It’s not as easy as Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim snapping his fingers. Finding a starting-quality pass-rusher in the wake of Chandler Jones’ season-ending biceps injury might be possible, but expecting to replace him is setting unrealistic expectations.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Keim said Friday when he joined Arizona Sports’ Doug & Wolf. “He’s the kind of guy who reaches out to my kids and certainly is a fan favorite.
“I said this weeks ago: There are certain players you cannot replace. You can’t replace Chandler Jones.”
It looks downright risky to make a significant win-now move.
The Cardinals will of course cull over waiver wire options — Arizona signed fourth-year pro Isaiah Irving off the Denver Broncos practice squad Thursday — and hunt for trades to replace Jones in the remaining 11 games this year. But toss in the complications of a pandemic, and dealing picks or taking on significant future salaries makes any trade difficult.
Keim mentioned the reduced salary cap in 2021 will inhibit what’s possible.
The cap, which before the coronavirus pandemic was projected to reach $210 million, is not yet set but will have a floor of $175 million in 2021, as agreed upon by the NFL players’ union and the league. That figure was set as the NFL expects significant losses.
Knowing that, replacing Jones in-house appears the most realistic solution for the Cardinals.
Obviously, veteran front-seven members Corey Peters, Jordan Phillips and Devon Kennard will all aim to pick up the slack.
But again considering future financial limitations, Keim said the Cardinals can’t over-emphasize the value of developing current players on rookie deals. As for future draft picks, keeping them is a priority as well.
“I think with the likelihood that the salary cap is going to decrease, I think you have to value draft picks,” Keim said. “There is some reality to knowing you have to draft good players and you have to be able to put them in positions to succeed. That’s why we’re putting an emphasis on playing some of these guys.
“This past week you look, and a player I didn’t anticipate playing as much as he has, Leki Fotu, had a phenomenal game and he continues to grow and get better at that position. Really was disruptive and could be dominant at the point of attack.”
Of the rookies, the Cardinals have gotten the most contributions through five games this year from Fotu and Rashard Lawrence, their duo of fourth-round pick defensive linemen. Lawrence has been a backup nose tackle every week, while Fotu has come on strong the past two weeks, earning 40 combined snaps while recording two tackles and a quarterback hurry.
Second-year pro Zach Allen at defensive end has played better than 60% of the snaps in each of the past two weeks, and his expanding role could come into play in replacing Jones as well.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals remain apprehensive jostling the development of first-round pick Isaiah Simmons, who has pass-rushing chops but is still on a learning curve at inside linebacker. Like it was when the team discussed — but opted against — moving the versatile No. 8 pick to safety weeks ago, it’s a long-shot that he will begin playing as a true outside linebacker.
Keim stopped short of saying how Simmons will figure into replacing Jones.
“I just want him on the field, and that being said, I know there are things that can stunt a player’s growth,” Keim said. “When you want a guy to play inside linebacker and he’s your future, getting a player to get experience with his eyes and his instincts and his reads and reactions, it’s one thing.
“Whenever you’re talking about moving a player to the outside and asking him to do different things, now that’s for the team. That’s fine if he can handle that, but he’s got to be significantly better than what you already have playing out there.”