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Little Larrys

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Arizona Cardinals v New York Giants Photo by Mike Stobe/2019 Mike Stobe

For the past couple of years, Arizona Cardinals’ GM Steve Keim and his team of pro scouts have modified the way they grade the draft prospects.

Based on the information that Keim has revealed to the media, it now appears that the Cardinals assign two grades to each prospect: (1) an ability grade based on a combination of analytics and game tape evaluations; (2) a grade that reflects the player’s competitive hunger, character, work ethic and culture fit.

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury said prior to the 2019 NFL Draft: “Obviously, you want talented players, but you want guys who can fit into the team culture — they’re about the team, not just themselves. They have great work ethic and are super competitive.”

In assessing how the Cardinals fared in the 2018 NFL Draft, Kingsbury said, “I’m really excited about those guys and the way they played, the way they competed and the way they handled themselves as pros. So we’re really excited to put together another class like that.”

Steve Keim puts the evaluation process this way: “For me, it really gets down to their leadership skills, where their heart is, where their head is. Are they playing the game for money or are they playing the game because they love the game and they just can’t get enough of it?”

As for what Keim said he was looking for in the 2019 #1 pick: “First of all, they (#1 picks) have to be incredible athletes on the field. But you want somebody, especially with the No. 1 pick, you want somebody you can look at and say, ‘OK, this person is going to be here for eight or 10 years being an anchor at their position and being a real leader in our organization.’ “

The very things that Steve Keim projected with the #1 pick are what instantly enamored the Cardinals’ prolific WR Larry Fitzgerald to QB Kyler Murray. Within a few days of working with Murray, Fitz asserted, “I’ve never seen a quarterback come in so quickly and be able to command an offense. I mean, from Day 1, he’s out there checking the different plays, sliding the line, different protections, getting us in screens when blitzes are coming. His understanding of the offense is crazy.. I think that’s going to give us a great advantage.”

Fitz ascertained: “This is his (Murray’s) team. He’ll be the guy here for the next 10-plus years, God willing. I love the way he’s kind of taken the reins, is vocal, lets people know exactly what he wants. He wants the best out of everybody.”

In 7 games, Murray has passed at 64.5% for 1,768 yards, 7 TDs, 4 ints, for a QB rating of 86.8 (13th highest in NFL). In addition, he has run the ball 49 times for 266 yards (5.4 ave.) and 2 TDs. Talk about wanting to get the best out of everybody, Murray has distributed the football to 11 of his teammates, led at the top by David Johnson’s combined (rushing and receiving) 615 yards and 5 TDs and Larry Fitzgerald’s 55 catches for 439 yards (12.2 ave.) and 2 TDs.

As a result, Larry Fitzgerald appears to be having one of his most enjoyable seasons—-not only because of the chemistry he has developed with Kyler Murray as one of the focal points of the K-Raid offense—-but because Larry now finds himself surrounded by a number of young players who train virtually as hard and love the game the way he does.

Recently, Fitz has been lauding the character and work ethic of three young teammates in particular: “I’ve talked about it before: Trent Sherfield, Christian Kirk and Chase Edmonds, I mean them guys, if you didn’t know how old they were, you’d think they were 30 years old and had been in the league for 10 years,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitz beamed: “The way they approach it the way they study it, the way they work, stay after practice. Whenever it takes for them to get better they just have a real mature approach about how they come out and practice and prepare for the game. If you had every rookie or second-year player like that you’d be playing deep into the postseason because that’s the way those guys go about it.”

In each of the three cases, the player’s work ethic is paying strong dividends on the field. Trent Sherfield has been an all-out stud on special teams (74.5 PFF ST grade), and he bounced back strong the past few games from a dropped pass versus the Panthers to snatch 4 catches for 80 yards (20.0 ave.), including the big 38 yard reception he snagged the Falcons. Sherfield shined at WR during the pre-season, scoring 2 sensational TDs. The more he gets a chance to contribute, the higher his star could rise.

Christian Kirk was off to a good start this season (63.2 PFF grade) before he incurred his high ankle injury. Coming off of a 43 catch, 590 yard (13.7 ave.), 3 TD (70.3 PFF) rookie season, cut short after 12 games by a broken foo as a rookiet, Kirk got off to a 24 catch, 242 yard start this season in 4 games. There appears to be a growing chemistry between he and Kyler Murray—-and, when healthy, Kirk can do it all—-beat defenses on a combination of short, intermediate and deep passes. Plus, Kirk is an electric punt returner.

Chase Edmonds was superb versus the Giants last week at rain soaked Met-Life Stadium when he carried the offense to victory with his spirited 26 carries for 126 yards and 3 TDs (of 20, 22 and 20 yards) to up his season totals to 51 carries for 287 yards (5.6 ave.) and 4 TDs, plus 10 catches for 100 yards (10.0 ave.) and 1 TD. Edmonds’ PFF grade is 81.3, the 2nd highest on the Cardinals’ offense behind TE Maxx Williams’ 87.1.

Edmonds, who has received high praise from the coaches. teammates and strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris, said, when asked whether he deserves to start: “I have goals and aspirations for myself, and whatever they put on my plate, I’m going to happily accept. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you. I prayed for this, I dreamed for this. I always wanted to prove I could play in this league – actually play, and not just be a guy.”

It appears that the Cardinals’ new methods for evaluating young prospects are already producing auspicious results from 4 young players in particular: a 2019 1sr Rounder (QB Kyler Murray, Oklahoma), a 2018 UCFA (WR Trent Sherfield, Vanderbilt), a 2018 2nd Rounder (Christian Kirk, Texas A&M) and a 2018 4th Rounder (Chase Edmonds, Fordham).

When a 1st ballot Hall of Famer like WR Larry Fitzgerald, who is legendary for his work ethic and insatiable desire to be great, sings the praises of his young, diligent teammates, one might feel encouraged about the direction of Steve Keim’s (and his scouts’) modified methods for evaluating “talented guys who love the game and can’t get enough of it.”