It’s actually not as complex as you’d think…and there’s a solution for their first round pick in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft
There was a time several years ago where the Arizona Cardinals and first round picks were synonymous with “failure” under the current General Manager.
Even national media sources would point out the lackluster return on the top yearly investment that the team was making.
Cardinals first-round picks under Steve Keim:
2013: G Jonathan Cooper
2014: LB/DB Deone Bucannon
2015: T D.J. Humphries
2016: DE Robert Nkemdiche
2017: LB Haason Reddick
2018: QB Josh Rosen
Have to hope Kyler Murray bucks the trend.
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) July 28, 2019
In the time since the Murray move, (which was either loved or hated depending on your perspective) Keim’s sought a bit of redemption with some oft-praised trades for Deandre Hopkins and Rodney Hudson.
While it’s still too soon with Isaiah Simmons to say that his first-round picks have turned over a new leaf, Kyler Murray’s been promising, D.J. Humphries has come into his own and even Haason Reddick had one final season in Arizona that turned out productive.
So given that we’ve seen Keim across multiple coaching staffs, it does beg the question….why exactly DID so many of the Cardinals’ first round picks struggle to make an impact?
(For a quick TL;DR, skip to the bottom below the bar you see below:)
There’s one reason or another but I believe that there’s a common thread to be found in many of the picks.
I believe that many of the first round picks specifically have been drafted by Arizona only to play outside of their natural position in an attempt to fill a need.
With that adieu, let’s review the past to the present as far as draft picks and targeting the main reason why said draft pick failed either in the present:
2013: Jonathan Cooper, Guard, UNC
Pick Status: Injury-related bust at position, traded w/ 2nd for Chandler Jones
The wikipedia section for Cooper after becoming a Cardinal is simply sad…
Simply put, Cooper had bad luck as an injured player and was never the same, but the last line that was interesting to me was that Arizona was planning on moving him, and did indeed move him from left guard to right guard to what WOULD have been center if not for the Chandler Jones trade.
2014: Deone Bucannon, S, WSU
Pick Status: No 2nd contract, considered below average as “tweener” linebacker
Reason: Positional fit
Bucannon was actually a “hit” for the Cardinals through his first two years at the position. While he only had one interception overall, many forget that he played strong safety and was drafted as the spot to take over for Yeremiah Bell following the 2013 season.
However…there was an issue that ended up backfiring on the Cardinals in the end…from the 2016 season and on.
Teams started game-planning around Bucannon’s size as he was a safety in size playing a linebacker in position.
The 2016 game against the Atlanta Falcons where Arizona lost 38-19. It was that game that several people noticed that while the Falcons were utilizing the speed of Taylor Gabriel for some long touchdowns, they also went 3-3 in the redzone for rushing touchdowns.
In those games, the Falcons worked and got their starting 300 lb. center to the second level against the 210 lb. Bucannon and he was essentially run over. While his 5th year option was exercised by the team, in 2018 under Steve Wilks, Bucannon struggled and ended up as a backup after a while with Budda Baker even seeing dollar linebacker snaps, playing in 13 games while only starting 16.
2015: D.J. Humphries. OT, Florida
Pick Status: Active, team captain and (likely Pro Bowl Snub)
Reason: Position and health
Humphries of course went from a guy who was destined to sit the whole season to “Knee Deep” to being a team captain who started 32 straight games for Arizona the past two seasons, and is clearly Steve Keim’s most successful draft pick to date overall, especially given his second contract.
But it wasn’t always like that.
After being drafted in Arizona in 2015, he was named the starting right tackle for the Cardinals to replace the departing Bobbie Massie…despite playing only left tackle in college. With Jared Veldheer established, this made sense but….he struggled. A lot.
After Veldheer was hurt he flipped to the left side but ended up with a concussion and entering the 2017 season, he was put in as the team’s starting left tackle, and showed some promise before two unfortunate season-ending injuries.
Once he finally regained some semblance of being able to stay on the field, he became one of the more steady tackles in the game. But it was that shift back to the left side that made it all possible, having been miscast for a season as a right tackle. Which is part of the unfortunate trend that’s continued.
2016: Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss
Status: Out of the league, bust
Reason: Positional/scheme fit/health/work ethic/etc.
Nkemdiche’s probably the biggest bust present on this list and with good reason. Showing up out of shape to camp in 2019, being released first from Arizona and then again from the Dolphins, he never stuck as a Cardinal and really only had one big “impact” play.
There was a time in which he was more successful, however. It was with Cardinals one-year head coach Steve Wilks:
— Steve Frederick (@_SteveFrederick) September 11, 2018
As a 4-3 upfield penetrator, Nkemdiche found some production as a starter in Arizona’s scheme and even was solid in pressures. Before his health and everything else fell off a cliff following a torn ACL.
I don’t think he was ever going to work out, but if he had ended up on a 4-3 team like the Seahawks and healthy, perhaps things might have gone a bit differently for the former physical freak.
2017: Haason Reddick, DE, Temple
Status: Carolina Panther, bust outside 1 year of production
Reason: Out of position
With the 13th pick, Arizona clearly seemed to have a plan at the ready in bringing back ILB Karlos Dansby and looking at Reddick’s athleticism.
He was a safety recruit who became an undersized defensive end at Temple, and some had pegged him as a 3-4 OLB or a nickel 4-3 linebacker. Teams worked him out at the senior bowl and he was fluid in linebacker drills.
His production as a pass rusher, however, was what stood out from watching him in college and from his stats, with 22.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks.
That’s….really good. What wasn’t? Reddick was only 6’1 and 230 lbs in a world where edge rushers were usually 6’4 and 250+ lbs.
So the Cardinals moved him inside and…it wasn’t great for the first 3 years. Josh Bynes got playing time in and he was constantly burned as a rookie and with Steve Wilks, and was effectively part of a 32nd out of 32 pass defense unit who struggled under Vance Joseph for the first portion of the season.
Then…a sudden change happened. When he took over as a linebacker for Terrell Suggs, suddenly putting him back on the line was a more natural position.
He seized a starting Edge/LB job back from rookie Isaiah Simmons and when Chandler Jones went down, capitalized on the opportunity and landed 12.5 sacks, even holding the Cardinals’ all-time record for most sacks in a game by an individual with 5 this past season.
2018: Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
Status: Traded to Miami for 2nd round pick, cut by Dolphins, bust
There’s plenty of reasons to look at why Rosen “failed” and a lot of that starts in college. His freshman phenom season took place in an Air Raid offense and was followed by two years of different offensive coordinators, a poor OL and even some controversy over his brash and outspoken personality.
For why he failed? Well…too slow in reading coverage, too inaccurate and not able to extend or make plays out of structure for what Arizona needed.
Maybe that all could have been figured out with time…but AZ decided to move on.
And frankly, it makes sense in hindsight now given the next guy on this list.
2019: Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma
Status: ROY, Pro Bowl Alternate first two years
Reason: Kingsbury’s scheme & natural talent helping adjust to NFL life (also a lot more support than Josh Rosen had, frankly)
The biggest difference for Murray versus Rosen might simply be that the athleticism of Kyler Murray and having a stable line.
But there’s another factor and it’s that HC Kliff Kingsbury adjusted his scheme to match the type of offense he played collegiately at Oklahoma, including with claps, motions and RPO’s.
Murray was teaching the scheme to other players as a rookie as he understood it well enough himself, and was put into enough of a place to succeed as a rookie, where most other Cardinals draft picks had not. It seemed like the corner for rookie success might be turning…
2020: Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson
Isaiah Simmons was considered a gift that fell into Arizona’s laps with the 8th pick last year.
But there were questions about his game, specifically, his position as a linebacker…
From @NFLTotalAccess: #Clemson‘s Isaiah Simmons is one of the most interesting prospects, and I’ve been surprised how many teams view him as a safety. Other teams think he’s a Will LB… or edge rusher? pic.twitter.com/N9esw6BfJn
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 17, 2020
Even the Cardinals’ own color analyst Ron Wolfley during a live game broadcast pointed out how Simmons’ best showings came not at the linebacker position (of which he was benched for Reddick) but at the safety position, as I noted:
Just now on air: @wolf987FM “I know the Cardinals still see Isaiah Simmons as a weak side inside linebacker but to me, he’s excelled at the safety position.”
— Blake Allen Murphy (@blakemurphy7) December 6, 2020
In the end, while Simmons is expected to take over as the team’s Will Linebacker (weakside) and make plays, he’s still expected to be utilized all over the field in blitzing the QB or dropping back to play the deep safety position, similar to what he did at Clemson.
In fact, it’s similar to how Budda Baker and Tyrann Mathieu were used for the Cardinals as well…with both of them being safeties to a fault. It does beg the question…is Simmons being cast as a linebacker despite the fact that he’s athletic enough to be an edge/slot corner/safety due to his size?
Perhaps. Or perhaps not. In any case, as long as Arizona uses his positional versatility instead of trying to lock him into a single role and have him as a “jack of all trades, master of none” he can make more of the plays that he flashed at times in 2020 and less of the time on the sidelines.
So, where does this all lead us? Let me summarize:
TOO LONG; DIDN’T READ:
Now, let’s summarize what we’ve seen so far below, and for those who skipped to the TL;DR at the bottom.
In short, some of the reasons why the Cardinals former first round picks failed?
Bucannon=played out of position for size, health
Humphries=played RT instead of LT, health (until 2019)
Nkemidche=fit 4-3 scheme, health, off-field
Reddick=played ILB instead of edge
Simmons=put at Will LB, jury’s out (though many had him as a safety)
So, overall when looking at the 8 first round picks of the Arizona Cardinals…what stands out to me is that Steve Keim has been continually drafting players who excel at one thing in college only for them to do something different in the pros under the team’s coaching staff, these four (half his picks!) in particular stand out:
- Drafts Bucannon as a safety, makes him a 3-down ILB
- Drafts Humphries as a left tackle, sticks him on the right
- Drafts Nkemdiche who was a 4-3 3-tech in college to be a 5-tech guy in a 3-4, he sees some success in Wilks’ 4-3
- Drafts Reddick who was a top DE/Edge, puts him at ILB, then when he moves back to Edge, he suddenly produces
There’s no doubt that Reddick and Nkemdiche were simply miscast, as the former was even labeled as an inside linebacker from the start, while the others were perhaps moved out of unexpected needs.
But this is also something that’s been a tendency of the Cardinals even outside of the first round as well…
-putting Andre Ellington (a smaller size change of pace back) as a RB1 to get 20ish carries a game
-Putting a slot WR in Christian Kirk primarily outside while moving a normal outside collegiate receiver in Andy Isabella to the inside
-Wilks having Budda Baker as his dollar linebacker in 2018 due to Bucannon/Reddick struggling in coverage
-and this isn’t even getting into the plethora of starting centers that Keim’s drafted on Day 2 or 3 that have moved out of the center position to guard
All in all, while this might be discouraging for Cardinals fans, there IS both a solution and a positive outlook for 2021.
The Cardinals simply need to draft players who had strengths they demonstrated on tape in college and put them in positions where they are able to demonstrate those strengths.
We’ve seen this already happen with Haason Reddick and Nkemdiche (to a degree) and this should be especially encouraging when looking at some of the top 5 positions of need for Arizona…
-Outside wide receiver
Especially at Running Back and Tight End…those are two positions that are pretty hard to muck up or move to a different spot. Edge rushers as well, and that’s where the interesting “inside/outside” corner or wide receiver comes in.
Some guys are best in the slot, some outside, and some can do both very well. If they’ve excelled in college at both, like a Devonta Smith, then utilize them in both as best as possible. But as of now, it wouldn’t shock me if Arizona simply was able to fill needs at two of the positions that are the HARDEST to argue should play other spots.
Heck, even a wide receiver at tight end size can still have some success in this system.
So perhaps the way out of this draft of shame simply starts with less of a need to “find the right role” for their positions of need versus just drafting the players FOR those positions given the roster as constructed.
It’s a place where I hope Keim and this coaching staff have learned from some of their past mistakes to simply put rookie picks into positions where they can demonstrate their strengths versus simply being forced to learn a new element while adjusting to NFL life simply due to an unforeseen need at another spot or a misevaluation of a player.
Time will tell if 2021 continues to reverse the course…or if the old Keim Time rears its head with a vengeance.
You can follow @blakemurphy7 on Twitter.