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Rebuilding and retooling: Grading Steve Keim’s offseason so far

While we’re only technically one week into the 2019 league year, it’s already been a busy offseason for Steve Keim and the Arizona Cardinals. How have Keim’s forays into the trade market and free agency gone so far?

NFL: Arizona Cardinals- Kliff Kingsbury Press Conference
This is the biggest offseason of Steve Keim’s career with the Cardinals. How has it gone so far?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This offseason has been one of monumental change for the Arizona Cardinalsnew coaching staff, an influx of new players, and a mass exodus of notable names. However, in the midst of all that change, there is one name that has remained constant:

GM Steve Keim.

Somewhat surprisingly, Keim retained his job after the disastrous 3-13 2018 season that saw first-year coach Steve Wilks and his staff unceremoniously fired after a single season. That puts Keim in an interesting position this offseason.

He’s been given another shot to turn this thing around, but there’s almost no way he could survive another 3-13 season. So he has to both lean into the rebuild the team so obviously needs while staying competitive enough to avoid getting canned.

To use an analogy, this House of Cards he’s building will have a giant “Under Construction” sign over it in 2019, but the temporary scaffolding around it has to be able to withstand enough outside pressure to make it through the year. He needs to both rebuild the roster from the ground up while retooling the surface features.

It is through that lens that we’ll grade Keim’s performance thus far this offseason—keeping in mind that free agency (and one trade) is only one facet of team building. Have his player acquisitions thus far helped to lay a solid groundwork for future Cardinals teams? Has he done enough to make sure that the 2019 version of the team is better than the 2018 version? Let’s take a look at each signing/trade thus far and see how Keim is balancing these two agendas.

CB Robert Alford

Details: Signed for 3 yrs/$22.5M.

Grade: C-

Breakdown: Alford was Keim’s very first signing this offseason, agreeing to a deal just days after the Super Bowl. On the surface, Alford fills a huge need given the Redbirds’ consistent struggle to find a CB to complement Patrick Peterson. I’m just not sure Alford is the guy, especially for an average of $7M+ per season. For one, he’s 30 years old—two years older than Peterson and not likely to be worth the $9M cap hit he’ll cost in 2021 (if he’s still on the roster). He can play both outside and in the slot, which is helpful, but it’s easier to find a competent slot CB than a true outside cover man, which is what we really need opposite Peterson. I like that Keim was proactive in attempting to fill a need, but I think he could have waited and gotten a superior player for cheaper on a shorter-term deal (there are still several solid corners available). I think the Cardinals will come to regret this deal.

Bottom Line: Alford will help in 2019, but it’s hard to imagine him contributing much beyond that relative to his cost.

OLB Brooks Reed

Details: Signed for 1 yr/$1.625M.

Grade: B

Breakdown: The pass rush has already undergone a major overhaul and we haven’t even gotten to the draft yet. This is especially true on the outside, as Chandler Jones looks like he’ll be the only returning predominant edge rusher who recorded a sack for the Cardinals in 2018. Brooks Reed isn’t exactly the second coming of Kevin Greene, but he should be able to chip in a handful of sacks while holding up well against the run. He’ll be a solid rotational OLB/DE in 2019, and he comes dirt-cheap. He’ll also provide a solid veteran presence along what figures to be a very young front seven. Reed is a solid, if unspectacular, signing.

Bottom Line: Reed is a nice pickup for 2019 but doesn’t figure to be around much longer than that.

TE Charles Clay

Details: Signed for 1 yr/$2M.

Grade: B+

Breakdown: After finally, mercifully parting ways with Jermaine Gresham, the Redbirds needed a TE and got one of the better ones available for cheap. Although he had a down year in 2018 for a Bills team in transition, he averaged 57 receptions per season from 2013-2017. The Cardinals haven’t even had a TE hit 40 receptions since Rob Housler (remember him?) in 2012. Although he is already 30 and is a good bet to miss a few games due to injury (he’s only played a full 16-game season once, although he’s never played fewer than 13 games), Clay represents a clear upgrade. He’ll pair nicely with Ricky Seals-Jones at a position the Redbirds might have to rely on more in 2019 given the uncertainty at WR. And did I mention that he’s cheap? Who would you rather have—a proven veteran like Clay for 1 year at $2M or a middling talent (albeit younger) like Jesse James or Tyler Kroft on a multiyear deal for $5-6M? I don’t think the Cardinals will regret this one.

Bottom Line: Clay fills a huge need in 2019, although the future starter at the position likely isn’t on the roster yet.

T Marcus Gilbert

Details: Acquired from Pittsburgh for a 6th-round draft pick (#207). Gilbert has 1 year/$4.915M left on his contract.

Grade: B

Breakdown: Picking up a starting tackle for only a 6th-round draft pick was a shrewd move by Keim—even if the player in question has a few warts. Gilbert is 30, has only 1 year left on his contract, and, more concerningly, has only played in 12 games over the last 2 seasons. But the starting tackle across from D.J. Humphries was a massive roster hole, and Keim was able to plug it for next to nothing. Gilbert has proven himself to be a solid tackle, and if he can stay healthy, this move will be a coup for Keim. And even if he doesn’t, he only cost a late-round draft pick, which would be worth it for, say, a half-season of competent tackle play—which seems to be the floor for Gilbert. I like this move, but, as mentioned above, Keim seems to be punting the future of most of the O-line positions to 2020—no projected starter aside from C Mason Cole seems to be a sure bet to be on the roster past this season. That’s a major concern moving forward, but this was a great move for 2019.

Bottom Line: Gilbert immensely helps the 2019 Cardinals, but both tackle spots are major question marks beyond that.

OLB Terrell Suggs

Details: Signed for 1 yr/$7M.

Grade: A

Breakdown: It’s hard to be anything but ecstatic about the signing of Terrell Suggs. He’s a hometown hero (Go Devils!), a future Hall of Famer, and is still a productive player even at 36 (7 sacks in 2018). He also fills a huge need, as we suddenly have a dearth of pass rushers with players like Markus Golden, Benson Mayowa, and Zach Moore moving on. He obviously won’t be a three-down player in 2019, but we won’t need him to be. He’ll also form an impressive leadership core with Peterson, Jones, and Reed. Although Keim still has a lot of work to do on the defensive line, the defense is already looking like it’ll be a vast improvement on the 2018 squad. A return to elite status is very much in the cards for 2019.

Bottom Line: Suggs is a perfect signing for 2019 but obviously isn’t a part of the rebuilding effort.

LB Jordan Hicks

Details: Signed for 4 yrs/$34M.

Grade: B

Breakdown: Of all Keim’s acquisitions thus far, only one appears primed to be a big contributor in 2019 and beyond: Hicks. One of the premier ILBs available this offseason, Hicks cost less than half of the massive deal C.J. Mosley got from the Jets. Although Mosley is the better (and more durable) player, the talent disparity seemingly isn’t worth $8.5M per season. Although Hicks is yet another player with a long injury history, this looks like a good signing by Keim. Hicks, still just 27, should be the quarterback of the defense for the next few seasons as the unit looks to return to elite status, and he comes at a reasonable cost. And if he can help Haason Reddick continue to learn the ILB position, even better. The only question mark, as mentioned above, is the injury history.

Bottom Line: Hicks seems equipped to help the Redbirds not only in 2019 but for the next few seasons as well.

QB Brett Hundley

Details: Signed for 1 yr/$1.875M.

Grade: C-

Breakdown: After Mike Glennon was released earlier this offseason (R.I.P. Daddy Longneck), the Redbirds were in the market for a cheap veteran to be the backup QB. Although a number of higher-profile QBs were available, there weren’t a lot of great options available in the deeper end of the free agent pool. Still, it’s hard to give anything more than a shrug at the Hundley signing. While he’s only 26, he’s done absolutely nothing with the limited playing time he’s had (career QB rating of 67.9 in 15 games, including 9 starts). On the plus side, he’s familiar with QB coach Tom Clements from his days in Green Bay, and his 1-year deal is about $2M cheaper than Glennon would have been (although he’s probably a downgrade, talent-wise). He’ll be a solid enough backup/mentor to whoever is the starter, but he’s not someone you’d want to have to start in case of emergency… which, isn’t that the main job of the backup QB? I can see the rationale for the signing, but I don’t think it really improves the QB room.

Bottom Line: Hundley fills a need for 2019, but he has almost no upside and doesn’t help the rebuild process.

G J.R. Sweezy

Details: Signed for 2 yrs/$9M.

Grade: C+

Breakdown: Sweezy comes pretty cheap, but it’s hard to get too excited about Keim signing yet another aging, pass-blocking-deficient guard—not to mention that Sweezy has a bit of an injury history as well. But still, this signing weakens a division rival, which is always good, and addresses a need. But is a starting guard combination of Sweezy and Justin Pugh going to intimidate opposing defenses? Will either of them make it through 2019 unscathed? Will either of them even be on the roster in 2020? As we discussed with Gilbert above, it seems like Keim is kicking the can down the road as far as the offensive line goes—concerning given the youth at QB. You’d think that a former offensive lineman would have a better plan for building an O-line…

Bottom Line: Sweezy fills a need for 2019 and weakens a division rival, but is hardly a long-term answer at the position.

G Max Garcia

Details: Signed for 1 yr/$2M.

Grade: B-

Breakdown: Smith is yet another guard with an injury history (recovering from a torn ACL), but he’s still relatively young (27), has starting experience (41 career starts), and is familiar with new OL Sean Kugler from his time in Denver. It’s a good bet that we’ll need to use our guard depth again in 2019, and Garcia is an improvement over the likes of Colby Gossett and Jeremy Vujnovich whom we rolled out late last season. There’s little downside here due to the money and tangible upside due to his youth and familiarity with the coaching staff. This is a solid depth signing that gets dinged a bit due to the player’s health—although that likely had a role in why he came so cheap.

Bottom Line: Garcia fills a need for 2019 and comes with a bit of upside for the future as well.

WR Kevin White

Details: Signed for 1 yr/$1.5M.

Grade: D+

Breakdown: Wide receiver was one of the team’s biggest needs entering the offseason, so it’s pretty alarming that the only move Keim has made is this one very minor signing. White is a fine lottery ticket—he was an exciting and productive college player whose career thus far has been marred by several serious injuries—but the position needs much more attention than this, even given the very shallow free agent pool. Let’s hope we can land one of the top WR prospects in the draft or add another free agent or two in the second wave of free agency. But as it stands right now, signing White is like replacing the spare donut in the trunk of your car when you’re still missing two entire wheels. Keim’s approach to the WR position so far has been that puzzling.

Bottom Line: White still has a whiff of upside and should be motivated on a 1-year deal—but would it shock anyone if he didn’t make the regular season roster like Brice Butler last year?

CB Josh Shaw

Details: Signed for a 1-year deal (financial terms currently undisclosed).

Grade: C-

Breakdown: This seems like another minor, depth-building move like the White and Garcia signings. The Redbirds were still a bit thin at corner and safety even after the Alford signing and claiming D.J. Swearinger off waivers, and Shaw has played both positions in his career. He’s another body who will compete with the likes of David Amerson, Deatrick Nichols, and Rudy Ford for playing time in the secondary. It’s hard to see a signing like this paying major dividends, but you never know.

Bottom Line: This is a minor move unlikely to have a major impact in 2019 or beyond.

Final Thoughts

Most of these moves appear to have been made with the 2019 season in mind. Of these 11 contracts, only three are for longer than one season, and only Hicks seems to potentially figure into the team’s long-term plans.

So how do we grade these acquisitions overall?

Well, for one, it’s a commonly held belief that teams aren’t built through free agency—and that’s exactly the approach Keim seems to be taking with these moves. Most of these signings are short-terms rentals that will—hopefully—ensure that Cardinals fans don’t have to sit through another 3-13 season. Instead, Keim will look to rebuild the core of the roster through the upcoming draft, where we have the draft capital to accelerate the rebuild.

So, while I’m far from a Keim apologist, I’m more or less fine with the approach he has taken thus far. He’s assembled a (seemingly) competent O-line for the upcoming season and has added to the pass rush and secondary. It’s hard to fault him for neglecting the WR position given the brutal market this offseason, and the Clay signing will help on the pass-catching front anyway. The other major question mark, as discussed last week, is the defensive line, but that’s a much more robust market, so waiting to address it isn’t as big of a deal.

Cardinals fans might not be excited about many of these signings, but keep in mind that most of them will be off the books in 2020, when we figure to have a ton of cap space again. Only the Alford contract seems to be truly questionable beyond 2019—and even then, we can get out of it relatively cheaply.

In short, most of these moves make sense for a team undergoing a rebuild. We signed one potential core player (Hicks) and did some minor retooling by signing a bunch of guys who should adequately fill roster holes in 2019. That’s exactly what free agency is for.

That said, the importance of these acquisitions pales in comparison to Keim’s next task—the NFL draft. Like his record in free agency, Keim’s draft record is decidedly spotty of late. What he does with the #1 pick will do more to decide his—and the team’s fate—in 2019 than any of the above moves.

Your turn, Redbirds fans. How would you grade each of these moves? What do you think of Keim’s approach to free agency thus far? Voice your opinion in the comments.