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Changing the Cardinals’ Modus Operandi

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NFL: Super Bowl LIV-NFL Honors Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Odegard of azcardinals.com wrote an excellent piece yesterday about how the Cardinals need to capitalize on getting good quickly while QB Kyler Murray is on his rookie contract. Here is the link:

https://www.azcardinals.com/news/cardinals-must-capitalize-on-kyler-murray-s-rookie-contract

It’s a great read—-and one of the most salient points that KO makes is that all of the Super Bowl QBs since 2011 were on their rookie contracts, save Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

The evidence is clear—-having a starting QB for 4-5 years on a rookie contract creates a 4-5 year Super Bowl window, that is if the GM can make a string of a astute coaching and personnel moves.

For GM Steve Keim and the Cardinals—-there is no time quite like the present—-and this off-season is of paramount importance if the Cardinals are going to make their run at the Super Bowl over the next 3-4 years.

In my opinion, in order for Steve Keim to get the job done, he and the Cardinals have to change their modus operandi—-in other words, Keim and the Cardinals finally have to learn from past mistakes.

  1. Getting the Defense Right

Watching the Cardinals’ defense fall apart like a house of cards in the 2015 NFC Championship game was humiliating. And the Cardinals’ defense still hasn’t recovered from that first class butt-kicking.

It all starts with putting the defense in the most capable hands possible. James Bettcher was and still is a promising young coach, but it was pure folly to think that Bettcher, after a mere three years of being an NFL assistant, could match wits with the best offensive coordinators in the NFL.

The biggest mistake that Bruce Arians made was ignoring the fact that Wade Phillips, Dick LeBeau and Jim Schwartz were looking for jobs when Arians opted to promote Bettcher.

There is ample evidence to tie Arians’ demise in Arizona to his croneysistic hiring practices—-because the players did not play consistently well or hard for James Bettcher nor for STC Amos Jones. Players know when they are getting the short end of the stick—-and it demoralizes them and makes them want to go to a team that is “serious about winning” (Tyrann Mathieu).

Now that Wade Phillips is available—-Steve Keim should not pass up this opportunity again to bring in a Super Bowl tested defensive guru.

Teaming Vance Jospeh with Wade Phillips would be a potential dream team for the Cardinals. Sign Phillips as an assistant head coach and pay him handsomely.

Phillips and Joseph have an excellent relationship, having worked together when Jospeh was Phillips’ defensive backs coach with the Texas from 2011-2013.

Who knows, if the Cardinals hire Wade Phillips maybe that also gives them the inside track in signing three key Rams’ are agents: DT Michael Brockers, LB Cory Littleton and CB Troy Hill.

The more that the Cardinals can do to strengthen the defensive side of the ball, the more freedom it affords for head coach Kliff Kingsbury to focus on the offense.

2. The Free Agent and NFL Draft Process

Now that Kliff Kingsbury and his staff are heading into their 2nd year, it is imperative that the head coach and his assistants be the driving force behind this year’s personnel additions.

Steve Keim and the Cardinals’ scouts should hand over their scouting reports and lists of the top free agents and draft prospects they have been honing in on to Kingsbury and the staff.

After extensive game film study and background checks, the offensive coaches then can pinpoint which players best fit their needs and the system.

For example, any offensive linemen the Cardinals sign or draft this year should be Sen Kugler’s handpicked guy.

Same thing on the defensive side.

This should be a team effort.

Now—-here’s the rub.

When the coaches pick the players they want, no one becomes more invested in integrating and developing those players than the coaches.

It’s about time that player acquisitions fit to a tee what the coaches want and need.

3. Player Development

Steve Keim and the current coaches have to put an end to the Cardinals’ propensity to circle the wagons at an inordinate number of positions.

The trend has been to give up on draft picks too early and replace them with veterans via free agency and/or trades that cost the team draft picks.

For example, look at all the movement there has been at the RCB position—-over the past few years there has been no stability at the position, largely due to the fact that the Cardinals coaches failed to develop draft picks Justin Bethel and Brandon Williams (not to mention late draft picks like Harlan Miller and Chris Campbell).

What ensued was a year to year carousel at the RCB position—-which involved two trades, one with the Chiefs for Marcus Cooper (7th round pick—-2018) and one with the Browns for Jamar Taylor (6th round pick—-2020). Cooper had a good year snagging 4 interceptions and actually earned a Pro Bowl alternate bid—-but as what now might be the case with RB Kenyan Drake, the Cardinals felt that Cooper was too expensive to re-sign in 2018.

Jamar Taylor was pretty much a bust right from the start.

But the best RCB the Cardinals signed was Tramon Williams, when in 2017 they signed him to a 1 year $2M deal. Williams responded by earning the 9th highest PFF CB grade in the NFL at 88.2. Yet, when free agency hit, the Cardinals decided once again that he would be too pricey. Williams landed back with the Packers for 2 years at $10M.

In 2018, the Cardinals instead turned to free agent CB Marcus Williams—-and like Jamar Taylor, he was a bust pretty much right from the get-go.

See what two failed draft picks and a pattern of not re-signing the good players they acquired amounted to?

Speaking of two failed draft picks—-how about the trade in 2017 Steve Keim made right before the deadline for RB Adrian Peterson. Peterson arrived and had a superb first game, but was unable to build on that performance thanks in part to injuries. The trade wound up costing the Cardinals 2 6th round picks (one for Peterson and one for losing a 2018 6th round compensatory pick)—-but the Cardinals could have at least held on to Peterson in 2018 because he was still under contract for $2M, but they decided to cut him.

With this year’s trade for RB Kenyan Drake, the Cardinals essentially gave up two 5th round draft picks again for electing to cut 2017 5th round pick T.J. Logan which could have prevented the trade in the first place with David Johnson and Chase Edmonds set to return from injuries in a week to two and the the 5th round pick they gave to the Dolphins.

Back during the pre-season, while Logan had the most dynamic TD run of any RB in one of the games and was earning a 69.2 rushing grade and 84.4 pass protection grade, I and some other avid fans like A.P. Andres, were urging the Cardinals not to give up on Logan in just his 3rd season. The Cardinals elected to cut Logan in favor of keeping D.J. Foster (52.5 pre-season grade at RB).

Sure, Foster is a well-liked former ASU star who is a solid special teamer, but for an offense that thrives on speed at the RB position, this move was a head-scratcher. Plus, it’s not like Logan didn’t bring STs value of his own, having registered a commendable kickoff return line of 12/296/24.4 ave in 2018...which average wise would have been tops on the Cardinals in 2019 and could have kept Pharoh Cooper fresh for punt returns. But, wait, let’s not forget that the Cardinals cut Cooper as well in favor of keeping WR Michael Crabtree. Ugh.

When one looks at the holes the offensive line created for Kenyan Drake, T.J. Logan, with his 4.37 speed, might have actually gained more yards. Then, when David Johnson and Chase Edmonds retuned, the Cardinals would have been able to shuffle a trio of home grown RBs, for which they gave up 3rd, 4th and 5th round picks.

By giving the vast majority of the RB snaps to Kenyan Drake the last 8 games of the season, it has thwarted the development of the unit as a whole. This would be more acceptable if Drake were to return—but the most positive thing Drake has had to say about that this far is, “Yeah, I might consider coming back to the Cardinals.”

But this is what the Cardinals under Steve Keim do—-they bail out on their own young players and replace them with veterans who are short term fixes. And when the veterans play well, the Cardinals concede their price tags are too rich for them to re-sign.

And so the cycle keeps spinning and the GM’s wagons keep circling.

This has got to stop.

The only way it will stop is for the coaches to have the ultimate say in which players the GM signs and then the coaches will have the incentive to do whatever it takes to develop the players.

4. Roster Decisions

As mentioned above—-the Cardinals have to a better job of understanding the value of their own draft picks as they apply to the team’s depth.

At each position, the head coach and the GM have to ask themselves what do we do if so-and-so gets injured?

It didn’t take much for A.P., other fans and myself to recognize that if David Johnson got hurt, which he did, then which RB would be better to keep as RB3, T.J. Logan or D.J. Foster?

Why give up so early on a 5th round draft pick?

For that matter—-why in the world give up on T Korey Cunningham in just his 2nd year of development—-a player who has already demonstrated he could start in a pinch at both tackle spots (which is an asset roster-wise in itself in having a swing tackle).

A few days later Marcus Gilbert gets injured—-and now Cunningham is in New England—-and fortunately the Cardinals were able to claim Justin Murray off of waivers—-but if Cunningham could have had similar success to Murray, and it’s not difficult to imagine that he could have, the team would still have Cunningham under contract for 2 more years on a 7th round salary.

Just as teams have to try to capitalize on the 4-5 years of a young QB’s contract, any time a team gets 4 years of value from a draft pick, it is a boon for the salary cap and it enables the GM to use the draft to take care of other positions.

One ROTB member was saying this week that 5th and 6th round draft picks don’t matter all that much, especially with Steve Keim picking them. But—-in the past the Cardinals have gotten huge value out of their 5th and 6th round picks with players such as FB Larry Centers, WR Steve Breaston, RB Tim Hightower, QB John Skelton, FB Anthony Sherman, CB Justin Bethel, RB Stepfan Taylor, RB Andre Ellington. WR J.J. Nelson, S Marqui Christian (oh, wait), FS Deionte Thompson, WR KeeSean Johnson and SS Jalen Thompson.

It’s adding key role players in these rounds that contribute significantly to the overall depth and strength of the roster. The Cardinals once had a draft philosophy of trying to select the best available ST player in the draft with their 5th round picks.

Therefore, the time has come to keep developing the young talent on the roster and to stop thwarting their progress by signing veterans at their position on 1 year deals.

It’s not ok to keep pissing away draft picks.

Come time to pick the roster—-if a veteran and a younger player who is under team control for the next 2-4 years are just about neck and neck—-the nod has to go the younger player, because if he works out, chances are you don’t have to spend another draft pick that next year at his position. Again—-this is a way to stop with endless wagon circles.

5. Drafting Players at Their Natural Positions

For crying out lout—-it’s time to draft players who are already well versed and comfortable with the positions they played in college.

It is absurd that it has taken the Cardinals 3 years to recognize that Haason Reddick’s skills translate best to the edge of the defense as a 34 OLB.

It’s a difficult enough transition for draft picks and rookie to adapt to the speed and details of learning a new system—-compounding that by asking rookies to play positions that they have never played before is especially daunting and a major blow to most players’ confidence, because mistakes are so magnetized at this level.

This is why having the coaches handpick their players is essential. Vance Jospeh understands that the odds of being able to teach a rookie how to play ILB if he's never played the position before are astronomically low.

This is why Vance Joseph will want an athletic player like Haason Reddick (who has the speed, agility and quickness to drop back into coverage) opposite Chandler Jones so that Jones can rush the passer at every possible opportunity.

This is why Kliff Kingsbury will want a RB to have the attack-the-hole style and speed that makes his running game so potentially dynamic.

This is why Kliff Kingsbury and Sean Kugler will want their offensive tackles to have a blend of good balance, striking power and quick feet so they can be versatile in the spread and in the running game.

Like they say—-it’s always good to have form follow function.

The Kyler Murray rookie contract window is a fifth of the way open—-how exciting it is to think of the ways the Cardinals can keep lifting that window up, one key handpicked player at a time and making a full-scale, system-wide commitment to the young talent they already have.