I wrote this piece last week and elected to wait until after the Rams game to post it.
In a recent virtual Q & A with the Arizona sports media, the Cardinals’ LG Justin Pugh opined that if the Cardinals do not win this week, guys “could lose their jobs.”
As one might expect, Pugh said that it’s the nature of the business in the NFL.
What looms ambiguously about Pugh’s job comments is whether he was talking about front office people, coaches or players —- or all three.
Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to open a discussion about what Cardinals’ jobs in 2021 may be in question. I will chime in with my thoughts, and then it’s your turn. I am fascinated with what you think in some of each of the cases.
GM Steve Keim
I believe that as long as Klff Kingsbury s the head coach, Steve Keim’s job is safe.
Keim made the trade of the year when he acquired All Pro WR DeAndre Hopkins while being able to move on from RB David Johnson’s lucrative contract.
The frustration that many Cardinals fans have with Steve Keim, however, is tied to numerous draft picks that have not been or currently are not producing, to miscasting or whiffing on first round picks such as Deone Buchannon, Robert Nkemdiche and Haason Reddick (Isaiah Simmons yet to be determined), to holding on too long to aging veterans and not getting value in return, to failing to address key team weaknesses at the trading deadline (some argue and perhaps rightfully so that Keim is saving the majority of his chips for 2021 which is the 3rd year of the Kingsbury/Murray plan, but it’s been tantalizing to think what an upgrade at CB, DT and another addition at RB could have done to help the team’s chances this year), and finally, to enabling a culture where veteran starters can underachieve without any fear of being taken out of the lineup.
On the flip side, Steve Keim deserves a ton of credit for a number of his “back end of the roster” and undrafted free agent signings. Keim has hit a number of home runs in this aspect of his job such as claiming Charles Washington and Justin Murray off waivers, signing Dan Arnold off of the Saints’ practice squad and finding CFA gems such as Dennis Gardeck, Trent Sherfield and Zeke Turner.
The biggest question and doubt that I have is related to the manner in which Keim kowtows to veterans and thus enables a dysfunctional culture where special favors and double standards are permitted for Keim’s pet players. Because of this and the way he handicaps his head coaches, I do not believe that Steve Keim will ever take a Cardinals’ team to the Super Bowl. The culture under his leadership will not permit it.
HC/OC Kliff Kingsbury
One could argue that Kliff’s development of Kyler Murray (2019 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year , 4 tome NFC Offensive Player of the Week and one of the three 2020 Pro Bowl QBs in the NFC (along with Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson) is enough in itself to warrant his return.
That—-plus the team has been highly competitive in virtually ever game this season, while improving its win totals from 5 to 8. The team in Week 17 still had a chance to make the playoffs as one of the three wild cards in the NFC.
Kingsbury takes the blame for the team’s shortcomings which has made him an easy target for those who question his play calling and game/clock management. Plus, his team is largely undisciplined. This season the Cardinals led the NFL in penalties, some of which cost the team potential wins—-and ultimately a wild card berth..
There is one scenario (at least that I can imagine) where Kingsbury is replaced as head coach and that is if Michael Bidwill and Steve Keim want to get in the hunt for the Bills’ OC Brian Daboll. The success that Daboll (from the Bill Belichick tree) has had in maximizing the Bill’s talents on offense has made him one of the most attractive HC candidates this off-season.
There are three things that pop out about a potential match for Daboll in Arizona. One is that Bidwill and Keim may be very apt to believe that Daboll would be a potentially more promising hire than Bruce Arians in that Dabolll’s offense caters to a mobile QB and it incorporates more of today’s modern offensive trends.
Two is, Daboll might be very excited to come into a situation where he would inherit the Pro Bowl combination of NFC Pro Bowlers QB Kyler Murray and WR DeAndre Hopkins, which would be an auspicious transition from having to move on from AFC Pro Bowlers QB Josh Allen and WR Stefon Diggs. In other words, in comparison to the other teams that will be interested in Brian Daboll, the Cardinals might be the most attractive to an offensive guru like him.
Thirdly, there could be a strong belief that Steve Keim could thrive working with a head coach like Brian Dabioll the way he did with Bruce Arians. Keim has been serving as a mentor to Kliff Kingsbury —- but with Daboll —- Daboll’s NFL experience and league-wide connections could be used very much to Keim’s and the Cardinals’ advantage.
There could be a scenario where Bidwill, Keim and Daboll would be happy to keep Kliff Kingsbury on as the QB coach and assistant OC. This would likely mean that Kingsbury would have to agree to a pay cut of some sort, but he would still be in a position to keep developing Kyler Murray and to keep improving his own stock for another head coaching or offensive coordinator’s job down the road.
This wild card scenario with Brian Daboll may be a moot point if Michael Bidwill cannot afford to hire another new head coach. But if he can, he could liken this move to drafting Kyler Murray number one when Josh Rosen was already on the roster.
DC Vance Joseph
The fact that the Cardinals have split this year with the Seahawks and 49ers works well in Vance Joseph’s favor.
However, if his defense does not perform well versus the Rams this week, especially in light of the absence of 3-4 of their most important skill players on offense, it would mean that in 4 tries in defending Sean McVay’s offense, despite other teams leaving blueprints on tape as to how to defend their bread and butter plays, it would prolong the question of whether Vance Joseph can give the Cardinals the best chance to compete for NFC West titles.
Some will argue that Vance continues to be hampered by his lack of talent at DT, ILB and CB, plus being beset by the injuries to Robert Alford, Chandler Jones and Corey Peters. But, two of Steve Keim’s biggest UFA signings are ILBs: Jordan Hicks and De’Vondre Campbell and both CBs Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick are former 1st round picks with high-end pedigrees. The fact that all four of them are having sub par years is a red flag.
What’s of great concern about Vance’s defenses are (1) its propensity to lose contain; (2) its marshmallow soft zones and passive/hesitant effort from the CBs and ILBs to force the run and blow up screens; (3) key situations where receivers are wide open due to coverage breakdowns or no perceived man-to-man assignments, particularly on RBs and FBs who are almost always open at will, particularly in the red zone.
Vance deserves high praise for his creative ability to dial up blitzes and QB pressures. However, what may be in question is the overall philosophy of his 34 defense. One may not get the sense that he caters and tweaks his game plans from week to week in order to account for the opponents’ offensive tendencies —- it seems that he is of the school of “we do what we do” and not from the other school of “we are going to try to take away your bread and butter plays to see if you can beat us another way.”
Having watched Joseph’s defense versus the Rams for 3 straight blowout games with Jared Goff breaking contain on bootlegs and waggles without any real perceivable adjustments is infuriating —- much like watching Kyle Shanahan score 3 big TDs in the last 3 games (2 wins for SF) on his simple RB swing pass where the RB was never even touched on his romp to the end zone —- it makes one wonder just how studious and vigilant Vance Joseph is in watching tape.
This question about film study and game preparation also came to mind when Jordan Hicks said a few days ago about defending the Rams’ offense, “we can watch all the tape in the world, but it comes down to us doing our jobs and executing” the defense.
Tough to hear when a few weeks ago it looked like the Cardinals’ defense hadn’t watched any tape of the Rams’ offense —- because they way they gave the Rams everything they wanted.
Lastly, it appears to me that Vance’s style of 34 defense is for the interior defensive linemen to occupy blockers in order to keep the ILBers clean, which is why we so rarely ever see inside penetration from a Cardinals’ DTs. This philosophy would look good if the Cardinals’ ILBs are making tackles at or near the line scrimmage, but the majority of their tackles are 6-10 yards downfield.
This 34 base scheme is passive aggressive.
One might recall Calais Campbell imploring the Cardinals’ 34 coaches to let the defensive interior lineman be aggressive in an effort to penetrate and bust up plays behind the line of scrimmage. That’s what makes playing the interior fun and exhilarating —- rather than being lined up and used as wedges and blocking dummies.
While Steve Keim is apt yet again to think that he didn’t give Vance Joseph enough talent on defense, it’s pretty hard to accept this when a supreme talent like Isaiah Simmons is given only 21 snaps versus the 49ersin Week 16 with the playoffs on the line while Vance’s defense is giving up over 200 yards of offense to RB Jeff Wilson Jr. alone.
If Vance’s game plan this week versus McVay’s offense demonstrates what it takes to try to take away and stifle their bread and butter plays, then that would give the players and fans hope that he has what to takes to give the Cardinals a chance to contend for the division championships. If not, it will be difficult to embrace the thought of him returning as DC.
But, again, history would tell us that Steve Keim is apt to stick with Vance thinking it’s more of a personnel issue than scheme. The thought of this happening is extremely frustrating.
WRCs Jerry Sullivan and David Raih—-2 years in and only DeAndre Hopkins is having a good season. Something is awry here.
DLC Brentson Buckner—-injuries have hurt, no question, but my hunch is that Buck prefers an attack 34 philosophy up front and I get the feeling that he and Vance may be butting heads a little. I could be wrong. Things didn't go well for DLC Chris Achuff last year who was fired at the end of the season. It wouldn't surprise me if Buck asks out or he is let go. But, again, I could be wrong.
ILBC Billy Davis—-let’s face it, the Cardinals were expecting big things from Jordan Hicks ($10M cap hit) and De’Vondre Campbell ($8M salary) and not only have they failed the eye test, they have the PFF grades (49.0 and 45.8 respectively) to prove it. Tanner Vallejo (86.1) and Isaiah Simmons( 60.1) are athletic upgrades, but you couldn’t pry the underperforming Hicks and Campbell out of there with a crowbar.
CBC Greg Williams—-came with Vance from the Broncos, but the CB play for the Cardinals this year has been a huge disappointment. Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick, former 1st round picks, are like the Hicks and Campbell tandem —- not so good on the eye test and they have the PFF grades (54.3 and 51.8) pt prove it. Look at the penalties and how many PI calls this unit has committed: Peterson—11. Kirkpatrick—-8. Murphy—-4; K. Peterson—4. And these are obvious penalties due to poor technique. (these stats are before the Rams game)
Existing Players Contracts for 2021 in Question:
DE/OLB Chandler Jones (31)—-scheduled 2021 cap hit: $20.8M (dead cap: $5.3M—-team would have $15.5M in base salary). This is a tough situation for the Cardinals and Jones in the last year of his 5 year $82M deal. Losing Jones to for the season to the torn bicep was tough, but it also was tough to see Jones be a shade of his old self—-only 1 sack and 10 pressures in 5 games. Then the combo of Dennis Gardeck (7 sacks, 18 pressures) and Markus Golden (3 sacks, 33 pressures) picked up the slack. Right now we do not know the severity of Gardeck’s injury and Markus Golden is a UFA. The Cardinals would love to have Chandler back, but at his age (only 3 players in their 30s are in the league’s top 25 sack leaders this season, Jason Pierre Paul, Brandon Graham and Cameron Jordan with 9.5, 8.0 and 7.5 respectively. Haason Reddick is 3rd in the NFL with 12.5 sacks and is a UFA.
Common sense (leaving emotion out of it) would suggest that the Cardinals would be wise to either restructure Jones to a team friendly extension loaded with incentives —- or other-wise try to trade him ($15.5M base salary is all another team would have to pay—-the Cardinals have paid him his bonus) because they can use the $15.5M to put the franchise tag on Haason Reddick and try to sign him to a long-term deal. Dennis Gardeck is a RFA whom they could put a 1st round tender on for $4.8M or 2nd round tender for $3.4M.
LG Justin Pugh (31)—-2021 cap hit: $11.3M, $7.8M base ($4M dead cap). Do the Cardinals keep Justin Pugh and pay him a base salary of $7.8M? He and D.J. Humphries are one of the highest graded left side of the line tandems in the NFL this season (Humphries—-88.0, Pugh—-67.4). Last season Pugh had a top 3 pass blocking grade in the NFC at 82.2. This season he is not far off at 76.7. What has hurt his grade are his 8 penalties. Truth is, he’s only given up 1 sack and 2 QB hits. That’s why i believe the Cardinals should keep him, because keeping Kyler Murray well protected is the number one priority of the offensive line. Plus, Justin has emerged as a good veteran leader who plays hard every week. Facing Aaron Donald and the Rams’ active front is a tough task this week. The question is, would the Cardinals be better off eating Pugh’s $4M in dead cap space and signing G Joe Thuney whose market value according to Sportrac is $13.9M a year?
Final 2020 PFF grades:
Pugh: 64.8 overall, 74.4 pass blocking, 62.7 run blocking, 9 penalties.
Thuney: 74.2 overall, 73.1 pass blocking, 70.2 run blocking, 3 penalties.
Notice that Pugh has the higher pass blocking grade —- plus I went and looked up what Thuney’s pass blocking grade versus the Rams was this year and it was 39.8. Pugh’s was 42.7.
The point is —- even the highest rated guard on the market is no match for blocking Aaron Donald.
LB Jordan Hicks (29)—-2021 cap hit; $9M (dead cap $6M)—-Hicks lacks the speed and flexibility to be a 3 down NFL LB. Cards need to find a 3 down player at his position. But, Vance Joseph seems to prefer him over quicker athletes like Isaiah Simmons and Tanner Vallejo.
OLB Devon Kennard—-2021 cap hit; $8M ($3.75M dead cap)—-he’s getting paid starter’s money, but was not quite a fit at SOLB or WOLB. He will likely want to go to a team where he has a better chance to start. Good edge setter who plays hard. Cards need to trade him (if possible) or let him hit free agency.
CB Robert Alford (32)—-2021 cap hit: $9M ($1.5M dead cap)—-tough two year stay on IR for Alford and Cards. Time for both to move on.
2021 Unrestricted Free Agents: (rapid fire):
CB Patrick Peterson (31)—-he says that he envisions playing at a high level for 3-4 more years. One can’t say definitively, however, that PP has played at a high level for the last two years. Not sure if will be able to land a yearly salary in double figures —-maybe with BA and Bowles in Tampa Bay. But, it would be good for him to have a change of scenery. It is time for Cardinals to get younger and more physical at CB.
WR Larry Fitzgerald (38)—-it’s been a difficult year for Larry, production-wise in the offense and then in contacting COVID. Larry has always said he wants to go out quietly and this would be the ultimate year to do that. The lower team cap figure next season would make it difficult for the Cardinals to keep Larry at $11.7M. But, if he wants to return and is ok with taking a paycut, then he will be back for his 18th season. Kliff Kingsbury said he would love to hold on to Larry for 3 more years.
RB Kenyan Drake (27)—-the odds are that the Cardinals will let KD test free agency. He’s been tough, steady and durable. But, was a little quicker last season.
LB De’Vondre Campbell (28)—-hasn’t sustained his strong play early on in the season and it would seem that the Cardinals believe that Isaiah Simmons is the WILB of the future.
RG J.R. Sweezy (32)—-hard worker who plays with passion, but has been an inconsistent performer. It would appear that Justin Murray is on schedule to be the RG next season.
DT Corey Peters (33)—-much depends on whether Corey wants to return or retire. If he wants to return, the Cardinals will offer him a contract filled with incentives. Outstanding leader on and off the field.
OLB Markus Golden (30)—-at 30, Markus is probably not going to get the big long-term deal he’s been hoping for. If the Cardinals trade or release Chandler Jones, then they may offer Markus a contract based on playing time and production incentives. At this point he fits well as nickel pass rusher in a rotation. He’s not a classic 34 WOLB.
OLB Haason Reddick (26)—-at the very least the Cardinals will place the transition or franchise tag on Haason. He’s an ideal fit at SOLB.
K Zane Gonzalez (26)—-at this point it would be good for both Zane and the Cardinals to go in different directions. His talent will garner him interest elsewhere.
P Andy Lee (39)—-still one of the best punters in NFL, particularly on situational punts. If he wants to return, the Cardinals would likely be happy to extend him. Chances are that he may want to retire.
LT Kelvin Beachum (32)—-saw that on one pundit’s list of top free agent tackles, Beachum was #9 on the list. He proved this year that he’s just as capable playing RT as LT. If he wants to take a team friendly deal again, the Cardinals would likely welcome him back as a mentor to Josh Jones and swing tackle.
S Chris Banjo (31)—-the coaches love him and he’s been a solid backup/spot starter and STs player. Chances are good they will re-sign him a little over the veteran minimum.
CB Dre Kirkpatrick (31)—-showed some flashes of playmaking ability, but has been largely inconsistent trying to work through some nagging injuries, Can’t see the Cardinals re-signing him.
CB Jonathan Joseph (37)—-has impressed the staff and his teammates—-if he wants to stay for a little above the veteran minimum as a sub package cover man, it might be good to have his leadership, particularly if the Cardinals get younger at the position.
NT Domata Peko (36)—-has brought passion and energy at a position of need. As with Jonathan Joseph, if he wants another year to play in the rotation, there might be mutual interest.—-probably during camp or during the season if and when the need arises.
QB Brett Hundley (28)—-it was surprising to learn that Hundley was beaten out by Chris Streveler for QB2. Streveler has two more years remaining on his contract, thus Brett will likely be looking for a new team in free agency.
RB D.J. Foster (28)—-popular STs player who might be interested in another practice squad gig.
G/C Max Garcia (29)—-knows the system and has valuable flexibility. Chances are probably pretty strong that he will be re-signed to resume his swing G/C role.
DT Angelo Blackson (28)—-has flashed as a penetrator, inside rusher and goal line playmaker. This is guy the team would like to bring back for the rotation. Still on the right side of 30 and could thrive given another year in the system.
DE Josh Mauro (30)—-he too flashed early on but then was sidelined by injury. Will probably remain on the contacts list in Steve Keim’s cellphone in case help is needed again next season.
S Charles Washington (28)—-one of the real ST studs in the NFL who played well at safety when he was asked to contribute. Could see a 2-3 year deal for him, with a raise and added incentives.
TE Darrell Daniels (26)—-still young and developing—-but has been inconsistent. His solid STs play is a plus. Chances are the team will try to re-sign him at the veteran minimum.
LB Tanner Vsllejo—-STs stud who made the two biggest downhill tackles of the season in OT of the Seahawks game. Wanted to see how he would do with more snaps—-but—-I think the Cardinals will make a good push to re-sign him. (his 12 tackles to lead Cardinals in Rams’ game when he finally got extended snaps was very impressive—-he was very good in coverage too).
LB Isaiah Irving (27)—-spent year on R, not sure whether he’s in the team’s plans or not.
Restricted Free Agents:
TE Dan Arnold (26)—-has flashed big time ability, but has recently struggled pulling down 50/50 balls and tucking the ball in on his RACs. Lots to build on here. The Cardinals will tender him, perhaps as high as a second round tender.
OLB Kylie Fitts (26)—-injuries have prevented him from breaking out this season, but the Cardinals appear to like his potential as an edge rusher and setter. He sticks.
WR Trent Sherfield (25)—-one fo the young gunners on STs whom the Cardinals will be happy to keep. This young man could still be a surprise one day as a slot WR.
OLB Dennis Gardeck (27)—-a long-term deal might be reached with Dennis Gardeck, if both sides can agree on a reasonable figure. At the very least, Cards will give him 1st or 2nd round tender. This young man is a core player.
S Ezekiel Turner (25)—-what a superb year for Zeke on STs. Cards will welcome him back on a tendered contract.
CB Kevin Peterson (27)—-played a little better recently after being a PI magnet earlier in season. This one could go either way depending on what the off-season plan at CB is.
2021 Wish List:
QB Kyler Murray
RB Najee Harris (R1, Alabama)
TE Maxx Williams
TE Dan Arnold
LT D.J. Humphries
LG Justin Pugh
C Corey Linsley (UFA GB)
RG Justin Murray
RT Josh Jones
WR DeAndre Hopkins
WR Curtis Samuel (UFA CAR)
WR Tylan Wallace (R3, Oklahoma St.)
LDE Zach Allen
NT Dalvin Tomlinson (UFA NYG)
RDE Leki Fotu
SAM Haason Reddick
MIKE Tanner Vallejo
WILL Isaiah Simmons
BANDIT Chandler Jones
LCB William Jackson (UFA CIN)
FS Budda Baker
SS Jalen Thompson
RCB Elijah Molden (R2, Washington)
NCB Byron Murphy
NDT Jordan Phillips
NDE Dennis Gardeck
K Matt McCrane
P James Smith (R5, Cincinnati)
LS Aaron Brewer
Gunner Charles Washington
Gunner Trent Sherfield
Ace Dennis Gardeck
Ace Zeke Turner
KR Tony Pollard (trade*)
PR Tylan Wallace
Trade: WR Christian Kirk to Cowboys for RB/RS Tony Pollard
How is my 2021 wish list similar and different to yours?