Let’s wind the clocks back a year.
A year ago, Cardinal General Manager Steve Keim was on professional life support in the desert.
This boiled over to the point where the majority of Cardinal nation had seen enough.
But to Cardinal Team Owner Michael Bidwill’s credit, he opted to remain patient with his longtime GM. No matter how loud the outside noise became, Keim’s position with the team remained solidified.
So much so that Bidwill allowed Keim to not only choose the team’s next head coach following Steve Wilks’ dismissal after a disastrous 2018, but essentially green lit the same approach when it came to the team’s young quarterback.
A year after spending the 10th overall selection (as well as an additional 3rd and 5th rounder) to trade up for UCLA QB Josh Rosen, Keim sent him packing for what equated to pennies on the dollar (pick 62 in the 2019 draft).
It was those two moves in particular that I believe fueled Steve Keim’s rehabilitation back to the Cardinal GM we all know from his early years with the team (35 wins from 2013-15).
Michael Bidwill gifted Steve a mulligan and he took it.
Thank goodness for that.
What preceded was perhaps Keim’s greatest stretch of personnel moves over the course of a calendar year. Now that’s not to say every move by Keim during this span was an undeniable home run.
But it would be foolish to allow several low level personnel moves to overshadow Keim’s dominance during this stretch.
So let’s dive into them, shall we?
April 25th, 2019 - Keim drafts Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray 1st overall in the 2019 NFL Draft
The build up to the 2019 NFL Draft was unlike any in recent memory, mostly because the Cardinals were gifted the first overall selection.
Not only did Keim have to make the difficult decision between Rosen vs Murray, but also had to factor in the notion that he’d be gifting Ohio State DE Nick Bosa to a divisional rival.
Even with the temptation to double down on Rosen and secure Bosa, Keim rolled the dice on what he believed was a generational talent at quarterback. It was a move that, at the time, was heavily scrutinized by the majority of the national media.
As we sit here roughly 13 months later, it’s obvious that Keim made the right decision.
If you’re able to separate the lack of return for Rosen and purely focus on 2019 and beyond, the Cardinals were especially fortunate to receive the return on Rosen that they did. It’s been proven now, through several football administrations, that the former Bruin just doesn’t have the key traits needed to be a generational franchise quarterback.
Kyler Murray, on the other hand, was the runaway Offensive Rookie of the Year. Heading into 2020, Murray sits along side NFL legend Tom Brady tied for the fifth most likely player to secure NFL MVP Honors.
For as dominate as Nick Bosa was for San Francisco a year ago, given their current trajectories, his lasting impact won’t touch what Murray is capable of doing in a Cardinal uniform.
April 26th, 2019 - Keim selects CB Byron Murphy 33rd overall
As day two of the draft approached, the majority of analysts believed the Cardinals needed to pivot to the offensive line to ensure the team had adequate protection for Kyler Murray.
However, once the clock struck zero, it was Keim pulling the trigger on an individual the team claimed they had fifth overall on their big board.
Byron Murphy was universally seen as the draft’s top corner but inexplicably fell to the second round. Kudos to Keim for have the foresight to see beyond 2019 with this selection.
While Murphy’s rookie season as admittedly up and down (he did start all 16 games and secured 10 PD), the young corner was quickly thrust into action following Patrick Peterson’s six game suspension.
Compound that with Robert Alford’s season ending injury prior to week one, and the Cardinals were incredibly fortunate to have Murphy in the fold when they did.
Projecting out next season and beyond. Murphy appears to be the lone staple moving forward at CB. Patrick Peterson is entering his final year of his current deal and Alford is a complete unknown at this point.
There’s also this recent nugget regarding Giant’s CB DeAndre Baker, the first corner taken in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Baker was chosen three spots ahead of Murphy.
May 2, 2019: Keim signs free agent TE Max Williams
It’s not secret that Keim has done some of his best personnel after the draft. Last year was no different, when Keim inked free agent TE Max Williams to a modest one year deal.
Williams was a middling player in Baltimore, but relished the opportunity to establish himself with the pass happy Cardinals.
Fast forward to the start of the season, and Williams had outperformed any realisitc expectations that the team had when signing him in the spring.
In what was generally considered a soft unit upfront on the Cardinal offensive line, Williams gave Arizona a nastiness that was severly lacking.
While his receiving skills remained league average, his run blocking was amongst the best at his position. So much so that Williams was consistently a top five tight end overall in the site’s position rankings.
September 2, 2019: Keim claims OT Justin Murray off waivers
Following the season ending injury to top OT Marcus Gilbert, the Cardinals were scrambling for a solution at right tackle to begin 2019.
You could argue that it was Keim’s own fault for not investing more resources upfront, but regardless the savvy GM made the necessary adjustments to ensure stability moving forward.
Justin Murray, a former undrafted free agent, had bounced around several teams before being cut by Oakland last preseason.
Keim saw something he liked and utilized his last remaining day’s as the top waiver option to secure the former Cincinnati Bearcat.
While admittedly inconsistent to begin the season, Murray adjusted into an average right tackle over the course of the team’s final eight games. Kudos to not only Keim, but offensive line coach Sean Kugler in coaching up the inexperienced Murray.
Heading into 2020, with Gilbert back in the fold, Murray likely needs a solid camp to fend off the surging vet. There’s also a certain third round pick out of Houston that will eventually be a force to consider.
Regardless, the acquisition of Murray for what equated to a sub seven figure salary ($750,000 base in 2020) was more than worth it for Steve Keim. This was an under the radar move that paid off big for a team that greatly needed youth and depth upfront.
October 28, 2019: Keim trades for Dolphin’s RB Kenyan Drake
Following injuries to the team’s top two running backs, Steve Keim made the dicey decision to ship off 2020 draft capital for some short term help.
Rather than punt on the season and leave his rookie quarterback high and dry without a running game, Keim invested in the now.
Enter Kenyan Drake.
Acquired for a mere fifth round pick during the 2019 NFL Trading Deadline, Drake immediately became an impact player for the Arizona Cardinals.
His debut on national tv against the vaunted San Francisco 49ers was something to behold. After years of being held back by the dysfunctional Miami Dolphins, Drake exploded in his first game with the Redbirds (after only two practices!).
On Halloween night, Drake would smoke San Fran for the tune of 162 total yards and a touchdown. He would finish his 2019 campaign with the club tallying over 640 yards rushing (52 ypc) with 171 receiving.
He also tallied an astounding eight touchdowns in eight games with the team.
Once scheduled to be a free agent, Keim wisely utilized the transition tag on the explosive RB to hedge his bet on another strong one year performance next season.
While Keim has seemingly learned his lesson on paying running backs big multi year deals, it would not shock me to see a short term extension worked out between the two parties.
Via fantasy guru Evan Silva, Drake currently sits as the ninth best fantasy back heading into 2020,
Not bad for the swap of a throw away fifth rounder.
February 17, 2020: Keim extends OT D.J. Humphries to three year deal
Entering the 2020 off season, one of the biggest boxes to check was that of left tackle. Following severe inconsistencies to begin his career, the Cardinals finally saw significant growth from fifth year OT D.J. Humphries in 2019.
Humphries, for the first time since his collegiate days, played a full season of football. Once again, we cannot understate the job of Cardinal offensive line coach Sean Kugler for his work with the once scrutinized tackle.
Just in time too, with free agency looming, Humphries was licking his chops at the idea of securing big dollars on the open market.
Regardless of what the team thought internally, it’s a rarity that franchise tackles (at either position) hit the market. And when they do, big dollars generally follow.
See Conklin. Jack.
Which was why it was so critical that Keim secured his former first round pick to an contract extension a month before free agency.
Three years, worth up to $45 million with $29 million guaranteed.
The majority of the contract is front loaded, which means the Cardinals receive added protection should Humphries resort back to his injury plagued days come 2020 and beyond.
The modest extension also allows the team to continually look for an upgrade at the position, should one become available.
Regardless, at just 26 years old, Humphries has proven that he’s worth another look especially as he enters year two with both Kugler and Kingsbury. The player once known as “knee deep” has become a leader in the team’s locker room and has the blessing of franchise QB Kyler Murray.
As for Steve Keim, Humphries became his first former “first round pick” to secure a second contract with the team.
Regardless of how you feel about that, it certainly classifies as a win for Keim.
March 16, 2020: Keim trades RB David Johnson for WR DeAndre Hopkins
Even typing out that headline, it still gives me chills.
In what will likely become (barring injury) one of the greatest trades in franchise history, Steve Keim shocked the sports landscape by jetsetting David Johnson and his bloated contract for a future Hall of Fame receiver.
Rather than breakdown what we’ve already recapped on this site over the course of the last two months, lets instead take a look at the twitter timeline the morning of that infamous free agent deal. Make sure to take note of the time stamp for each tweet.
Here is how it began (via Adam Schefter), with the news that the Cardinals would be tagging RB Kenyan Drake:
Cardinals placing Transition Tag on Kenyan Drake, per source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 16, 2020
I was skeptical that Arizona would be able to dump Johnson and his deal off on another team. To Keim’s credit, it was planned well in advance of free agency. Cardinal team officials met with Bill O’Brien and Houston brass back in February during the NFL Scouting Combine. Keim and O’Brien were even seen out to dinner in Indianapolis.
Which of course would lead to this:
Trade: Cardinals and Texans are agreeing to a trade that will send David Johnson to Houston, sources tell ESPN.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 16, 2020
At this point, I think we were all on bated breath preparing for what the compensation would be:
Texans will take on all of RB David Johmson’s salary.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 16, 2020
Oh. Oh no. IS KEIM DEALING AWAY PREMIUM DRAFT CAPITAL TO DITCH JOHNSON’S CONTRACT?!
Framework of trade still being finalized, sources tell ESPN:— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 16, 2020
Cardinals get DeAndre Hopkins and a late-round pick.
Texans get David Johnson and a second-round pick.
Other picks involved, but Hopkins wanted a new deal that Arizona can provide.
March 24, 2020: Keim signs DE/DT Jordan Phillips to three year deal
Following the Hopkin’s blockbuster, Keim rightfully pivoted to the defensive line.
A unit that was once a strength for this team had quickly eroded to the point that Arizona was trotting out practice squad level players during the season finale against the LA Rams.
Phillips had a breakout season in Buffalo before departing as a free agent. Finally living up to his second round draft status, the former Oklahoma Sooner snagged 9.5 sacks in route to what was consistently labeled as a 2019 Pro Bowl snub.
With a bevy of free agency defensive tackles available to begin free agency, Keim opted to go with the emerging Phillips in part due to his familiarity with DC Vance Joseph.
Joseph had coached Phillips during his early years in Miami, as the two remained close.
This of course, benefited the Cardinals during Keim’s pursuit in free agency. It’s fair to wonder, if Joseph hadn’t been retained as the team’s DC, would Phillips have opted to sign elsewhere?
Regardless, Keim shelved out $30 million over three years (with a looming fourth year, 10 million dollar option available) to an ascending player at a position of need.
Phillips may never reach elite status, but Arizona would gladly pay for the kind of production Buffalo received in 2019.
The deal also buys Keim time before he is forced to look in the early rounds of the draft for an impact DT.
April 23rd, 2020: Keim drafts Clemson LB Isaiah Simmons eighth overall
While the jury still remains as to what kind of player Isaiah Simmons will be at the next level, you can’t argue the value Keim received by standing pat at pick eight last month.
Keim suggested, in his post draft presser, that he fielded calls for the pick but opted to stay and grab what he deemed as a top five player.
Simmons immediately becomes one of if not the fastest player defensively for Arizona. The former Tiger injects some much needed athleticism and swagger to a unit that was too often clowned by opposing offenses.
If the recently released episode of “Cardinal Flight Plan” is any indication of the player Arizona is getting, then sign me up for 10+ years of Isaiah Simmons in the desert.
April 23rd, 2020: Keim drafts Houston OT Josh Jones 72rd overall
Without tooting my own horn too much, I did a lengthly recap of what Jones’ arrival could mean for the offensive line needy Arizona Cardinals.
Here’s a shameless plug in case you missed it (for those of you who didn’t, bless you):
So to recap, if you’re scoring at home, since April 2019 Steve Keim has added the following key players:
D.J. Humphries (extended)
Throw in the likes of Jordan Hicks (signed in March 2019), Jalen Thompson, Devon Kennard and De’Vondre Campbell and it’s easy to see why so many are picking the once left for dead Cardinals as a sleeper team come 2020.
Kudos to Cardinal GM Steve Keim.
Now keep it going.