Josh Rosen, which is a testament to how quickly and effectively Rosen has assimilated into the program. Everyone from Steve Keim to Steve Wilks to Mike McCoy to Sam Bradford to Larry Fitzgerald to Mike Glennon has extolled Rosen’s talent, intelligence and work ethic. Wilks went as far as to say that Rosen “already has the mindset of a veteran.”

In Baltimore, Lamar Jackson has impressed his teammates so much that S Eric Weddle said, “He’s been great. Obviously you know why we took him. He’s as talented of a player that I’ve seen coming into my 12th year. He has a live arm, he can sling it. Obviously, his ability to run and shake guys -- you see it in team drills where things break down, he gets out on the perimeter and guys aren’t even close to him.”

In recent weeks, in light of Josh Rosen’s swift assimilation into the Cardinals’ offense, I have warmed up to the idea the Cardinals picked the best QB for their system. Had they drafted Lamar Jackson, Mike McCoy would have had to modify his preferred offense to cater to Jackson’s unique strengths. McCoy, as we know, was able to do that for a less talented Tim Tebow. But, for the Patriots’ style of offense that McCoy is eager to run, Josh Rosen appears to be made to order.

As for missing out on the 3rd and 5th round draft picks, it is a relatively small price to pay for adding a potential franchise QB who is, in a myriad of ways, a brilliant fit. What I hadn’t realized about Rosen is that he’s a far better athlete than I had first thought. His background in tennis is paying dividends for Rosen, who can move his feet very niftily n confined areas.

Plus, tennis has helped Rosen develop an extraordinary arm to eye coordination. He is driven to succeed and approaches the game meticulously. And while I was concerned about him being a hothead, when I went back and watched several of his games at UCLA, I was extremely impressed with how poised and focused he is---he plays with a burning and yet well-harnessed intensity.

There will be growing pains for Josh Rosen. No young QB is immune to them. But, Rosen appears to have the “DNA” that Steve Wilks prescribed (at his introductory press conference on January 23rd) about the type of QB he was looking for---someone with the passion, the intelligence, the work ethic, the command of the huddle and the big arm. Funny but Wilks also talked in that opening presser about him and his coaches embracing players with different personalities. To listen to Wilks again right now, it is as if he already knew that the Cardinals were going to draft Josh Rosen.

This feels like for Wilks and Rosen a stunningly coincidental confluence of fate.

If there is veracity to the speculation that Steve Keim was targeting QB Josh Allen at #5 in his attempted trade with the Broncos---well, then, after all, neither was Wilks the Cardinals’ first choice for head coach. By all indications, Pat Shurmur, was. Followed by Mike Munchak, who pulled his name from consideration when the Cardinals invited him to Arizona for a close-the-deal Steak 44 fiesta.

Even if the Cardinals had landed their first choices at head coach and QB (Pat Shurmur and Kirk Cousins), would they have been better off? Let’s remind ourselves that Cousins price tag was close to $30M a year.

How about if the Cardinals had landed their second choices for head coach and QB? Would the team be better off with Mike Munchak and Nick Foles (whom the Cardinals offered their 2nd rounder---#47---for, which the Eagles turned down)?

My intuition tells me that Steve Wilks is a stronger 21st century leader of men than Shurmur and Munchak. Moreover, Wilks’ work ethic is non pareil. And, in terms of QBs, in my opinion, Rosen is more gifted than Cousins and Foles. For that matter, so is a healthy Sam Bradford, if the oxymoron of “healthy Bradford” can ever be erased.

To think that back on January 23rd when Steve Wilks was introduced as the Cardinals new head coach with zero QBs on the roster that the Cardinals wound wind up with Bradford, Rosen and Glennon, now seems serendipitous. Knowing the Cardinals will never get their hands on Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Carson Wentz, I feel as if today the Cardinals have one of the deepest and most talented QB rooms in the NFL.

Yet, to be perfectly candid, I still cannot seem to shake my fascination with Lamar Jackson. Ah, the “Road Not Taken”…”Shall I be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence?” (Robert Frost)

Perhaps I need to pay greater heed to what Yogi Berra said, “When you come to the fork in the road---take it.”

Trading up to #10, that’s what the Cardinals did with Josh Rosen and hopefully one day, all Cardinal fans will joyfully realize “that has made all the difference.”