What a difference a year makes. As the Cardinals entered the offseason last year, they were coming off a 3-13 debacle of a season that cost first-year head coach Steve Wilks his job. Kliff Kingsbury was hired to take his place, with the idea that he could hopefully save then-starting QB Josh Rosen’s career. (Wow, 2018 seems like about a decade ago.)
Calls to fire GM Steve Keim with Wilks were loud and rabid, but Michael Bidwill elected to give Keim another shot. That decision was largely met with derision by Cardinals fans and observers.
But, given everything Keim has accomplished since the end of last season, could it be that Bidwill made the right decision? Keim has been a bit of a whipping boy here on RotB and elsewhere, but it might be time to reassess his performance as GM. Let’s take a look back at everything that’s happened since he was retained, which culminated in yesterday’s absolute swindling of the Texans that brought a superstar to the desert.
January 2019: Hiring of Kliff Kingsbury
How much of a role Keim played in the hiring of Kingsbury is up for debate, but he was the GM of record when the hire was made. Kingsbury’s debut season was full of ups and downs, but he never looked out of place in the NFL (after some standard early-season jitters), and he ultimately acquitted himself well in leading the team to a 5-10-1 record in 2019. Although the Air Raid never *quite* took off, the offense was nonetheless vastly improved. The Cardinals’ culture needed to be changed after 2018, and Keim successfully guided the team into a new era.
March 2019: Jordan Hicks and J.R. Sweezy Signings
The Cardinals’ 2019 free agent class wasn’t exactly a bonanza (see below), but Keim did snag two key starters in Hicks and Sweezy. Hicks started all 16 games and finished third in the league in tackles with 150. He also showed keen playmaking ability, adding 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles (one recovered), and three INTs. He did struggle in coverage at times (especially early on), but he looks like the team’s top ILB for the next several years. Sweezy didn’t have quite the impact Hicks did, but he helped stabilize the interior of the O-line and was a key cog in the surprisingly productive running game. He also started all 16 games. If a GM could add two solid starters out of every free agent class, he’d be doing pretty well.
April 2019: Drafting of Kyler Murray
It’s been largely forgotten outside of the RotB comments section, but drafting Kyler Murray was no slam dunk last year. There was a fierce debate between drafting the Heisman winner versus keeping Rosen and drafting someone like Quinnen Williams at #1 instead. Both Kyler and Rosen obviously went on to do their parts to decisively make it clear that Keim made the right choice, but nothing was certain at the time. Drafting Kyler was gutsy, but it paid off as it looks like we have our starting QB for the next decade, a true game-changer and franchise cornerstone. You can argue (correctly) that Kyler fell into Keim’s lap after his own mistakes made the Cardinals the worst team in the league for a season, but he still had to pull the trigger to draft him after spending a top-10 pick on a QB the previous year. Cardinals fans will forever be glad he did.
April 2019: The Rest of the 2019 Draft
The first thing Keim had to do after drafting Kyler was trade Rosen, and he was able to snag a 2nd-rounder from Miami for him. Not ideal, but not bad. From there, Keim put together a very well-received draft class: the WR trio of Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler, and KeeSean Johnson, CB Byron Murphy, DE Zach Allen, the safety duo of the Thompson Twins (Deionte and Jalen, the latter a 2020 supplemental draft pick), and some promising late-rounders in C Lamont Gaillard, T Joshua Miles, DE Michael Dogbe, and TE Caleb Wilson. Of course, the draft class outside of Kyler hasn’t really lived up to the offseason hype (see below), but there’s still a lot of talent there. Keim won’t have as many picks to play with this year, but last year’s draft has to have Cardinals fans feeling more confident in their GM’s drafting ability.
October 2019: The Kenyan Drake Trade
Like most, I didn’t think much of the trade at the time: a conditional 6th-rounder for the semi-intriguing Drake, who had flashed at times in a part-time role with the Dolphins but who had done precisely nothing in 2019 for the worst team the league before the trade. Besides, we still had David Johnson on a big contract, and Chase Edmonds had shown signs of breaking out. But with both of them nursing injuries, Keim pulled the trigger on what seemed to be a low-level trade. We all know what happened from there, with Drake busting out against the 49ers a few days after the trade en route to a monster half-season: 123 rushes for 643 yards and 8 TDs. I thought he was nothing more than a bye-week fill-in at the time (I rejected a trade for him in fantasy football using similar language, which I will never live down), but it’s looking more and more likely that he’s our starting RB for the foreseeable future. Not a bad return for giving up what became a 5th-round draft pick.
March 2020: The DeAndre Hopkins Trade
All of this was only the setup for Keim’s coup de grâce: DJ, a 2nd, and a 4th (next year) for DeAndre Hopkins(!) and a 4th. I didn’t think the trade was real when I first hear about it—and I still don’t, to a certain extent. It’s almost too good to be true. In one stroke, Keim answered—emphatically—two of the team’s biggest questions on offense, securing a true #1 WR and solving the team’s RB conundrum. This trade would have been a smashing success even if we had to, say, pay half of DJ’s salary this year, or give up our own #1 pick, and Cardinals fans would have rejoiced even if it was Will Fuller or Kenny Stills coming to join Kyler, Fitz, and Kirk in the desert. But, someway, somehow, Keim was able to jettison DJ’s entire contract, keep our #1 pick, AND bring one of the best WRs in the league to the Valley. Just unbelievable. Keeping in mind the proverb about counting one’s chickens, this has all the makings of a top-5 offense next season. If Keim can plug a few holes (okay, several holes) on defense, is it too early to start talking playoffs next season? Remember that there’s another wild card spot up for grabs now…
Plenty of Misses, Too
None of this is to say that Keim hasn’t made mistakes in the last year-plus. Like many of you, I wasn’t a fan of the Vance Joseph hire at defensive coordinator, and the defense was dreadful last season. Joseph will be back this season, a move that could easily prove to be a mistake. As touched on above, last year’s free agent class had a lot of dead weight (Robert Alford, Charles Clay, Terrell Suggs, and Darius Philon, to name a few). And for all the good pub the draft class got, remember that Keim drafted Andy Isabella ahead of DK Metcalf. The class beyond Kyler has been more hype than production at this (early) point. Keim detractors certainly have plenty to harp on still.
That said, this team has come a long way since the end of the 2018 season. New coach, new QB, new culture—and, now, a new superstar and new hope for the 2020 season. We’ve gone from a historically bad offense in 2018 to Kyler slinging it to Hopkins, Fitz, and Kirk with Drake keeping the chains moving on the ground. The defense still needs to be fixed (which will definitely take more than one offseason), but this team is going to be FUN to watch regardless.
So, it’s time to give Steve Keim his due props. He was the architect of these changes, and he’s back in my good graces—and this is coming from someone who had called for his head multiple times. He’s earned my trust once again, and I’m excited to see what he can do the rest of the offseason. What free agents can he lure to town now? What will he do with the #8 pick? I’m almost giddy with anticipation. We need all the good news we can get right now, so kudos to Keim for giving it to us.
Your turn, Cardinals fans. Where are you at with Keim after yesterday’s trade? Are you back on board with “Keim Time,” or are you still holding a grudge from 2018? Let us know in the comments!