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Cardinals GM Steve Keim prefers looking for pass rushers in the draft

Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, right, talks with Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians during an NFL football training camp practice, Monday, Aug. 3, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
LISTEN: Steve Keim, Cardinals general manager

It’s not a big secret that having a dominant edge pass rusher is a huge advantage in the National Football League.

That little tidbit has been known for a long time, but the Denver Broncos sent a not-so-subtle reminder to the rest of the league when their own edge rushers, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, dominated the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, racking up a combined 4.5 sacks in a 24-10 win.

The Arizona Cardinals, like many other teams, will be looking for edge pass rushing help this offseason. Their leading sacker, Dwight Freeney, had eight sacks after being signed by the team in October. He’ll be 36-years-old and is a free agent. Rookie Markus Golden showed promise in his first year in the league, registering four sacks and 25 quarterback hurries, which ranked tied for 14th in the league. Outside linebacker Alex Okafor took a step back in 2015, and suffered an off-the-field injury in the postseason which frustrated the franchise.

So we know the Cardinals will be looking for help in that area, but where will general manager Steve Keim look?

Free agency begins March 9 and the draft will take place in Chicago starting on April 28. There will be plenty of edge rushers available regardless of which avenue Keim selects. But the fourth-year general manager has a decided preference.

“I would say the draft, for several reasons,” Keim told Doug and Wolf Tuesday morning as part of Newsmakers Week on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. “And there’s no doubt that finding pass rushers is one of the most difficult chores a general manager has to do. In my opinion, the three hardest positions to find are quarterback of the future, left tackle and pass rusher.

“Which is why, mostly, you see those guys when they get to free agency, or they get to their second contract, those (contract) numbers are so big.”

Miller is a perfect example. The Super Bowl MVP is due to become an unrestricted free agent after a season in which he registered 11 sacks before adding five more in the postseason. He’s expected to receive the franchise tag from the Broncos, but would command an enormous contract if that wasn’t the case.

Keim says that often a free agent pass rusher is just too expensive to justify.

“One of the things that we’ve noticed over the past several years is when guys get to free agency, and they’re pass rushers, generally they’re getting a million to a million-and-a-half per sack or sack-and-a-half,” Keim said. “So you’re talking about guys who seven, eight or nine sacks getting eight or nine million dollars.

“And then you talk about double-digit sack guys … forget about it.”

Keim went on to say that there are many “cap casualties” — players who were overpaid by teams who had a need in that area and just didn’t produce at the level that they were being compensated. The whole process can be a very slippery slope for general managers.

“It’s a delicate balance. It’s scary sometimes when you think about the big ticket free agents out there,” he said.

Keim’s philosophy is to not allow integral players to reach free agency, instead opting to reward them with a new contract before they hit the market. He believes that a player who seemingly has value to a franchise that is allowed to enter free agency might have a “buyer beware” label on them.

“When you have certain players that other teams let get to free agency, you wonder what those teams know internally about that player,” he said. “Sometimes they have the answers to the test. Then all of a sudden, you make a splash in free agency, you sign a player and you find out things you didn’t want to know.

“At least in the college game, you have a chance to do your background work. You get to talk to trainers, you get to talk to the equipment managers, the head coaches. You get to know more about them as people. In unrestricted free agency, you don’t have that ability.”

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