As we approach the 2021 “Draft Season”, I thought it would be appropriate to review last year’s group and their contributions during this past season.
While it would be foolish to judge a single class off one year, that doesn’t mean their contributions (or lack there of) shouldn’t be evaluated heading into next fall.
The 2020 Arizona Cardinal draft class was the eighth selected by GM Steve Keim (2013-2020).
Isaiah Simmons (LB/Clemson) - 8th Overall - 1st Round
At the end of the day, this class will likely be defined by the contributions of former Butkus Award Winner Isaiah Simmons. The Clemson product shot up draft boards alike following his monster 2019 collegiate campaign in combination with his record setting combine.
Simmons was deemed by many as the true unicorn of the 2020 draft class. His height/weight/speed combination was unmatched by any individual prospect, which made the former Tiger all the more tempting for teams picking in the top 10.
The only questions geared at Simmons were mostly around what position he'd man at the next level. During his time at Clemson, Simmons saw notable snaps at CB, ILB, OLB and S. The NFL Draft process is all about projecting success at the next level and this alone is likely why Simmons managed to fall all the way to pick number eight.
The Cardinals selected Simmons with the idea that he’d be an every down ILB, learning from vets Jordan Hicks and De’Vondre Campbell in the process.
The problem with that notion, however, was that the Cardinals needed contributions immediately from anyone they selected in the top 10. Yet DC Vance Joseph opted to grossly slow play Simmons’ development, limiting his snaps throughout the regular season.
It’s week 17 and the Cardinals don’t know how to use Isaiah Simmons.— Johnny Venerable (@JohnnyVenerable) January 3, 2021
This was incredibly frustrating when you consider Simmons would go on to field a higher PFF grade (60) than both Hicks and Campbell for the year. It was also evident that, despite his rookie mistakes, Simmons’ ability to make game changing plays came at a much higher rate than the incumbent starters. That becomes even harder to stomach when you consider that De’Vondre Campbell was on a one year deal and Jordan Hicks’ level of play diminished significantly following a strong 2019 campaign.
Yet, despite these issues, Simmons’ confidence would never waiver. His final 2020 stat line, which included 2 sacks, an INT and a FF, gave us a preview that the best is yet to come from this generational prospect. Anyone who watched the 2020 Arizona Cardinals came away knowing that the defense was better when number 48 was on the field.
Even with limited snaps, Simmons was able to earn a spot on the PFF All Rookie Team.
With Campbell almost certainly set to depart this spring, Simmons is locked into the right ILB position and is poised for a monster year two breakout.
I personally can’t wait.
NO PICK (TRADED) - 40th Overall - 2nd Round
You cannot properly judge the contributions of the 2020 rookie class without incorporating what would become the Cardinals most significant offseason addition:
The DeAndre Hopkins trade.
The Cardinals famously acquired Hopkins last March in a package that notably featured RB David Johnson and the 40th overall pick.
The trade was, and still is, viewed as a complete heist on the part of GM Steve Keim. Hopkins would go on to back up the notion that he is still one of the best receivers in all of pro football. In his first year with the team, Hopkins would earn Pro Bowl and second team All Pro honors. The future Hall of Famer notched over 1400 yards on 115 catches which included six touchdowns.
In fact, outside of the “Murray/Hopkins” connection, very little else consistently worked on the 2020 Cardinal offense.
Prior to the season, the Cardinals would locked up Hopkins to a huge extension that will keep the former Clemson product partnered with Kyler Murray well throughout their prime years.
The trade for DeAndre Hopkins will likely go down as one of the (if not the) greatest in Cardinal Football franchise history.
For comparison sake, with the 40th pick in last April’s draft, Houston would select DT Ross Blacklock out of TCU. He would go on to start one game for one of the worst defenses in all of football, failing to secure a sack in the process. His PFF grade was 30.2 overall.
Josh Jones (OT/Houston) - 72nd Overall - 3rd Round
For the majority of last year’s draft season, especially after the addition of DeAndre Hopkins, nearly every mock would include an offensive tackle sliding into Arizona at pick eight.
I too supported that theory, as this was a historically great tackle class that included 8-10 prospects that were routinely graded in the top 50. My personal preference was former Iowa product Tristian Wirfs.
Tristan Wirfs ain’t busting folks. That’s a specimen who has elite tape. He comes from a blue chip oline program. His head coach was an elite offensive line coach in the NFL. Guy is a future all pro.— Johnny Venerable (@JohnnyVenerable) February 28, 2020
Yet the first round came and went without Arizona nabbing their right tackle of the future. At the time, the team was slotted to have Justin Murray and Marcus Gilbert compete for the starting role yet neither were viewed as long term options at the position.
The hopes of many Cardinal fans, yearning to take advantage of this transcendent class of big men, were fleeting as each pick went by.
Thanks to the football gods, however, former Houston tackle Josh Jones managed to slip all the way to the Cardinals in the third round at pick 72. Jones was seen by many as a refined pass protector with elite measurables for the position. He was dominate during his time at Houston, which mostly came at right tackle.
Cardinals 3rd-round pick Josh Jones was the highest-graded OT in the 2020 NFL Draft class pic.twitter.com/lh32nsLP9n— PFF (@PFF) April 30, 2020
Following the selection, not even Steve Keim could explain the former Cougars’ draft day tumble. The majority of draft outlets all had Jones landing within the top 40-50 picks, with several notable publications having him firmly within the top 20 overall players. None of that matter on draft weekend, however, as Arizona scored their first true value pick since Tyrann Mathieu in 2013.
However, thanks to a pandemic stricken offseason, Jones’s ability to meet and workout with his teammates was all but taken away. For a position that requires significant time for technical development at the next level, Josh Jones was immediately put behind the eightball as he wouldn't receive hands on coaching until late July/early August.
No matter, as the rookie would quickly ascend to the team’s third tackle (active for 13 games), backing up newly signed veteran Kelvin Beachum. And while Beachum would prove to be a quality pickup by Keim, his one year status with the team leaves the door wide open for Jones to take over as the team’s right tackle in 2021.
“Early on in camp, he proved to me that he has the potential to be a really great football player” - Steve Keim (on Jones) in early September.
Jones is reportedly already a favorite of Cardinal Oline coach Sean Kugler. Kugler has done wonders for the likes of D.J. Humphries, and figures to implement a similar development plan for Jones. Expect the former third round pick to receive every opportunity to nab the starting job in 2021.
Leki Fotu (DT/Utah) - 114th Overall - 4th Round
Steve Keim managed to find quality contributors on day three of last year’s draft, which is no small feat for the much maligned GM. The addition of Fotu was done in an attempt to fortify a position unit that was lacking in both depth and talent.
It has been known for sometime that Keim was smitten with former first round DTs Quinnen Williams and Derrick Brown. The Cardinal GM has cast a wide net in an attempt to fill the void left by DT/DE Calais Campbell several years ago.
The addition of Jordan Phillips in free agency was suppose to help in those efforts, however the former Buffalo Bill spent much of the season on injured reserve.
Fotu would do his best to contribute when ask, appearing in 11 games while securing a sack in the process. While he still has a ways to go in terms of developing into an every down player, the former Pac-12 product figures to find his way into a fortified 2021 defensive line rotation.
Rashard Lawrence (DT/LSU) - 131st Overall - 4th Round
Much like Fotu, Lawrence was seen as a day three lottery ticket in an attempt to inject youth and athleticism upfront defensively. Lawrence was arguably the higher rated prospect, yet fell an additional 17 picks before lading with the Cardinals.
Cardinals get Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence for that IDL...they really entered today needing help, now they have it in two run stuffers. Lawrence is a great leader for a group that will need it too.— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) April 25, 2020
Cardinals just got my No. 45 overall player at pick No. 131. LSU DL Rashard Lawrence is going to make a lot of people sorry for passing him up this weekend.— Luke Easterling (@LukeEasterling) April 25, 2020
His esteemed college resume was met with praise by Cardinal media and fans alike, and his early training camp returns were incredibly encouraging.
Like Fotu, Rashard Lawrence would miss some time due to injury. Yet there was still enough promise shown that the former LSU Tiger could contend for a starting role next season. Longtime NT Corey Peters, who suffered a season ending injury last October, is an impending free agent. That leaves the door wide open for Lawrence to make the jump into the starting lineup next fall.
Evan Weaver (ILB/CAL) - 202nd Overall - 6th Round
Another day three swing by Keim with the selection of Cal Bear Evan Weaver. Like Simmons before him, Weaver would be named as his conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. Yet his two-down, run stuffing makeup is some what outdated in today’s NFL game.
Weaver would be cut prior to the start of the 2020 season before being placed on the Cardinals’ Practice Squad.
It was recently announced that the Cardinals had signed Weaver to a futures contract, so we may not have seen the last of this 22 year old tackling machine.
Eno Benjamin (ILB/Arizona State) - 222nd Overall - 7th Round
Benjamin was a local product with a mid round grade by most draft analysts. Yet whether it was due to size or positional devaluing, the former 2x All Pac-12 selection fell all the way to pick 222nd.
Arizona would stash Benjamin on their scout team for all of the 2020 season, keeping him on their active roster yet not activating him for any game during the year.
With the impeding free agency of starter Kenyan Drake, Benjamin figures to have a chance at making some kind of impact on Sunday’s next season. A full year entrenched in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense figures to do him some good while he could also be considered for a role on special teams (PR/KR).
Something tells me we haven’t heard the last of Eno Benjamin in an Arizona Cardinal uniform.
While you would have liked to have seen more snaps generated by the rookie class as a whole, the Cardinals have positioned themselves well entering 2021. Simmons figures to be a staple for a Cardinal defense that should benefit from the same scheme and coordinator three years running. Hopkins is a transcendent player that was acquired in a deal the Cardinals would do 100 times over and Josh Jones figures to be your right tackle of the future. He and D.J. Humphries could represent long term stability at two positions that have routinely haunted the Cardinal franchise.
Throw in some contributions by both of the fourth round DTs and this group has a chance to futhur push Arizona back into the national spotlight following their bottoming out in 2018.