If Steve Keim is not a busy man these days, he is about to be.
The Arizona Cardinals’ GM is set to hit up the NFL Scouting Combine, which begins on Feb. 28, and from there he will look to organize the team’s draft board while also managing the free agent market.
Party like an NFL general manager.
A guest of the Doug and Wolf Show on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Friday as part of Newsmakers Week, Keim said these days he is mostly focused on catching up on college tape because he has a “good handle on free agency” with regards to who will be available and at what positions.
But that’s not all he talked about.
D.J. the LT?
One of the more intriguing offseason storylines will be about what the team does at left tackle.
In 2014, the Cardinals signed Jared Veldheer to a five-year contract with the idea that he would solidify the most important position on the offensive line, and for the most part he’s been everything they hoped for.
But when Veldheer went down with a triceps injury halfway through the 2016 season, D.J. Humphries — who had been the team’s starting right tackle — switched sides and acquitted himself very well.
Since then, there has been some chatter about Humphries, who at 23 is younger than the 29-year-old Veldheer, staying on the left side. The day after the season ended, a rehabbing Veldheer said he would prefer not to move to a new position, though just a couple weeks ago offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said he could see a switch taking place.
Keim said he does not think it matters who plays on which side because now they know both can play on either side. But, he noted, they are “leaning towards playing D.J. on the left side.”
“Which is why we drafted him,” he continued. “When we watched him coming out of Florida, we thought he was a natural left tackle. He’s got the feet, the length, the athleticism, the movement skills; all the necessary tools to be a very good left tackle in this league.”
Keim also pointed out Humphries, who is jovial and good-natured, also has a mean streak to him and plays with a physical style.
“And he has brought a particular temperament to our offensive line,” he said. “When you talk about your ability to roll your hips and finish in the run game — we don’t have a guy on our offensive line who can run block like he does.”
A look at free agency
Beginning March 7, teams are allowed to contact and negotiate with the agents of players who are about to hit free agency. Then, on March 9, teams can start signing free agents.
Asked if people can expect the Cardinals to make a big splash in this year’s free agent period, Keim said the only thing he could promise is that the team would be aggressive through the process.
“There’s no doubt that we took a step back last year and we’ve got to pick up the pieces and make some good decisions this offseason,” he said. “Make sure that we have the right 53 in the locker room.”
Some of the contracts signed this offseason will be for new players, sure, but many may not be.
The Cardinals have more than 20 players who are set to hit the open market, and while people can make their best guesses as to whom the team will bring back and who has played their final down for Arizona, Keim is the one who has an idea of what is about to transpire.
One thing he knows — really, we all know — is that linebacker Chandler Jones will be franchise tagged if a long-term contract cannot be agreed upon. The rest, however, he’s not ready to divulge.
“I’ve always been adament about not negotiating through the media, but we have been, in my opinion, very aggressive with trying to re-sign the players that we would like to have back,” he said. “As it gets closer to free agency, some players would prefer to try to test the market, which we understand because it’s a business.”
The trick, the GM said, is to identify who the core players are and do what it takes to keep them in the fold. Keim said there has been great dialogue with Jones in an effort to come to an agreement, but the team will use the tag if necessary.
“Moving forward, the hard part of it is you can’t have everybody back,” Keim admitted. “Just the way that the salary cap is situated, you have to make some tough decisions, you have to make some tough decisions based on what the salary is, their age, their injury history — so many things go into it.
“And that’s the tough part of the business because we all know that we get emotionally attached to these guys.”
Those pesky special teams
On Monday, Cardinals president Michael Bidwill, lamenting the disappointing 2016 season, pointed to special teams being a problem that needed to be solved.
Keim feels the same way.
“It wasn’t good enough — I don’t think there’s any secret to that,” he said of the group.
Keim pointed to himself, Bidwill, Arians and special teams coach Amos Jones as people who need to fix it.
“It was not good enough, it was unacceptable, and there’s no doubt that has to change,” he added. “Particularly for us to have any type of success next year.”
Last season, kicker Chandler Catanzaro was tied for 29th in field goal accuracy at 75 percent (21-of-28), and ranked 23rd on PATs at 91.5 percent (43-of-47). The Cardinals ranked last in the league in punting, and when it came to returning, they were 16th in kickoff average but 30th on punts.
Special teams issues also directly impacted the team’s chances in losses to New England, Buffalo and Minnesota, though to be fair, Catanzaro hit a game-winning field goal to beat the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 16.
“Whether it’s whoever our kicker is, our punter, our long snapper — those guys have to step up and answer the bell,” Keim said. “And to take it even a step further, it even goes deeper than that. It’s the cover teams, it’s the core special teams units.”
Keim added that while he did not want to make any excuses, injuries also played a role in the special teams troubles as key contributors like Alani Fua and Gabe Martin all landed on injured reserve
“We all have to challenge ourselves to step up, and I can promise you you’ll see a significant difference in our special teams this year.”
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