Far too often, Arizona’s first round picks are left lost during their rookie years.
NFL Draft season is in full swing.
The mocks are coming in fast and furious as we sit roughly three weeks out from the big show.
This is the time of year where I, like many of you, get caught up in the hoopla of who may or may not be available when the clock strikes 16 for our beloved Cardinals.
Could someone like Devonta Smith fall? Is 16 too rich for Najee Harris? Will both Patrick Surtain and Jaycee Horn be gone before the redbirds pick? Does Micah Parsons make sense for this team?
So many options; so many questions.
In reality, however, with the Arizona Cardinals recent first round receipts, history tells us it’s all a moot point.
There’s no secret that under GM Steve Keim, the Cardinals are one of the worst drafting teams in the NFL. So much so that Pro Football Focus recently named them among the poorest drafting teams at selecting first rounders during the 2010s:
None of this should come as a shock to Cardinal fans who have been through the likes of Beanie Wells, Dan Williams, Michael Floyd, Jonathan Cooper, Robert Nkemdiche, Josh Rosen among countless others.
Kyler Murray is on track to become the second Cardinal “1st round pick” since DJ Humphries to earn a second contract with the team. Prior to he and Peterson, you’d have to go back to 2007 and Fitz’s first extension (4 years, $40 million) with the club.
That’s how poor it’s been for this franchise and hitting on first round picks.
With that being said, I’m not here to nitpick the club’s draft history. At this point it’s clear that Keim understands the pressure he’s under to win in 2021.
Look no futher than his recent free agent “win now” haul to prove just that.
Rather, I want to focus less on the player and more on the subsequent “planning” that the Cardinals claim they do with each first round pick’s development.
Haason Reddick was Arizona’s first round pick in 2017 and was grossly misjudged by the Cardinal personnel department. He was shoehorned into being an off the ball inside linebacker when his most natural position, as we saw in 2020, was outside rushing the passer.
Yet during his rookie campaign, after it was already evident that young Reddick didn’t have the athleticism or instincts to play inside, the former Temple product was subsequently berried on the depth chart logging minimal snaps between ILB and OLB.
He provided no impact on that 2017 club.
This continued well into his Cardinal career before the coaching staff was forced to play him full time outside following Chandler Jones’s season ending bicep injury.
Reddick responded by leading the team in sacks with 12.5 before leaving as a free agent. The Cardinals seemingly wasted several prime years of cheap pass rushing labor while Reddick aimlessly bounced around with three defensive coordinators.
Unlike say D.J. Humphries, who was a true late first round developmental project for a team drafting in the 20s, players like Reddick and 2021 first round pick Isaiah Simmons were high draft picks for several reasons.
Number one is their ability to play and their projected success at the next level.
Secondly it’s because the franchise that drafted them was an average to below average team the season before.
The Cardinals, whether it’s by choice or pure ignorance, slow play their first round picks like they’re the Green Bay Packers. In reality, this is a franchise that is incredibly comfortable seeing their name listed within the first half of the draft order.
A great way to escape that trend is by quickly integrating and developing the players you are gifted as a “reward” for racking up losses the season prior.
This time last year, the Cardinals landed Butkus award winning LB Isaiah Simmons eighth overall. He was brought in to help aid a Cardinal defense that finished near dead last in every major defensive category in 2019. Simmons was labeled by the front office and coaching staff alike as a transcendent, “unicorn” type of athlete that would change the way opposing offenses would have to game plan the Cardinal defense.
Yet, after a week one mulligan against Kyle Shanahan, in which young Simmons was beat on a slant pattern by standout RB Raheem Mostert, the former Clemson product was quickly ousted to the bench by DC Vance Joseph.
The eighth overall selection, who clearly had ability to start over incumbents Jordan Hicks and De’Vondre Campbell, wasted away on the bench for the large majority of the 2020 season.
Simmons was afforded next to zero patience from a Cardinal administration that knew he spent limited time at ILB while at Clemson. Any competent organization would know that by selecting Simmons, it was a long term play that would likely garner some short term struggles on the field.
Campbell and Hicks, meanwhile, graded out as two of the worst ILB in all of football (via PFF). Simmons wouldn’t eclipse more than 30 snaps in a game until Week 9 and would average only 24 snaps per game for his entire rookie season.
That is completely and utterly unacceptable from a franchise that is desperate for young play-makers on defense. Yet, they are now stuck in a position in which they must keep diminishing Jordan Hicks and his $6 million dollar cap hit on the roster because no one else in the ILB unit can properly call the Arizona defense.
Perhaps if Simmons was allow to grow through his rookie mistakes, while still clearly making an impact, the former Butkus winner would be the established alpha we all know he can be.
Isaiah Simmons should be primed and ready to call the Cardinal defense.
Instead, despite receiving numerous All Rookie accolades for his efforts, Simmons is still somewhat of an unknown as we enter 2021.
Just like many of his predecessors.
Keim is guilty but he’s not alone in fumbling Cardinal rookie’s development.
Former Cardinal GM Rod Graves drafted Antrel Rolle eighth overall in 2005 and the team immediately played him out of position at CB rather than safety. That was until his final year with the team (which was a Pro Bowl season), as the former Florida State standout then immediately bolted for the Big Apple where he’d go on to win a Super Bowl as the Giants starting free safety.
A position he should have been playing since his rookie year with the Cardinals.
So my ask for the Cardinal front office this year isn’t geared toward targeting a specific player or position group. Rather it’s that they have a clearly defined plan for said player once he’s selected.
The Cardinal roster, by default, has improved since taking Kyler Murray first overall in 2019. That doesn’t mean their 2021 first round pick needs to waste away on the bench while one year journeymen like Campbell, Kennard, Alford etc. wrongfully start in their place.
Jobs are at stake and because of this, the best players need to play and play early.
Under no circumstances should A.J. Green start over someone like Devonta Smith. If the Cardinals were to select Patrick Surtain or Jaycee Horn at pick 16, both need to immediately contribute on the Cardinal’s base defense.
Say what you want about taking a running back in round one, but there’s no denying that someone like Najee Harris would be one of the safer picks given this team’s reluctance to start rookies. The position of running back is one of the easiest to translate from the collegiate level and that selection would immediately pay dividends for a team that was too often soft running up the middle on short yardage.
Return on investment has to matter for the Cardinals.
Natural position has to matter for the Cardinals.
So whomever you choose come round one, make sure they fully understand and are comfortable with their role in 2021.
For once, have a plan in place and follow it.