The Cardinals will be on the clock at #23 tomorrow night. GM Steve Keim has put the team in a position where that pick simply needs to be an immediate contributor. The only problem is that most of his 1st-round picks haven’t produced right away.
With the NFL draft starting tomorrow and the Cardinals not having really done anything of note this offseason, the pressure is on GM Steve Keim more than ever to draft an immediate contributor in the 1st round. This is a team that we’ve been told over and over is in “win now” mode, but there are several roster holes the team has either been unable or unwilling to fill via free agency or trade. So whoever the Cardinals take at #23 needs to be able to hit the ground running as the team tries to improve on last year’s 11-6 record.
The only problem is that drafting immediate contributors in the 1st round hasn’t been Keim’s strength since becoming GM in 2013. I’m sure most Cardinals fans don’t need a refresher—Keim’s draft struggles are well documented—but let’s take a look at his 1st-round draft history anyway.
There are a few things to point out here. The only players to play more than 70% of snaps as a rookie were the two QBs, who were both drafted to be the quarterback of the future. Kyler is easily the best 1st round pick Keim has ever made, but Rosen was so bad the year before that Keim basically had to take Kyler with the #1 pick the next year. The only other player to play more than half the snaps was Deone Bucannon, who was a really good player in his brief prime. Reddick played close to half the defensive snaps as a rookie but wouldn’t break out until a few years later under a different coaching staff.
Of the rest, Cooper was unfortunately injured in the preseason and was never the same player again. Humphries and Nkemdiche were drafted onto playoff rosters and didn’t really need to play much as rookies—at least, that was the logic at the time. Hump eventually became a solid starter, while Diche was an unequivocable bust. But you wonder if those teams might’ve been even better if the 1st rounders had been immediate starters, a la Tristan Wirfs for the 2020 Buccaneers (coached, of course, by Bruce “Rookies Don’t Play” Arians).
That brings us to the two most recent 1st-round picks, Simmons and Collins. Both were very highly touted: Simmons was the best defensive player in college football, and Collins was actually handed a starting job sight unseen. And then… they barely played as rookies. Simmons flashed a bit more than Collins, who was mostly anonymous when he saw the field, but neither player played more than 1/3 of the snaps. The book is still yet to be written for both players, but they were basically nonentities for a team hoping to make a playoff push. Again, you have to wonder if more instant production from these premium draft picks would have made a difference in these last two ultimately disappointing Cardinals seasons.
Of course, that kind of instant production from rookies is the exception, not the rule. The vast majority of 1st round picks go through the usual growing pains as they acclimate to the pro game. But Keim has put this team in the position that we NEED to hit on this 1st-round pick if we truly want to “win now.” We just can’t afford to draft another player who will ride the pine or struggle to find a position or role.
So who are the possible candidates the Cardinals might be looking at in the 1st round? Most projections have us looking at four big needs: guard, wideout, front seven, corner. Let’s see who might be there at #23 and see if we can find the immediate contributor we need. (Note: I’m not projecting trading up or down at this point, although that’s a very real possibility.)
Possible Picks at Guard
Kenyon Green, Zion Johnson, Tyler Smith
Don’t really love any of these options. Green probably has the highest ceiling, but he seems pretty boom-or-bust to me, plus he’s not a natural guard (he’s a converted tackle). Smith is another tackle who some are projecting to play guard at the pro level. Nope, don’t want another player playing outside their natural position. The Cardinals have had bad luck with those kinds of players. Johnson is somewhat intriguing—he has a higher floor but lower ceiling than Green. He’s a safer pick and more likely to be the kind of immediate contributor we’re looking for. I’d prefer him if we go guard. (I do not want us to go guard.)
Possible Picks at Wide Receiver
Treylon Burks, Christian Watson, Jahan Dotson
Wideouts have been shooting up the mock drafts of late, so the Redbirds likely won’t have a shot at any of the guys in the top tier without trading up. But these are all interesting names who have each been linked to the team in various mocks. Burks and Watson are both big WRs who can play outside opposite DeAndre Hopkins but are versatile enough to line up elsewhere if needed. Dotson is a little smaller but no less an athlete and has formational versatility as well. I like all three of these guys, but lean more toward Burks—although it’s entirely possible he gets snatched up before 23. Watson or Dotson might still be there if we were to trade down a bit. I want to come away from the draft with a possible WR2 whether we have to move around the board or not. Of these three, I think Burks is the most ready to make a splash right away.
Possible Picks at Front Seven
George Karlaftis, David Ojabo, Devonte Wyatt
Pass rush might even be a bigger need than WR with absolutely no effort being made at replacing Chandler Jones’s production so far. Karlaftis seems pro-ready and would be a really nice get, offering a likely immediate upgrade over Devon Kennard. Ojabo has tantalizing talent, but is coming off a serious Achilles’ injury and wouldn’t be an immediate contributor. If we go DL, Wyatt—the third member of UGA’s fearsome D-line taken—could be an instant replacement at DT for Jordan Phillips and would have no trouble passing the likes of Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu on the depth chart. (His more touted teammate, Jordan Davis, isn’t falling to 23.) If we go with a front seven player, both Karlaftis and Wyatt seem ready to play right away.
Possible Picks at Cornerback
Trent McDuffie, Andrew Booth Jr., Kaiir Elam
Keim has never drafted a CB in the 1st round and seems to be fine with the Byron Murphy/Marco Wilson/Jeff Gladney trio even though Murphy is probably a CB2, Wilson was one of the worst corners in the league last year, and Gladney is a huge question mark. I don’t think he goes corner tomorrow night (although it depends on how the board shakes out). If he does, McDuffie looks poised and polished, although he doesn’t fit the trend of bigger corners the league seems to be adopting as receivers get taller and taller. He also might not be there at 23. Booth seems a bit more of a project but has a high ceiling. Elam has all the physical tools you look for but might be there if the team were to trade down. Not sure I like going corner in Round 1, but I think Elam is the likeliest of these three to produce right away.
Of all the names here, the three players I’ll be hoping for at 23 are Burks, Karlaftis, and Wyatt, basically in that order. The offense simply needs more playmakers and I have no faith in A.J. Green at WR2 this year. (Although I am excited to see what Rondale Moore can do with the slot role full time if the team lets him take over that role.) I think Burks would have a shot to outproduce what Green did last year (54/848/3) if the team gives him the reps. I don’t think the question of playing time would be there for Karlaftis or Wyatt—they would hopefully step right into a starting role.
But whoever the team takes tomorrow, whether it be at 23 or higher/lower, that player NEEDS to produce right away if this team wants to “win now.” I don’t want to see the team draft a Burks or a Dotson and have them languish behind Green on the depth chart. Or take a Green and have him fail to beat out Will Hernandez for a starting job. Or have a Booth fight for scraps behind Wilson and Gladney. Or have Kennard somehow start over a Karlaftis. Or—
You get the point. This team can’t afford for their 1st-rounder to flail or fail this year. We need to draft a good player, coach him up in the offseason, and give him reps right out of the gate. We can’t make a luxury pick or draft a project, not this year. We can’t do what the team did to Simmons and Collins the past two years.
Our 1st-rounder needs to play. Early and often. They need to contribute. Not next year. This year. If they don’t, the team is all the more likely to be homebound in January once more.
And if the player actually sees the field and struggles like most rookies do? Probably home in January again.
That’s the position Keim has put this team in. He needs to hit on this pick, simple as that.
If he doesn’t, that 5-year extension is going to look pretty bad before it even kicks in.