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Treading water and mixed messages: Making sense of the Cardinals’ offseason so far

Almost all is quiet here on the western front so far. What are fans to make of this strangely quiet early offseason?

This has been a whirlwind offseason so far, one of the craziest I can remember.

From Aaron Rodgers re-signing to Tom Brady returning to the trades of Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, and Carson Wentz.. and that’s just the quarterback position. Hard to believe we’re only about a week into free agency and the draft is still over a month away.

It seems like a major story is breaking every single day… except here in the Valley. It’s been a frustratingly uneventful offseason so far, especially free agency. Let’s take a quick look at the transactions page on the team website to see what I mean.

The Cardinals offseason transactions thus far.
The Cardinals offseason transactions thus far.
Arizona Cardinals team website

That’s a whole lot of not much, especially for a team that’s supposed to be “all-in” on competing for a Super Bowl while Kyler Murray is on his rookie contract. So far, I just don’t see it, don’t see the aggressive moves an all-in team makes.

Okay, it’s not like we’ve done nothing (apologies for the double negative), but fans are rightfully frustrated with the team for failing to clearly improve the team thus far. According to PFF, the Cardinals have actually declined relative to the rest of the league so far:

Yeah, yeah, yeah: it’s early in the offseason. Very early. But where is the urgency? What is this team’s plan? Do they even have one? Let’s take a quick look at what moves they actually have made, internally and externally, and see if we can figure out if this team is merely treading water or in danger of drowning so far this offseason.

External Moves

We’ll start with the external roster moves the Cardinals have made so far. This will be quick, as there are only two of them: the 2-year, $6.5M contract given to CB Jeff Gladney, and the recently announced signing of LB Nick Vigil, the terms of which are still undisclosed. These are potential contributors, but the reality is that Gladney missed last season due to a domestic violence arrest (he was recently found not guilty, but that is often the case in these kinds of situations for various reasons), and Vigil is a journeyman on his fourth NFL team. Not exactly earth-shaking signings. Especially when several other elite players who would seem to be a fit with the Cardinals have already signed elsewhere.

For whatever reason, the Cardinals haven’t landed—or seemingly even been interested in—the big external free agents. Perhaps the desert isn’t viewed as an attractive free agent destination right now, or GM Steve Keim is angling for comp picks next offseason. (H/T to Walter for those two pieces.) Well, 2023 comp picks don’t help this year’s team, and if players don’t want to come to the desert to play on a team coming off an 11-win season with an exciting young QB, that’s a real problem. Cardinals fans definitely have reasons to be worried about the team’s lack of free agency activity.

Internal Moves

We’ve at least been more active with the in-house guys, releasing a couple starters (Jordan Hicks and Jordan Phillips) and bringing back several role players (Antoine Wesley, Jonathan Ward, Colt McCoy, Michael Dogbe, Dennis Gardeck, Maxx Williams, Aaron Brewer, Andy Lee, and Ezekiel Turner). Guys like McCoy, Gardeck, Williams, and Lee have their value, but none of these moves really help in making the 2022 team better than the 2021 team. These moves are just treading water.

Then there are the bigger moves in the new contacts for two key players on last year’s offense: James Conner and Zach Ertz. Conner was given a 3-year, $21M deal ($13.5M guaranteed), while Ertz signed a 3-year, $31.65M deal ($17.5M guaranteed). Did we overpay for both of these players? Unquestionably. RB is the most replaceable position in the league—just look at the production we got from Conner and now-Dolphin Chase Edmonds last season for peanuts. Didn’t the team learn from the David Johnson and Kenyon Drake contracts? And Ertz is already on the wrong side of 30.

That said… I don’t mind either of these deals for at least the 2022 season. Both of these guys are respected veteran leaders and two of the toughest players around. Paying these guys matters, and it says something to the rest of the team. “Play hard and produce and you will be rewarded.” I’m happy to have these two back in the fold this season. But… we’ll see if the team regrets these contracts in 2023 and beyond. (And it’s worth pointing out that the Patriots—only the most successful NFL franchise of the past two decades—succeeded in large part because they avoided contracts exactly like these.)

That leaves two moves from that list of transactions, the first two moves made this offseason, in fact—as well as one move that hasn’t yet been made.

The Big Three

The first moves the Redbirds made this season were the 5-year extensions Michael Bidwill handed out to Keim and HC Kliff Kingsbury. Those moves were largely met by surprise from Cardinals fans. Keim perhaps less so even given his rocky tenure as GM, but the Kliff extension was somewhat baffling—consensus from league pundits had him squarely on the hot seat after two straight devastating late-season collapses.

What, exactly, has this duo done to earn not 1-year extensions, or even 2 or 3 years, but 5-year(!) extensions? Yes, the team has improved from 3 wins in 2018 to 5, then 8, then 11 last season. But they have nothing to show for it—no division titles, no playoff wins, just bitter disappointment in December and January. I’m not sure what kind of message that sends. “Mediocrity will be richly rewarded”? Because that’s all this team has been the past three seasons when all has been said and done.

And that brings us to Kyler Murray. It seemed like fait accompli that an extension was forthcoming for him after the Keim and Kliff extensions, but the two sides appear to be deadlocked right now. You can argue that Kyler has been better at his job over the past three years than either Keim or Kliff. He certainly has the stats and hardware to back that up (OROY, two Pro Bowl appearances). So why reward the coach and the GM but not the QB? These are supposed to be the three pillars of this team moving forward, right?

I know extending a franchise QB is a much different beast than extending a coach or GM (what with that pesky salary cap and all), and Kyler has his own issues, but extending Keim and Kliff right away and dragging your feet on Kyler just sends mixed messages. “The players aren’t as important as our mediocre coach and GM.”

Final Thoughts

It just screams of a lack of any kind of clear plan. Wait and see on Kyler’s extension. Wait and see on external free agents. Shuffle a few internal deck chairs. What’s next? Try to recapture the “Keim Time” glory days with a few veteran signings later on? Whiff on another 1st-round pick? At this point, you have to hope at Keim has another ace of a trade up his sleeve (the one part of the job he is unquestionably excellent at). But trade candidates are getting snatched up left and right.

What’s happening right now can’t be the plan. Which means either A) the original plan fell through, or B) there was no plan in the first place. Either is huge cause for concern.

It’s just a confusing time for Cardinals fans. Maybe the team is biding its time, treading water, until the right moves come along. But you know what you always hear about drowning? It doesn’t actually look like drowning from afar. Maybe that’s what’s happening here.

This team needs a lifeline right now.

And so does its fanbase.

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