The Arizona Cardinals under General Manager Steve Keim has been a mixed bag, to say the least.
They’ve had some of the most tremendous success in the NFL at identifying pro personnel and adding them to the roster at a price that most of those players have turned out to outplay in turn and earned a sizeable payday...either with the Cardinals or elsewhere.
Keim has also managed to identify some key inefficiencies through trading draft picks for proven, star talent with adding multiple Pro Bowlers to the roster in Chandler Jones, DeAndre Hopkins and Rodney Hudson all for the price of a few Day 2 draft picks and a running back whose contract had been a burden.
But if the 2021 season and other in-division rivals are any indication, the strengths that Keim has compared to others in the division in identifying talent & struggling to find year one impact talent since the 2014 season are running into a brick wall pretty soon...
That wall being a Kyler Murray extension at quarterback.
If Murray keeps up his play with a track record of a Rookie of the Year and two straight Pro Bowls & being in the MVP conversation happens again...he will be looking at Dak Prescott type money regardless of if fans disagree. Someone will pay him that $ even if Cardinals fans don’t feel he would have earned it due to lack of current playoff success.
It’s how the Quarterback position works.
Despite the modern day salary cap continuing to grow, having nearly 20% of the salary cap taken up by a single player is something that the team has not had to deal with for quite a period of time (even the Carson Palmer extension was reasonable) and it’s allowed for a greater margin of error in adding talent to teams. A big means of “winning” in the NFL can be traced back to teams having a plethora of talent on a fraction of the cost of what they are worth.
Even the Los Angeles Rams who have notoriously dealt away multiple first-round picks for proven talent have seen a large amount of success via their cheap draft picks:
Despite the way people look at the #Rams they actually ranked 6th in the NFL in homegrown players. They had the most drafted players in the NFL on their roster this year. That's been overshadowed by the big trades— Jason_OTC (@Jason_OTC) January 31, 2022
The Cardinals’ cap issues, meanwhile, have ended up with some great contracts on one year deal or “Keim Time Signs”...guys like James Conner, Kelvin Beachum, Robert Alford and even Corey Peters have all been excellent contributors.
Usually the Keim approach has been to let some of those players walk if their price was too high, or he would retain them. But that is going to be much, much harder in addition to the Kyler Murray incoming extension to do for another reason:
The whiffs on free agency contracts that were either extended (kicking the can down the road) or were not key contributors equals a lot of dead money for 2022.
For example here are some incoming issues when it comes to cap room just from dead money.
- Jordan Phillips: $9 million in dead money, hasn’t played in more than 50% in a season
- Devon Kennard: $4.2 million in dead money, has been a backup behind Jones/Golden
- Jordan Hicks: $3 million in dead money, two Round 1 inside linebackers drafted (Simmons has played 3 different positions, Collins spent time at the Edge late in the season)
- AJ Green: $2 million in dead money due to contract structure
- Justin Pugh: $2 million in dead money (might have dummy years in contract but with $9 million in cap savings will likely be a cut candidate regardless)
The other area of interest is D.J. Humphries’ contract. He is the first Pro Bowler that Keim has drafted besides Kyler Murray and has a unique contract that could deserve either a cut or an extension. Arizona saves $15 million if they move on from him, costing another $4 million in dead money...but would then need to replace their starting Left Tackle.
And there are questions about if Kelvin Beachum would slide over to the left side permanently without a step back in play along with if Josh Jones is ready for a spot...and which spot that is on the line; interior or exterior?
So it might be a non-issue but each of these factors are limiters when talking about some of Arizona’s free agents and only $20 million in projected salary cap space.
In order for the Arizona Cardinals to improve next year, they will need to not just add talent, but will have to replace or improve upon departing talent.
And it might mean they have to let go of some of those key “Keim Time” moves. Chandler Jones, Zach Ertz, James Conner and A.J. Green will be looking for paydays along with draft picks in Christian Kirk and Chase Edmonds. Not all those guys will be able to be retained...and Arizona has some needs to upgrade as is at each level of the team. Particularly the lines.
The truth is that in order to do this, Steve Keim will have to shift from a General Manager who is good at building a veteran team with cheaper talent to one who is able to nail draft picks in order to improve the Arizona Cardinals.
It goes without saying that the Cardinals’ issues can extend to draft issues that the GM has had to pay for in order to fix holes on the team that the draft did not address:
- Trading for DeAndre Hopkins after misses on Isabella, Butler & KeeSean Johnson
- Signing AJ Green on the outside due to the same also (and a retiring Larry Fitzgerald) plus factoring in the Chad Williams 3rd round draft pick miss ended up in one of the poorer WR rooms in the league
- Signing Jordan Hicks to a large deal after Haason Reddick and Deone Bucannon did not fill the inside linebacker issue
- Starting Max Garcia after Josh Jones’ struggles at right guard and starting backup inside linebackers ahead of Zaven Collins
- Trading for Rodney Hudson after Mason Cole couldn’t stabilize the Center position
- Signing Corey Peters and a deal for Jordan Phillips after Zach Allen, Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence could not stay healthy
- Paying a multi-year deal for Robert Alford after CB Brandon Williams as a draft pick did not work out
Improvement? Yes. But...each of these have one thing in common:
Keim missed on a draft pick for a need at a position, and either put a band-aid for a year on the issue or paid handsomely to fill that need in free agency.
There’s nothing wrong with this—draft picks miss all the time. But it’s been a matter of year-over-year that this has been the case.
And as a result the pipeline of cheap, young talent going out and older, more expensive talent taking their place has resulted in the culmination of Arizona being at a crossroads in their direction as a franchise. The “margin of error” in those deals has run out because Kyler Murray’s deal of being paid pennies for his production is up after this upcoming 2022 season.
The boon of having Kyler Murray on a rookie deal is about to end and the Cardinals are not going to be able to rely on the Keim Time Sign like they could find in the past. Steve Keim has reportedly one year left on his current deal, a team option, and it’s possible that he gets extended this offseason.
But if he is not, then the success of the 2021 Cardinals might depend on the exact thing that Steve Keim has struggled to do in his career in finding instant & immediate rookie contributors. Which...is doable.
- If the Cardinals see Adrian Wilson or Vance Joseph signed, they will see immediate draft prospects with a 2022 and 2023 3rd round pick
- They are in line for at least 3 compensatory picks in the 2022 NFL Draft per projections
- They might see some breakout years if things go well for Simmons, Collins, Wilson and Moore, all of whom are on rookie deals just like they did from Jalen Thompson this past season.
Can Steve Keim adjust his approach and become a General Manager that can nail a draft?
Time will tell.
His future, and the Cardinals’ future for the duration of the Kyler Murray era, could be depending on it.
You can listen to @blakemurphy7 on the Revenge of the Birds Podcast Below: