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Cards Moving the Buzz Forward in 2020 NFL Draft

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NFL: NFL Draft Handout Photo-USA TODAY Sports

In what has to go down as one of the most surprising and enjoyable drafts of all time for the Arizona Cardinals, GM Steve Keim in “Zoom” coordination with Michael Bidwill, Kliff Kingsbury and the scouts, appeared to draw the team a hand full of aces.

Here is how NFL.com evaluated the Cardinals’ 2020 NFL Draft:

Arizona Cardinals

Draft picks: Clemson LB Isaiah Simmons (No. 8 overall), Houston OT Josh Jones (No. 72), Utah DT Leki Fotu (No. 114), LSU DT Rashard Lawrence (No. 131), Cal LB Evan Weaver (No. 202), Arizona State RB Eno Benjamin (No. 222)

Day 1 grade: A

Day 2 grade: A+

Day 3 grade: B+

Overall grade: A

Draft analysis: Picking up a stud defender in Simmons and a value in Jones made the first two days of the Cardinals’ draft memorable. And don’t forget, this team used its second-round pick to acquire DeAndre Hopkins earlier this offseason.

Adding Fotu and Lawrence should give the Cardinals one of the biggest defensive lines in the league, although perhaps at the cost of building depth at other positions. Weaver is limited in coverage but should be a solid reserve 3-4 inside linebacker and special-teamer. Benjamin is a low-center-of-gravity back who adds needed depth at his position. They’ll want to find depth at tight end after the draft.

Chad Reuter of NFL.com in his final 7 round mock had Simmons going at #7, Jones at #27, Fotu at #102, Lawrence at #111, Weaver at #247 and Benjamin as UCFA (I think he must have forgotten about Eno or assumed he already had Eno slotted in the mock, because Reuter had far lesser rated RBs going in the 6th and 7th rounds). By the way, as an fyi, he had Cards’ UCFS CB Jace Whitaker (Arizona) going at #217.

CBS had Simmons at #4, Jones at #26, Fotu at #111, Lawrence at #164, Weaver at #168 and Benjamin at #155.

Matt Miler had Simmons at #7, Jones at #20, Fotu at #115, Lawrence at #165, Weaver at #206 and Benjamin at #195.

Here are my projections:

  1. Isaiah Simmons—-starter at SS (assigned to TE), rover in nickel as matchup man in coverage, spy and blitzer—-even at times playing centerfield at FS.
  2. Josh Jones—-swing tackle to start the season, starter at LT or RT by 2021.
  3. Leki Fotu—-starter in base defense on running downs.
  4. Rashard Lawrence—-rotational 34 DE and nickel interior pass rusher.
  5. Evan Weaver—-potential starter in 2021 at WILB in 34 base on running downs, if Cards don’t re-sign De’Vondre Campbell.
  6. Eno Benjamin—-RB3 with a chance at some point to become RB2.

Kudos to the Cardinals:

  1. Draft preparation—-the Cardinals thoroughly vetted all of the 6 picks, not only for their football talents/production, but for their character—-all 6 were league All-Stars and team captains.
  2. Connections—-the Cardinals tapped into the connections (via the GM, scouts and coaches) that they have with all 6 of the colleges.
  3. Communication—-the Cardinals IT department facilitated an outstanding coordination of their draft plan.
  4. Public relations—-the Cardinals produced a strong draft presence and buzz.
  5. Patience—-as difficult as it was to sit patiently for two long stretches in the draft, the Cardinals made the most of their picks and they managed to come out of the draft with the players they were heavily targeting and with all of their 2021 draft picks intact.

The timing of the picks:

Simmons—-amazing that in the pass happy NFC South, the Panthers elected to go with DT Derrick Brown instead of S/LB Isaiah Simmons mere days after the Bucs signed Tom Brady and Rob Gronkwoski and the Saints signed Drew Brees and Emmanuel Sanders—-to add to both team’s prodigious returning talent at WR, TE and RB. Oh and let’s not forget about Matt Ryan and Julio Jones of the Falcons. No knock at all on Derrick Brown, but one would imagine that having such a versatile run and pass defender like Isaiah Simmons would have given them a stronger chance to matchup against such elite skill position talent in their division.

Jones—-sometimes when a player of Jones’ talent starts sliding, it happens because teams weren’t expecting the player to be there in Round 2 or early in Round 3 where teams had already zeroed in on talents at other positions. The slide was no fault of Jones’—-he came off a season where he earned the highest PFF grade ever (93.2) for a college tackle and he was by far the best tackle at the Senior Bowl.

Fotu—-the fact that he was still available at #114 when he is the 2nd best run stuffer in the draft (other than Derrick Brown) was a coup for the Cardinals, particularly because they were so heavily invested in Fotu in the pre-draft process.

Lawrence—-here is why a major league talent like LSU “permanent captain” Rashard Lawrence slid to the 4th round, courtesy of insidethestar.com:

“As a freshman in 2016, he appeared in nine games and totaled six tackles and a sack. A year later in his sophomore season, Lawrence became a starter, and even though he missed some time with ankle injuries, he made 10 starts and registered 32 tackles (3.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks and a pass defended. In his junior campaign, Lawrence started all 13 games and had arguably the season of his collegiate career with 54 tackles (10 for loss), four sacks and three passes defended. He would miss spring drills after having knee surgery and be sidelined with an ankle injury during his senior season. However, he appeared in 12 games (11 starts) and tallied 28 tackles (6 for loss), 2.5 sacks, three passes defended, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. He would be named Second-Team All-SEC and help LSU win the 2019 CFP National Championship.

Obviously, Rashard Lawrence is one resilient cat and a player who can play through pain and still be a major force to be reckoned with at his position. Hopefully, Lawrence’s injury issues will be behind him. Being a part of a DT rotation as a rookie could help him build strength and a productive niche as the season rolls along.

Weaver—-because of his so-called “physical limitations”, Weaver was going to be taken somewhere in the 5th-7th rounds. Having watched his tape and seeing why he was the most productive tackler in college football the past two years, I am amazed that he made it to pick #202. This is a kid who has been counted out all of his football career. But, that just seems to motivate him even more. Here is a tweet I wrote shortly after the pick yesterday:

Walter B J Mitchell@WBJMItch16h

Evan Weaver is opposite of what Cards have been doing---trying to switch athletic college Ss /OLBs to WILB where they struggle due to lack of instincts and temperament. Weaver is not a wow athlete, but he has wow ILB instincts and motor. Pat Tillman-esque.

This was after tweeting this moments earlier:

Funny! Said 2 days ago---Cards should play Simmons at SS and OLB. If Cards want an ILB, then they should draft Evan Weaver. Well, the Cards just drafted the leading tackler at ILB in the country: Evan Weaver! Isaiah now free to roam! Man, what a draft!

What I love about this defensive draft haul of grown ass men, is all four of them are ballers from top shelf Power 5 conferences and all of them are superb tacklers.

We saw how productive Joe Walker could be at WILB over the last half of the season—-just imagine thenwhat Evan Weaver could do at the position. Like Vance Joseph said, it’s a position that requires years of training, reps, technique, temperament and instincts. Weaver checks all of those boxes.

If the Cardinals’ coaches listen carefully to Isaiah Simmons, Simmons says he fashions his game after Tyrann Mathieu and Derwin James. And rightfully so. Simmons is a force of nature as a roving defensive dynamo. Let him be him. Do what Clemson’s DC Brent Venables did with Isaiah and create an exciting game plan for him each week.

Benjamin—-I think we all would have rejoiced if the Cardinals took Eno at #131, especially after Zack Moss was taken by the Bills in the 3rd round. The fact that the Cardinals were still able to draft Eno at #222 with RB being the major need at that point, is a something of a miracle. Plus, here Eno was this off-season working out with Chase Edmonds and he’s already developed a budding friendship with Kyler Murray. Great to hear too that Kenyan Drake called Eno to welcome him and to tell him what to expect when he gets to the “RB room”.

Man this buzz feels sweet.

Think of where we were just a little over a year ago.

Michael Bidwill said it best on The Flight Plan, Season 3 Episode 1:

“Adversity doesn’t bring out the character in someone, it reveals it.”

Let’s just go ahead and apply Bidwill’s mantra to everyone in the Cardinals’ organization. Y’all hit rock bottom in 2018—-and look at you now.

Bidwill, Keim, Kingsbury and Kyler will remind us—-this is just beginning and it is going to take hard work and dedication to keep moving this team forward.

Here is Zac Shomler’s visceral reaction to the Cardinals’ selection of Isaiah Simmons and the buzz surrounding our Birdang—-it’s more than okay for all of us—-even the most cynical of us—-to enjoy this—-yes, the Cardinals’ journey ahead requires hard work—-but the Cardinals are giving us very good reasons to believe in the new foundation of our team.

Cardinals’ draft earns 3.75 GPA. Thank you for this awesome grid, Rene Bugner!