clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Hand Picked

NFL: Arizona Cardinals Training Camp Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As seen on the most recent episode of the Arizona Cardinals’ “Flight Plan”, Michael Bidwill’s opening of camp message to the players was “all of you were hand picked” and as such he impelled every one of them to provide leadership in everything they do.

These were very fitting words of encouragement from the team owner and president, because Michael Bidwill’s off-season agenda was to re-define the leadership of the team and as such, to make the team tougher and more disciplined.

There is no question that Bidwill, Steve Keim, Kliff Kingsbury and the coaches combed through the roster and the list of their own free agents to determine which players were the toughest and most highly motivated to win. The spirit of this combing, manifested itself very clearly in the Cardinals’ approach to free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft.

Thus, when Michael Bidwill expressed to all of the players that they were “hand picked” —- Bidwill was being precise.

If we extend the “hand picked” metaphor, some of the veteran picks are fully ripe and other, younger picks, may and often will need some time in order to develop.

Check out these three encouraging running plays thanks to @Cardinals_ATB and @SportsAzFan—-

These plays showed a high level of syncopation and timing from all of the blockers and at times they delivered near perfect execution —- plus some good aggressive running by the RBs. The syncopation is particularly impressive because these plays involve a number of down blocks to one side and “counter trey” blocks (2 -3 OL pulling) to the other side.

Not only are the veterans doing a commendable job —- including a nice iso block from TE Maxx Williams on Edge Markus Golden —- the younger developmental players such as G (79) Josh Jones, T (66) Joshua Miles and 7th Round pick G (72) Michal Menet are moving and hitting with authority, while displaying proper footwork and blocking techniques.

With the recent departures of C/Gs Mason Cole and Lamont Gaillard some fans and pundits have questioned whether OL coach Sean Kugler has the patience to develop the team’s draft picks. Thus, it was excellent to see promise from the OL picks from the last three drafts (Miles-2019, Jones-2020 and Menet-2021). Now, let’s see how their play in the Red-White scrimmage carries over to game one of the pre-season.

Dispelling Myths:

  1. Andy Isabella is fighting for a roster spot.

Some Cardinals fans and pundits have been projecting that WR Andy Isabella is either going to be traded or cut this pre-season. What’s particularly perplexing is that some fans appear to be rooting and campaigning for Isabella’s departure and have been making up some things to fit their purposes —- like Andy has “iffy” hands —- and/or Andy fell out of favor with the Cardinals’ coaches the last few weeks of the season when he was designated as one of the inactive players on game days.

His senior year at Massachusetts, despite getting consistently double teamed, Andy Isabella’s 102 receptions tied him for the 86th highest total of receptions in a single season (in Division 1A football) with the likes of Davante Adams (Fresno St.) and Antonio Brown (Western Michigan).

In his two seasons in the NFL, Andy Isabella has caught 30 passes for 413 yards (13.8 ave.) and 3 TDs. He has two drops. One drop was through his fingertips on a hot read quick slant and the other was on a curl pass that was thrown at his ankles.

As for him being inactive the last few weeks of 2020, that was after Larry Fitzgerald returned from his battle with COVID-19. The Cardinals typically only dressed 5 WRs on game days and with Hopkins, Kirk, Fitzgerald and Sherfield (STs) as the 4 givens, the #5 WR often came down to Andy Isabella or KeeSean Johnson.

In 2019 the Cardinals kept KeeSean Johnson active for most of the first 10 games, then switched over to Andy Isabella. The Cardinals did the reverse in 2020 by keeping Isabella active for the first 11 games and then switching over to Johnson. The point is that the Cardinals wanted to give each of them a chance to contribute and to develop.

Some fans understandably lament the Cardinals passing on WR D.K. Metcalf in favor of picking Andy Isabella at #62 in the 2019 NFL Draft. However, in light of the strict teaching regimen the Cardinals’ coaches gave their 3 rookie WR draft picks in the 2019 draft, D.K. Metcalf may have not been an instant starter and slam dunk player in Arizona, particularly in light of the limited route tree he ran at Ole Miss.

The Cardinals’ firing of WRC David Raih this off-season was a clear indication that the organization was not happy with the way the WRs were being coached. Last year, only DeAndre Hopkins had what could be considered a very good, productive season, and even he faltered in many of the key games down the stretch when he was handled effectively by Xavien Howard, Stephon Gilmore, Jalen Ramsey (twice) and Jason Verrett. The Cardinals were favored in 4 of those 5 games and lost all 5.

The fact is, of all of the Cardinals’ WRs last season, Andy Isabella was not only the one true speed merchant, he was the quickest to separate from man coverage. You can see this time and time again if you watch the end zone footage of games on NFL.com. But because Andy was used so sparingly, it was a challenge for Kyler Murray to adjust to Andy’s speed after throwing to slower receivers all game.

In my opinion, had the Cardinals done what the Seahawks did with D.K. Metcalf and made Andy Isabella the starter at WR2 over Damiere Byrd in 2019, and had the Cardinals given Andy all of Damiere Byrd’s 46 targets instead, Andy would be much more celebrated by Cardinals’ fans and pundits, because Andy checks all of the key boxes —- speed, separation skills, hands, RAC ability, jet sweep ability, blocking (highest grade on team last year) and work ethic.

Do yourself a favor and watch this short video:

The Cardinals hand picked Andy Isabella and his best football is yet to come.

The one area where Andy Isabella needs to improve the most is getting off of press coverage at the line of scrimmage. But, that happens to be the case for the vast majority of young WRs who come to the NFL. It even took Fitz a few years to adapt to NFL press coverage.

After developing an effective stutter-step move last season to beat the press with quickness, this off-season, Andy devoted himself to building muscle strength and let’s not forget that a coach can help any WR avoid press coverage by setting him in motion.

My recent Red Raid podcast special guest Joseph Comeau created an excellent video on his YouTube channel “The Cardinal Rule” titled “Rondale Moore in NOT Andy Isabella.”

True —- Moore adds a physical dimension to his game that few NFL rookie WRs have ever displayed —- but, Kliff Kingsbury made it very clear this past week that “you can never have too much speed at WR” and that Rondale Moore and Andy Isabella play different positions in the offense.

When you watched Joseph’s video, didn’t you start to feel excited that the Cardinals have both Rondale Moore and Andy Isabella?

I certainly did.

2 —- “Just another Camp Body”

Michael Bidwill said it —- “every one of you has been hand picked.”

Every single one of the Cardinals players has a remarkable story as to how he made it to the 90 man roster of an NFL team. There are so many talented players who for one reason or another never quite get the right opportunity to show just how good they are.

Much of this has to do with a player getting 1st or 2nd team reps and getting the best possible chance to showcase their talents, particularly now that there are strict “no contact” rules in NFL practices.

The perfect case in point of a supposed “camp body” making the most of his opportunities is the Cardinals’ OLB and ST captain Dennis Gardeck.

How many fans and pundits had ever even heard of Dennis Gardeck when the Cardinals signed him in 2018 out of Division 2 Sioux Falls?

Well, guess what? As a rookie playing in his first couple of pre-season games, Dennis Gardeck went down on special teams and made a couple of slobberknocking tackles —- which caught the attention of not only the Cardinals’ coaches and teammates, but he also captured the imagination of 4 time Special Teams Pro Bowler turned Cardinals’ announcer and radio host, Ron Wolfley, who promptly nicknamed the rookie, “Gardeck the Barbarian.”

So for 2 1/3 years, Dennis Gardeck was pigeonholed as a special teams ace. Yet, 5 games into last seasosn, after Chandler Jones and Devon Kennard were knocked out of action, Vance Joseph threw Gardeck out on the edge and what do you know? Gardeck was, as D-Hop would put it, “sensational.” In fact, one could argue that Dennis Gardeck’s quickness and explosion off the edge is elite. After making a number big plays, which included 7 sacks and 18 QB pressures in a mere 79 pass rushes, Gardeck even had Kyler Murray rushing to the sideline to scream “GARDECKY!”

But, here is the rub —- when asked about Gardeck’s instant explosion from the edge, Kliff Kingsbury confessed that while Gardeck was often “un-blockable in practice,” he said, “but we didn’t think that would translate over to games.”

Again —- when practices are so limited in terms of contact, this is what prevents so many talented players to get overlooked.

Isn’t it amazing to think that the Cardinals coaches didn’t realize in 2019 that they had the potential to add 19 12 sacks and 74 QB pressures from two defensive players they rarely rushed from the edge (Haason Reddick only 127 pass rushes including inside blitzes from his WILB spot), and in Dennis Gardeck’s case, not once?

Gardeck’s climb up the ladder to the point of the Cardinals awarding him this season with a 2nd round $3.4M tender coming off an ACL injury, illuminates just how difficult and hard it is for any player, whom many would label a “camp body”, to get the chance to prove his talent at the NFL level.

Therefore, as we approach Friday night’s pre-season opener versus the Cowboys, it might be fun to keep our eyes and hearts wide open to the possibility that some of our Cardinals’ returnees will manifest encouraging signs of development and some of the Cardinals’ “hand picked” longshots may come out of nowhere to shine amongst the stars like a comet.

It’s not easy to hand pick a star.

But it might be a good idea to reach for them.