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Cardinals’ 2021 Off-Season MVP: Steve Keim

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Arizona Cardinals v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Dan Kubus/Getty Images

Pretty much every Cardinals’ fan I have talked to over the past five to six years has expressed his/her doubts about Steve Keim’s abilities as an NFL GM. By now, all avid Cardinals’ fans are well aware of the litany of concerns Cardinals’ fans have ruminated on for many years now. Like many of you, in 2018, I was anxious to write off Steve Keim. His early honeymoon as GM had worn off. And the Cardinals were in a free fall.

However, this off-season for the Arizona Cardinals has been like no other that I can ever think of in terms of them being able to carry out a well-orchestrated and supremely focused plan. I have never seen the Cardinals this deeply probative, self-examining and self-aware of the areas of team building and chemistry that have been at the center of the dysfunctional aspects of the team’s daily operations.

Weeks ago, Steve Keim laid out the blueprint of the Cardinals’ 2021 off-season strategy:

1 — redefining the veteran leadership on the team:

  • Signing DE J.J. Watt —- when one looks up veteran NFL leadership in the dictionary, J.J. Watt’s picture’s right next to it.
  • Re-signing T Kelvin Beachum, OLB Markus Golden, OLB Dennis Gardeck, S Charles Washington, S Chris Banjo, ILB Zeke Turner, P Andy Lee —- what these in-house players bring to the team is a tremendous enthusiasm to excel and a keen appreciation for the organization. These men are lunch-pail ballers and they are extremely excited to be Arizona Cardinals.
  • Trading for C Rodney Hudson —- one of the ultimate “glue” leaders in the NFL.
  • Signing former Pro Bowl players WR A.J. Green, RB James Connor, CB Malcolm Butler and K Matt Prater. All of them have indicated that they wanted to sign with the Cardinals because they believe the Cardinals can make a strong run for the Lombardi Trophy.

2 —- becoming more physical and aggressive

  • all of the signings above are a testament to this effort.
  • all of the team’s draft picks bring a physical, aggressive style to their games: LB Zaven Collins, WR Rondale Moore, CB Marco Wilson, OLB Victor Dimukeje, CB Tay Gowan, S James Wiggins and C/G Michal Menet.
  • I have been calling this philosophy of team building: “The Tillman Test.”

Pre-Draft Plan on Offense

  • The Cardinals had a distinct plan that they followed to a tee.
  • Trading for C Rodney Hudson (after narrowly missing out on signing C Corey Linsley), getting a 6th round pick for C/G Mason Cole (CB Tay Gowan);
  • Re-signing starting RT Kelvin Beachum (2 years, $4M, $3M guaranteed), swing C/G Max Garcia and TE Darrell Daniels.
  • Signing UFA A.J. Green to be the WR2 opposite WR1 DeAndre Hopkins, UFA G Brian Winters to compete with Justin Murray for the starting RG spot, and RB James Conner (plan B to RB Aaron Jones) to be the thunder to Chase Edmonds’ lightning.
  • What Steve Keim basically accomplished was getting virtually all of his offensive ducks in a row prior to the draft, save for adding a slot WR with speed/RAC ability and a pass catching TE.
  • Plus, get this —- not only are the Cardinals maintaining their continuity on their much improved offensive line by retaining 3-4 starters (Humphries, Pugh, Murray and Beachum) while adding All Pro C Rodney Hudson to be the glue in the middle —- D.J. Humphries, Justin Pugh (who agreed to a team friendly pay cut), Rodney Hudson, Justin Murray and Kelvin Beachum and Josh Jones are all signed through 2022. How often has that happened in Arizona?

Pre-Draft Plan of Defense and Special Teams

  • By signing UFA 34 DE J.J. Watt and UFA CB Malcolm Butler coming off his best season as a pro, Steve Keim addressed two of the team’s biggest needs.
  • Keim re-signed UFA OLB Marcus Golden, and, after saving $7M on the cap by releasing CB Robert Alford, he re-signed Alford to a 1 year deal near the veteran minimum, plus he added depth at the safety position in signing UFA S Shawn Williams.
  • Three of the biggest signings were RFAs Dennis Gardeck and Zeke Turner, plus UFA ST aces ILB Tanner Vallejo, Charles Washington and Chris Banjo —-while adding the plum of the UFA kickers in Matt Prater.
  • My strongest criticism was Keim’s decision not to re-sign SAM OLB Haason Reddick, but I did not know that Keim has been expecting OLB Dennis Gardeck to be fully rehabbed and ready to go for training camp.
  • Therefore, what has since become more clear, at least to my way of thinking, is that Keim believes very strongly in Chandler Jones’ leadership and ability to bounce back this season with a bang. Keim, like so many of us, passionately wanted to see Markus Golden return (whom Keim inked a highly affordable 2 year, $5M deal) and the Cardinals showed how high they are on Dennis Gardeck by awarding him the 2nd round tender of $3.384M, while also managing to re-sign RFA OLB Kylie Fitts.
  • The gist is —- it appears that Steve Keim’s plan was to let Chandler Jones play out the last year of his contract to see whether a new contract in 2022 is warranted —- with the thought that Keim wants to make re-signing Dennis Gardeck to a long-term deal a priority in 2022.
  • Ergo, the thought must have been that the team could not afford to pay high salaries to Jones, Gardeck and Reddick. So, paying Dennis Gardeck $3.4M and Markus Golden (2 years for $5M with $2.5M guaranteed, with base salary of $1M this season) felt like a highly affordable trade-off for letting Haason Reddick go in free agency.
  • Many of us were frustrated that Steve Keim elected not to sign another veteran CB before the draft. But, it appears now that Steve Keim had a plan to draft, not one, but two CBs and that he, the coaches and the scouts were every enthusiastic about the CB depth in this draft.

The 2021 NFL Draft

  • R1: they coveted the top 3 WRs (Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith who were off the boards at picks #5, #6 and #10 respecitvely). Henceforth, they turned their focus toward drafting one of the three stud defensive players in this draft and got their wish when the Patriots (who reportedly were going to draft LB Zaven Collins at #15 if QB Mac Jones was off the board), selected the Alabama QB.
  • Perhaps you might have noticed, but it seemed very apparent, in light of the picks that followed the Cardinals’ selection of Zaven Collins that there were a run of players taken who went higher than projected: #17-LV: T Alex Leatherwood (projected by many as a R2 pick); #18-MIA: DE Jaelan Phillips (history of concussions); #19-WAS: LB Jamin Davis (projected by most pundits as a R2 pick); #20-NYG: WR Kadarious Toney (in recent weeks many of the pundits were rating Elijah Moore higher than Toney, plus why the Giants passed on T Rashawn Slater is mind-boggling); #21-IND: DE Kwity Paye (tremendous athlete who didn’t put up big sack numbers at Michigan); #22-TEN: CB Caleb Farley (outstanding athlete mired by a back injury); #23—-MIN: T Christian Darrisaw (like the NYG they traded out of the teens—-and again, it’s mind-boggling that they passed on Alijah Vera-Tucker who is by far the most versatile OL in this draft); #24-PIT: Najee Harris (the old RB in the 1st round debate); #25-JAC: RB Travis Etienne (he was my favorite pick on a trade down, but it turns out that the Cardinals’ trade partner was the New Orleans Saints at #28 and both Harris and Etienne were off the board, as were CB Greg Newsome II and WR Rashad Bateman).
  • The Big Surprise —- the Cardinals making MIKE ILB a R1 priority for the 1st time ever. Plus, the fact that Steve Keim was emphatic about Collins playing right away (“no redshirt years”) at MIKE. Therefore, this selection was right in line with Steve Keim’s priority of making the team more physical and aggressive, particularly up front on offense and up the middle on defense.
  • The fact that Steve Keim identified MIKE LB as a priority, even after Jordan Hicks agreed to a pay cut —- plus this time around knowing exactly where they want Collins to play with the intention of playing him right away —- indicates that he and the coaches acknowledge the mistakes they made last year with Isaiah Simmons.
  • It’s also worth noting that when Tony Pauline was telling Blake Murphy and Johnny Venerable on the ROTB Podcast that Zaven Collins was high on the Cardinals’ wish list, Pauline said that the Cardinals were planning to use Collins as an edge pass rusher.
  • Thus, it appeared from what Pauline was saying that Steve Keim was projecting Collins as the team’s new SAM OLB. Collins is so versatile that playing SAM would appear to be a distinct possibility, but Collins was the 2020 Bronko Nagurski winner and consensus 1st Team All-American at MIKE!
  • Again —- by telling us from the get-go that they drafted Collins to play the very position he dominated at Tulsa, this manifests that Keim acknowledges that asking rookies to make a position change in the NFL can lead to very disappointing results.
  • Heading into R2, I believe that most pundits and fans were convinced that the Cardinals would draft a CB, out of sheer need, at pick #49. Tyson Campbell of Georgia went to JAC at #33. Kelvin Joseph of Kentucky went to DAL at #44 and Asante Samuel Jr. of Florida St., the CB whom most of us believed was at the top of Keim’s R2 board was snagged by LAC two picks ahead of the Cardinals at #47.
  • We may never know whether WR Rondale Moore, the Cardinals’ selection at #49, was higher on Keim’s board than Asante Samuel Jr., but the way Keim and Kliff Kingsbury were speaking about Moore after they picked him felt like he was their guy all along. Not only do they love Moore’s 4.29 speed, they are enamored with Moore’s ability to break tackles (and ankles) for chunk RACs when the ball is in his hands.
  • As it turned out no other CB was taken in the second half on R2. The first CB taken after Samuel at #47 was Aaron Robinson UCF by NYG at #71. The Cardinals had done their homework on Aaron Robinson and had sent their defensive backs coaches, Marcus Robertson and Greg Williams, to Robinson’s pro day —- but little did we know then when the Cardinals selected a WR in R2 instead of a CB, the Cardinals would eventually select Aaron Robinson’s highly regarded teammate Tay Gowan on Day 3.
  • With regard to Rondale Moore, pretty much every NFL draft pundit concurs that Moore is a R1 talent. But, the fact that he only played in 7 games the past two seasons caused him to fall into the middle of R2. One could argue that talent-wise, if Rondale Moore had played at Alabama, he would have been a R1 lock and possibly even a top 10 pick.
  • Three slot WRs were taken ahead of Rondale Moore: #10-PHI DeVonta Smith, #20-NYG Kadarious Toney and #34-NYJ Elijah Moore. All three are outstanding playmakers and Smith was the 2020 Heisman Trophy winner. However, Rondale Moore is faster and more powerful than all three.
  • The knock on Moore is that he didn't produce another superb season at Purdue like the one he had as a true freshman in 2018. He suffered some soft tissue injuries in 2019 and then he opted out due to COVID-19 after three games during the late starting Big 10 season.
  • However, the last time the Cardinals passed on an all-world athletic WR talent in R2 was in 2019, as we know, when they passed on D.K. Metcalf (neck injury). Again, with the Cardinals’ selection of WR Rondale Moore, who may finally be their answer at slot WR and as the team’s most electric punt returner since Patrick Peterson’s rookie season in 2011, it shows that this time the Cardinals were not going to be deterred by injury concerns.
  • With there being a 111 pick gap between the Cardinals’ #49 and #160 picks, one had the sense that Steve Keim, at a very strategic point, was going to trade up to bridge that gap.
  • While some fans might be taking Keim’s trade with the Ravens for granted, let’s appreciate the fact that he was able to move up 24 spots from #160 in R5 to #136 in R4 while adding the Ravens’ #210 R6 pick (DE Victor Dimukeje) while giving the Ravens the #160 pick, plus the Cardinals’ 2020 R4 pick. (Note: knowing that the Cardinals have a 5th round comp pick in 2022, helped to facilitate this trade as having 2 R5 picks next year could help the Cardinals package the picks to make a move back into R4 if need be.)
  • The three defensive backs that the Cardinals drafted on Day 3 have tremendous upsides. In accordance with the Tillman Test, Marco Wilson, Tay Gowan and James Wiggins take pride in playing a physical brand of football, both in coverage and in run support. Lindy’s (2021 Pro Football Draft Guide) named Marco Wilson the best tackler of all the CBs in the draft. They wrote of Wilson: “Physical and highly competitive, Wilson is eager to read run, fighting through would-be blockers and delivering steady hits —- similar to hs older brother Quincy, a 4 year pro currently with the New York Jets.”
  • Check out the numbers (all three have good size, athleticism and speed —- and all three have excellent press man-to-man cover abilities —- all three have shown an impressive ability to cover the slot):
  • Marco Wilson: 6-0, 193, 4.34, 43.5: vertical jump, 26 reps at 225. What caused him to slide was his ill-advised shoe throwing penalty versus LSU and questions about his ball skills (pulling down interceptions).
  • Tay Gowan: 6-1, 185, 4.44, 35.5” vertical jump and 13 reps at 225. What caused him to slide was only having one season of game tapes at UCF after he opted out of the 2020 seasons due to COVID-19.
  • James Wiggins: 5-11, 215, 4.42, 38” vertical jump, 22 reps at 225. What caused him to slide was his ACL injury in 2019.
  • In Wilson, Gowan and Wiggins, the Cardinals were able to draft three eventual starters on Day 3 of the draft. (Note: Jason Licht drafted every starter on the Bucs’ secondary)
  • With the R6 pick of Victor Dimukeje (6-2, 265, 4.7, 34.5” vertical jump, 7.09 3 cone*, 28 reps at 225) whom Steve Keim added in the trade with the Ravens, the team basically added another tenacious edge rusher in the Markus Golden mold.
  • What’s fascinating about Keim’s selection of Dimukeje, which came as a bit of a surprise in that the Cardinals already have a good deal of depth at OLB/DE, is that Keim was able to add both Markus Golden in a trade last year and Dimukeje with R6 picks.
  • Plus, although the depth at OLB/DE this year is impressive, if the team releases Devon Kennard to save a net of $5.4M on the salary cap (with a $1.25M carry-over to the 2022 cap), only Golden and Dimukeje would be under contract for 2022, as Chandler Jones, Dennis Gardeck and Kylie Fitts are 2022 free agents.

Post Draft Needs:

  • Pass catching TE, unless the Cardinals like what they have in Ian Bunting (6-7, 255, California) or in recently added in CFA TEs Carey Angeline (6-6, 250, NC State) and Bruno Labelle (6-4, 248, Cincinnati), plus Austrian TE Bernhard Seikovits (6-5. 262).
  • Another veteran starting caliber CB, perhaps.

National Perception:

it does not come as a surprise to see Steve Keim’s moves this off-season met with widespread skepticism. Here’s one rebuttal that I offered to Chad Forbes giving the Cardinals a D grade for their off-season:

Sheil Kapadia of The Athletic, whom I normally think very highly of, power ranks: #6-LAR;#7-SF; #8-SEA; #22-ARZ. Per Kapadia:

22. Arizona Cardinals

They binged on older veterans like J.J. Watt, Rodney Hudson, Malcolm Butler and A.J. Green, expressing clearly that they feel like they can make a deep run while Kyler Murray is still on his rookie contract. But what is Kliff Kingsbury’s plan for designing an offense that helps Murray and performs better than the 19th-ranked unit in the NFL?

There’s a scenario where Watt stays healthy, Kingsbury figures some things out, Murray performs like an MVP candidate, and Rondale Moore is one of the best-performing rookie wide receivers. But the Cardinals have a lot to prove and have not earned the benefit of the doubt that they’ll take a real step forward.

  • I agree with Sheil’s concluding statement:

“But the Cardinals have a lot to prove and have not earned the benefit of the doubt that they’ll take a real step forward.”

During the first half of last season, the Cardinals got many NFL fans excited —- and then with the chance to qualify for the playoffs with one more win, they proceeded to go 0-4 during the late season distraction weeks versus NE, SEA, SF and LA., often being their own worst enemies via penalties, missed field goals and the inability to take advantage of teams’ starting backup QBs.

However, Steve Keim this off-season weeded out the pretenders from the Cardinals’ core group of contenders while adding charismatic, tenacious leaders in all three phases of the team: DE J.J. Watt, C Rodney Hudson and K Matt Prater.

For the first time ever, in my opinion, every one of the Cardinals’ top 60 players on their current roster is a player whom Pat Tillman would want as a teammate.

Kudos to Steve Keim, the principal architect of this culture changing off-season plan.

I was very doubtful that Steve Keim would ever stop pandering to under-performing vets and thereby believed that the Cardinals would never win a championship with Keim as GM.

Surprisingly and delightfully, Steve Keim, this year, upon some very honest reflection and careful personnel evaluation, is modeling what it takes to create the right kind of team culture and the spirited kind of roster building that enables an NFL team to compete at the highest level.

Steve Keim = MVP of the off-season, thus far.

In the weeks ahead, let’s see if he can add a little more icing to the cake.