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Pump the brakes: A dose of reality for this year’s rookie class

The Cardinals have now had two highly regarded draft classes in a row. What lessons can we learn from last year’s draft class?

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NFL Combine - Day 3
Isaiah Simmons at the combine. Few Cardinals fans thought we’d have a shot at drafting him at that point.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

First things first: I’m as excited about the draft class that Steve Keim and the Cardinals just brought in as anyone. A robust 72% of RotBers graded the draft class as an A, and I was one of those votes. I pumped my fist at just about every pick—“How was that guy still available?!”

But. You knew the “but” was coming.

But we’ve done this dance before. Last year at this time, we were celebrating another draft class that received rave reviews. Many of us—myself included—let our expectations get a little out of hand. But the results on the field and in the box scores didn’t come close to matching the hype, Kyler Murray excepted. Take a look:

  • Byron Murphy played a ton but was mostly overmatched and graded poorly.
  • The much-hyped WR trio of Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler, and KeeSean Johnson combined for just 30 catches.
  • Defensive ends Zach Allen and Michael Dogbe combined for just 13 tackles and 0 sacks.
  • Deionte Thompson played fewer than 1/4 of the defensive snaps and had 18 tackles.
  • Late-round picks Lamont Gaillard, Joshua Miles, and Caleb Wilson combined for 3 snaps total.

The reasons for these underwhelming performances were varied (injuries, stuck behind established players, normal rookie struggles), and it’s WAY too early to say that last year’s class was a failure or that any of the players were busts. But, simply put, we overhyped last year’s draft class.

Let’s not make the same mistake this year.

Today, I’ll go through the draft class and give a reason for optimism as well as a dose of reality for each player. Let’s do our best to pump the breaks on the hype train a little bit in 2020—especially considering that these players likely won’t be getting anything close to a normal offseason routine. The reality is that most of these players will have very little impact in the 2020 Arizona Cardinals season—which is normal for any rookie class, as we found out last year.

Now, let’s start with the gem of the class, a player that no one thought would be there until the days and hours leading up to the draft.

Round 1: LB Isaiah Simmons (Clemson)

Reason for Optimism: This one’s easy—Simmons was one of the best two or three defensive prospects in the draft, if not the best. He made plays all over the field—rushing the passer, in the run game, in coverage—against some of the top competition in college football. He should be able to fill any role the Cardinals ask of him. It was a gift that he fell to #8.

Dose of Reality: He doesn’t have a clear position in the NFL as of yet. Is he an ILB? OLB? Safety? It might not matter, as his versatility is his greatest asset, but the Cardinals have experienced failure with “tweener” players like Deone Bucannon and Haason Reddick before. Also… is Vance Joseph the DC to get the most out of a player like Simmons? He doesn’t have a strong track record of success and seemed alarmingly out of touch with how his unit was performing last season. Finally, the Cardinals have veterans at every position Simmons could conceivably play, so whose playing time is he taking? It’s nice to imagine another Cardinals winning Rookie of the Year, but it’s easy to imagine the team not using him correctly for half the season or more as well.

Round 2: OT Josh Jones (Houston)

Reason for Optimism: The Redbirds still had a big need at tackle, and it was a long wait from pick 8 to pick 72. It was practically a miracle that a player like Jones—who has 1st-round talent and experience in the Air Raid—was there for the taking. He looks like part of the long-term picture for the Redbirds O-line.

Dose of Reality: The Cardinals might not need him to play at all in 2020, with Justin Murray and Marcus Gilbert as options at RT opposite the newly resigned D.J. Humphries. Murray was solid enough last season and Gilbert has a ton of starting experience. The team clearly thought that duo would be enough in 2020, as they passed on the likes of Tristan Wirfs and Jedrick Wills to take Simmons. Jones could very well redshirt a la Humphries in 2015. But let’s hope it’s because Murray and/or Gilbert are holding down the fort, and not because Jones needs a foot, knee, or entire leg in his posterior.

Round 4: DT Leki Fotu (Utah)

Reason for Optimism: Fotu was part of a stout Utah defense that has frustrated Pac-12 teams in recent years. Look no further than last season’s 21-3 drubbing of my Sun Devils in Rice-Eccles Stadium that wasn’t even as close as the score indicates. (The Devils put up only 136 total yards of offense.) Fotu was an immovable object in the middle of that defensive line and should immediately help the Cardinals run defense when he’s on the field.

Dose of Reality: There will likely be a role for Fotu in 2020, but the Cardinals defensive line room is suddenly crowded. Corey Peters returns as the likely starting DT, and Jordan Phillips was just signed to play one of the DE spots. Fotu doesn’t seem to be athletic enough to play DE at the other spot, so he’ll be completing for playing time behind Peters (and likely Phillips in some packages) with fellow rookie Rashard Lawrence. His most likely role will just be spelling Peters from time to time—although he might be primed to take over the starting role in 2021, as Peters is on the last year of his deal.

Round 4: DT Rashard Lawrence (LSU)

Reason for Optimism: Like Fotu, Lawrence was part of a nasty college defense and has plenty of experience against big-time competition. But unlike Fotu, Lawrence has the athleticism to play at DE as well, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he out-snaps Fotu in 2020. He could be a true rotational piece all along the D-line, rather than just a dedicated backup at DT.

Dose of Reality: Most of what I said about Fotu above applies here. He’ll be fighting for playing time at DT with Phillips and Fotu, and at DE with the likes of Zach Allen and Jonathan Bullard. Like Fotu, there will be a role for Lawrence in 2020… but it likely won’t be a large one. But with potentially Peters and Bullard both gone after the season, he could make a name for himself in 2021. Lawrence also comes into the league with a bit of an injury history, which bears monitoring.

Round 6: ILB Evan Weaver (California)

Reason for Optimism: Although it’s a highly dubious stat, especially given the pace of the college game and the Pac-12 conference in particular, Weaver led the NCAA in tackles in 2019 and was second in 2018. He just seems to know how to get to the football—and as a Cal alum, he’s obviously intelligent. Could the Redbirds have gotten a steal in the 6th round? (Walter seems to think so.)

Dose of Reality: Players drop to the 6th round for a reason, and there are concerns about Weaver’s speed and overall athleticism. That has me concerned that he’d be a liability in coverage—and the Cardinals struggles against TEs are the stuff of legend at this point. Is he just a two-down LB in the NFL? He’s also pretty far down the depth chart at this point, behind Jordan Hicks, De’Vondre Campbell, and Isaiah Simmons (depending on how he’s used), and he’ll have competition from the usual suspects on the fringes of the roster. Perhaps Weaver can carve out a niche on special teams in 2020 and wait for his shot to contribute on defense?

Round 7: RB Eno Benjamin (ASU)

Reason for Optimism: Benjamin was another player seemingly gifted to the Cardinals over the weekend. He was widely touted as a mid-round pick, and many fans were hoping we’d take him in the 3rd or 4th round. But he lasted all the way to the 7th, where the team was happy to take a hometown hero at a position of need. He’ll likely be the third-string RB in 2020 with a chance at something more in 2021.

Dose of Reality: Again, players drop for a reason, and Benjamin didn’t have the strongest combine. He doesn’t seem to have a dominant trait as a runner, often getting by on sheer will and determination. That won’t necessarily fly against NFL defenses. Does he have a little too much in common with former ASU teammate Kalen Ballage? Ballage is a similarly physical runner who has absolutely flopped so far in his brief NFL career. It’s also generally a good rule to not expect anything from 7th-round picks.

Final Thoughts

Sorry for the splash of cold water on the rookie class that’s not even two days old. Actually, no I’m not. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of last year, when we extolled the virtues of the 2019 rookie class all offseason only to see most of them fail to make an impact.

Which is, of course, completely normal for any rookie class. The overwhelming majority of first-year players struggle at first, floundering a bit as they find their way in perhaps the toughest professional league in the world for first-year players.

So let’s give this year’s class the benefit of the doubt as they do the same. Echoing what Seth said over the weekend, we don’t need any of these guys to be great yet. Not Isaiah Simmons, not Josh Jones, and certainly not players like Evan Weaver and Eno Benjamin.

So let’s rightly give Steve Keim and the scouting department a tip of the cap, but let’s not expect much from these players yet.

But come 2021? Yeah, then we can adjust our expectations.

You hear that, Andy Isabella? Zach Allen? Lamont Gaillard? We expect rookies to take time to find their way. But you’re NFL players now. So play like it next season.