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NFC Best: Niners’ trade-up puts Cardinals in focus

@blakemurphy7 discusses the pressure that is mounting on the 2021 draft to hit on a starting rookie talent

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NFC West used to be called the NFC Worst.

Maybe some of the younger fans of the sport don’t remember it, but there was a time in which 9-7 won the division and it was as joked and laughed about as the NFC East was in 2020.

Tavaris Jackson, Alex Smith, Marc Bulger/Kyle Boller and Matt Leinart were the quarterbacks, along with the “shell” of Kurt Warner before that legendary two-to-three year run.

It was the laughing stock of the league. Fast forward about 15 years or so and...well.

You see blockbuster after blockbuster move being made as the division has maybe only the AFC North as a rival for the best division in the NFL and 2 teams making the postseason (with one in Arizona missing it by one game).

Like a barrage of cannon fire, each team firing moves off the port bow in a chance to surpass the other:

Rams:

-made a Super Bowl run in 2018

-trade two first for Jalen Ramsey to add to Aaron Donald

-signing Leonard Floyd to a large contract

-trading for Matthew Stafford in addition to dumping Jared Goff for yet another two first-round picks

Seahawks:

-trading two firsts for Jamal Adams

-trading a pick for OG Gabe Jackson to boost the interior of the OL

-trading and re-signing Carlos Dunlap as a pass rusher as well as keeping Russell Wilson, despite some heavy rumors

-Made playoffs every year with Wilson for 8 of the 9 years he was with the team

Arizona:

-drafted Kyler Murray at 1 overall

-traded a 2nd and David Johnson for Deandre Hopkins and built up a respectable OL and front seven over two years

-signed J.J. Watt, A.J. Green and Malcolm Butler

-traded for Rodney Hudson

Niners:

-found the DPOY in Nick Bosa and made a Super Bowl run

trading for OT Trent Williams a year after they made the super bowl

-trading up for WR Brandon Aiyuk

And now, perhaps the coup de grace of the Niners’ acquisitions. While the Seahawks are figuring out Russell’s status and demands, the Rams are “all in” with 32 year old Stafford and the Cardinals are trying to make the most of a rookie window to make the playoffs and figure out what they really have in Kyler Murray....

The Niners are looking for a reset. Out with Jimmy Garoppolo, who missed an open deep target in Emmanuel Sanders in the Super Bowl and despite his record, has missed nearly two seasons health-wise with the team.

In with a new quarterback and in with a rookie QB “window” that will allow them to not only sign players to rebuild that vaunted defensive line but even to keep superstars such as LB Fred Warner and DE Nick Bosa around for the long-haul.

The pressure, they say, turns stones in to diamonds.

And this pressure is indeed ON. Not just for Shanahan to develop a young QB with the #3 pick, given it’s likely to be one of Justin Fields, Trey Lance or Mac Jones. But also....

...For Arizona.

With the Rams as division-winners in the previous year, the Seahawks as a perpetual threat, the ability for Arizona to make a deep playoff run starts with not only winning divisional games but just getting into the big dance in the first place.

Last year, they leapfrogged the Niners.

...It wasn’t enough. If the standard is “playoffs or bust” with jobs on the line for 2021, the Niners just made it that much harder not just for 2021 but also for the remainder of Kyler Murray’s rookie deal by matching that with one of their own.

Currently, the Cardinals stack up against the NFC West very poorly as a franchise:

  • Have never beaten Sean McVay (and that was with Jared Goff)
  • Are 21-22-1 all time against the Seahawks (the one team they’ve managed to play well against despite Wilson’s presence)
  • And while they have been solid against Kyle Shanahan overall...they’ve only been 1-2 against the likes of Jimmy Garoppolo, who’s either coming back this season as a starter OR will see a player more talented instead

It’s fortunate that Arizona was able to find at least a suitable replacement for Patrick Peterson and add some veteran playmakers, because there’s no excuses if San Francisco gets healthy and begins to return to the limelight.

Their coaching staff needs to be able to pass a team or two in the division.

Their front office scouting needs to be able to land a hit on a star player or two in either the draft or cheap in free agency

The pressure is on Kliff Kingsbury and Steve Keim to prove that they can compete against Shanahan, McVay and Carroll’s squads that have combined for more playoff wins and appearances than the Cardinals seemingly ever have, in just the last decade!

The 2020 draft was of the utmost importance for Arizona in simply being able to fill needs to craft a competent squad that could win games and be competitive.

That box seemed checked to start the season...but a quick fade down the stretch and beating only 2 teams with winning records in 2020 (both on last second plays that ultimately came down to luck) might bode well for them winning more in 2021.

But if the strides they make aren’t leaps and bounds compared to the others in the division....the ingredients will have to change.

Without a sudden collapse or other questions about Kyler Murray’s ability to be the young franchise quarterback ‘Zona fans have longed for, it’ll start with HC Kliff Kingsbury, DC Vance Joseph and GM Steve Keim...and all of them obviously reporting to Michael Bidwill, the decision-maker himself.

Joseph’s riding a bit of a honeymoon high after a resurgent defense from 2019’s 32nd ranked pass D, and it’s the opposite for Kingsbury in seeing the offense sputter, his QB get hurt and the backup struggle to win against a fellow backup quarterback in a do-or-die playoff scenario.

It’s quite simple, really.

Win games. Win them against these opponents...not by luck but by skill. Having superior talent, depth and coaching.

If the Cardinals can’t get to 3-3 at least in the division (a tough hill to climb, mind you, but not impossible) or squeak by due to an injury but lose twice to Sean McVay’s Rams yet again....change gotta come.

The status quo is acceptable for other divisions where teams are lost & floundering and your franchise has it mostly figured out for a few years.

It ain’t good enough in the NFC West. Particularly with a talent who was good enough to be a top 10 draft pick in TWO sports, and chose to forego potentially even greater millions to play for your franchise.

Keim is banking on the squad assembled for Vance Joseph to perform well enough that Kliff Kingsbury has zero excuses on offense nor in his game-management situations.

And I would argue that if the Cardinals don’t walk away from Day 1 and 2 of the draft without at least one impact-maker that can help the team win games in 2021, that GM Steve Keim needs to go along with him.

Keim’s probably not going to go anywhere, if Arizona does reasonably well record-wise. His close relationship with Michael Bidwill carried the team through a 2018 season in which you could argue that the only good thing Keim did was have a solid enough replacement for his suspension to take over as an acting GM in Quentin Harris, and drafting Chase Edmonds in round 4.

Given the lofty expectations the organization laid out for Kirk from the slot (a position he still has yet to play) and the fact Arizona could gain draft picks from moving on, Keim’s tenure might be overdue as it is.

But I’m not opposed to him proving fans wrong...something he’s already done in making several trades and even in drafting Kyler Murray at #1 despite a large amount of fans despising the move.

So here’s to the focus that falls on the Cardinals for 2021. The best pressure makes diamonds out of the competition that the NFC West will bring this year.

But it can also lead to shattering. Especially of expectations.

Here’s hoping that the Cardinals can perform well enough, check the boxes of inter-divisional competitiveness and we never have to question the latter.