The Arizona Cardinals’ season is over. It was a much earlier end than anyone was hoping for, and earlier than what all but the most cynical of fans was expecting. Like it has for many of you, this season has left a bitter taste in my mouth that isn’t going away anytime soon.
Instead, I’m looking forward today. The only way to get rid of this bitter taste is for next year’s team to do better, to get out this “rebuilding” funk and back into the postseason. In order to do so, changes have to be made—I agree with Walter’s assessment that this is a team in disarray.
Those changes will revolve around a few key players and personnel. Below is my list of Cardinals who will bear close monitoring this offseason as the team tries to diagnose what went wrong in 2020 and fix it for 2021.
WR Larry Fitzgerald
The first domino to fall this offseason might well be the future Hall of Famer himself. Indeed, the will he, won’t he rumor mill is already turning. Last year, Fitz quickly reupped for another go-round shortly after the season. Cardinals fans were mostly happy to have him back even at the rather steep $11.5M price. To say he wasn’t worth the money would be an understatement—his season totals of 54 receptions for 409 yards and just 1 TD were career lows across the board. If Fitz comes back—and we don’t even know if he knows if he wants to yet—it certainly won’t be for $11.5M. At 38 when the season starts, he might not even be worth $2M, which I very much doubt he’d return for. And since he showed he has almost nothing left, it’s doubtful any other team would shell out much cash for him. If he wants to return to the only team he’s ever played for, he’d have to take a steep pay cut. Is there a magic number that would work for both player and team? I don’t think there is, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he came back for something like a 1-year/$5M pact—which would be a waste of money. At this point, I’m hoping the legend just decides to ride off into the sunset. I imagine we’ll find out in a week or two.
RB Kenyan Drake
Kenyan Drake was… adequate in 2020, falling just short of 1,000 yards with a line of 239/955/4 TDs. His underwhelming 4.0 YPC was backed up by uninspiring tape—he produced almost no big plays and was largely ineffective at the goal line. He just looked like an average back, a far cry from the dynamo we saw after the trade from Miami last season. He’s now an unrestricted free agent at 26 after getting transition tagged last offseason and playing on a 1-year/$8.5M deal. The team would be wise to let him walk. He didn’t do anything to earn the new multiyear deal he’ll likely be looking for, and there’s no reason to think that Chase Edmonds couldn’t replicate—or surpass—his production at a fraction of the cost (just a shade over $1M on the last year of his rookie contract). Spend a mid-round pick or sign a mid-tier free agent to shore up the backfield and call it done. There’s just no need to spend big bucks on an RB in today’s NFL. If the team brings him back for anything approaching his 2020 salary, we might as well throw in the towel on the 2021 season already.
CB Patrick Peterson
Pat Pete’s downfall in the desert over the past three years has been one of the most disappointing developments on our defense that I can think of. (Fun with alliteration!) It started with the trade demand that he soon rescinded during the ill-fated Steve Wilks season, and then there was the PED suspension to begin last season. If he had been able to keep up his Pro Bowl–level play, all might have been forgiven, but instead he’s become a decidedly below-average corner, ranking 85th out of 124 qualifying CBs with a PFF grade of 55.2. He’ll be 31 by the time next season starts and everything seems to indicate he’ll be seeking one last lucrative, multiyear contract like the one Richard Sherman signed with the 49ers under similar circumstances. Sherman’s performance had also begun to flag at the end of his tenure in Seattle, but he once again became an All-Pro in San Francisco. Could Peterson follow a similar trajectory? Maybe, especially if the team makes a change at DC (see below). But is it worth betting $10M a season for the next 3 or so years on? Uh, no. Emphatically no. Like Fitz and Drake, the team should move on from Peterson and let some other team sink that money into the aging CB (and some team certainly will). Pat Pete will likely still end up in Canton one day—and the Cardinals Ring of Honor—but he’s worn out his welcome here in the desert for now.
OLB Haason Reddick
Here we have a player who I’d actually like the team to bring back, if possible. Crazy to say about a player for whom nobody batted an eye when the team didn’t pick up his 5th-year option before the season. But then Chandler Jones went down, he was finally shifted to the pass-rushing role he was most comfortable in, and suddenly Haason Reddick is a hot-ticket item this offseason. Which means it might not be possible to bring him back, especially if some team with beaucoup cap space decides to throw $10M a season at him—not crazy for a 26-year-old coming off a 12.5-sack season. And the Cardinals only have about $20M in cap space right now. That number could—and probably will—go up after cuts/restricting/etc., but with the team having so many needs elsewhere, can it afford to hand out a big contract to their surprising breakout player? Especially with Jones on the books for $21M in 2021—$30M+ is a lot of money for two players at one defensive position. So the Redbirds might have to watch Reddick sign elsewhere this offseason, which would sting for many reasons. Side note: I almost put Jones himself on this list. He’ll be 31 by the time next season starts and coming off a major injury. If the team cuts or trades him after 6/1, they could save $15M on the salary cap. If they don’t plan on extending him—again, he’ll be 31 and coming off a major injury—that might be worth exploring, which would have been almost unthinkable a year ago.
DC Vance Joseph
On the surface, the Cardinals’ defense had a good season in 2020. They finished #13 in YPG (351.9) and #12 in PPG 22.9, not to mention #4 in sacks (48). This after finishing dead-last in YPG and #28 in PPG last year (and middle of the pack in sacks). There’s a case to be made that Vance Joseph did a good, even great, job as defensive coordinator this season, especially considering all the injuries the unit dealt with. But then you remember that that same defense gave up 365 YPG against two backup QBs in Weeks 16 and 17 with the season on the line. The stop unit looked unprepared, uninspired, and uninterested against C.J. Beathard and John Wolford. Granted, they only gave up 16 PPG in those contests and the losses had at least as much to do with the offense, but the defense needed to be better and it simply wasn’t. I’ve been a critic of Joseph since his hire and I’m not going to stop now, even given the statistical improvement. I think he should be let go and a new scheme installed next season. I think there’s a chance the team makes him the scapegoat and does just that to appease the fanbase, but it’s more likely some position coaches are reshuffled and Joseph returns to helm the defense in 2021. But if any change is going to be made, it’ll be made soon. Expect word on Joseph’s fate any day now.
HC Kliff Kingsbury
I’ll just come out and say it: I think Kliff Kingsbury is the reason this Cardinals team missed the playoffs. If you want to look at it in the simplest, most reductive way possible, then his gobsmackingly stupid coaching at the end of the Miami game cost us the one win we needed to snag that final wild card berth. This tweet, and the thread in which it appears, does a good job of explaining that. Another way of looking at it is that all this team had to do to make the playoffs was beat a backup QB in either one of the final two games of the season and they couldn’t do it. The players deserve some of the blame for those losses, yes, but watching the 49ers and Rams games, it was excruciatingly obvious the Cardinals were at an extreme coaching disadvantage—game planning, playcalling, schemes, all of it. But the way I think that makes the most sense to look at the “Kliff question” is this: Is this team talented enough to make the playoffs? To put it another way: Is the baseline level of the talent of the players on this team playoff-caliber? Pro Bowl QB, one of the best WRs in the game, solid rushing attack, capable O-line, strong pass rush, playmaking superstar safety, and enough pieces elsewhere on the defense for a decent overall unit. That sure sounds like a playoff team to me. But we didn’t get there, and I put the blame for that squarely on Kliff Kingsbury. A good coach elevates the talent level of the team; instead, Kliff held this team back with inadequate preparation in critical games, inconsistent if not ineffective playcalling, and abhorrent game management. There are only 32 NFL head coaching jobs in the world, so a team needs to be SURE that their head man is one of the 32 best in the world. It’s obvious that Kingsbury is not, and this team needs to go in another direction to take the next step closer to contention. But, as many have pointed out here and on Twitter, the Cardinals will still be paying Steve Wilks next season, so it might not make financial sense to fire Kingsbury now. (Can we bring in an actual offensive coordinator, at least?) We might be stuck with Kliff for another season. But he’ll enter 2021 without the confidence of the majority of the fanbase and a seat that’s plenty hot.
GM Steve Keim
That leaves us with the man who built the current roster and who will be shepherding the team through the offseason and deciding what changes need to be made. If you think, like I do, that the 2020 roster was playoff caliber, then it’s hard to place too much blame on Keim for how this season turned out. But then he also hired Kingsbury, who I believe almost single-handedly held this team back from the postseason. And for every home run Keim has hit in recent seasons (drafting Kyler Murray, the Drake and Hopkins trades, the D.J. Humphries extension), he has struck out as many or more times (Andy Isabella over DK Metcalf, pretty much every big free agent signing, consistently whiffing on non-Kyler draft picks, etc.) There are also huge questions about player development under Keim. Why has this team NEVER been able to find/develop a reliable CB2 opposite Peterson? (And now that CB1 is likely gone.) Back to Reddick—if we had a potential double-digit sack guy for the last four years, why was he playing off-ball LB? I just don’t feel like Keim has any consistent, overarching plan for this team. He’s proven he can assemble a playoff team—again, I think he did that in 2020—but just like Kingsbury held that team back from the playoffs, I think Keim is holding this team back from any farther. I think Walter’s recent assertion that “Steve Keim will [never] take a Cardinals team to the Super Bowl” is spot-on. I actually think the worst thing that could happen to this team next season is to go, say, 9-7 and lose a close wild card game. Would that “progress” be enough to convince Michael Bidwill to bring Kliff and Keim back for another year? A team with an incredible talent like Kyler on the third year of his rookie contract should have higher aspirations than that. So, the question is this: Can Steve Keim do enough this offseason to turn this team into a Super Bowl—not a playoff, but a Super Bowl—contender? Because that is where this team should be next year. I don’t think he can do it—not with his draft and free agency record, not with Vance Joseph and Kliff Kingsbury on the sidelines. I plan on spending the entire offseason hoping he’ll prove me wrong. But I don’t think he will.