TEMPE, Ariz. — Steve Keim gave himself an average mark when assessing his success rate as Cardinals GM in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft.
“I would say probably a C if I had to grade myself,” Keim said at a pre-draft press conference on Tuesday at the Cardinals headquarters. “There’s certainly a lot of room for improvement.”
It was a refreshingly blunt evaluation, but if the same measuring stick were applied to other NFL GMs, a similar pattern would appear in the NFL’s money rounds. As much criticism as Keim has taken for the selections of offensive linemen Jonathan Cooper (2013) and D.J. Humphries (2015) in the first round, and tight end Troy Niklas in the second round (2014), the undeniable truth is that the NFL Draft is an educated crapshoot with far too many human variables to achieve precision.
“There’s always a degree of luck,” Keim said. “From a preparation standpoint, if you do everything you can and you have all the information at hand, it makes it a lot easier.”
In his three seasons at the helm, Keim has selected Cooper with the seventh pick in the 2013; linebacker Kevin Minter with the 45th pick in 2013; safety Deone Bucannon with the 27th pick in 2014; Niklas with the 52nd pick in 2014; Humphries with the 24th pick in 2015; and defensive end/linebacker Markus Golden with the 58th pick in 2015.
Cooper never made an impact and was traded this offseason along with the team’s second-round pick to New England for Chandler Jones. Minter is a solid, if unspectacular contributor to the defense. Bucannon has been a terrific and versatile player who can slide up into a linebacker position. Niklas has had injury problems and hasn’t made a significant impact. Humphries couldn’t get on the field last season but must be allowed more time to develop, while Golden had a promising rookie season.
“Hits and misses like a lot of teams, but I don’t like to think about what other people are doing. I try to look at what we’ve done,” Keim said. “I’ve said this all along. It’s a humbling business. If you’re honest with yourself, you see where you made mistakes. To grow and get better you have to be honest and look in the mirror and say ‘why did I make a mistake on that player and what did I miss?'”
“Hopefully in future years, with more experience, you can eliminate those problems.”
Keim can always hone his craft, but take a look at the success rate other NFL teams have had over the same span, even within the Cardinals’ division.
In Los Angeles, running back Todd Gurley (first round, 2015) and defensive tackle Aaron Donald (first round, 2014) are stars in the making, but the jury is still out on the No. 2 overall pick in 2014, tackle Greg Robinson, with some already rolling out the bust label. Receiver Tavon Austin, the No. 8 overall pick in 2013, has slipped significantly since a breakout rookie season.
In Seattle, defensive lineman Frank Clark (second round, 2015) has shown flashes but still must prove he can be a regular contributor, especially after some key losses on the defensive line this offseason. He may play some linebacker this year, as the team’s website accidentally let slip Wednesday.
Receiver Paul Richardson (second round, 2014) has been unable to stay on the field consistently enough to make any sort of difference. Justin Britt (second round, 2014) has made 32 starts in his two-year career, but he hasn’t been able to cement himself in the right tackle position as the Seahawks had hoped and his blocking must improve. Running back Christine Michael (second round, 2013) was actually traded to Dallas and then released by the Cowboys before returning to Seattle and shouldering a big load last season with Thomas Rawls injured.
Keim likes to say that “when you make mistakes on players, you miss on the heart and the mind,” but there is also no accounting for the assorted injuries that have slowed the development of players like Cooper and Niklas.
“Injuries change everything,” coach Bruce Arians said. “Some guys have never been hurt in college and now all of the sudden they get here and they get two or three freaky injuries and everybody says the guy is a bust. That’s not true. The guy is the player you thought he was; he just got hurt.”
In Cooper’s case, give Keim credit for making something out of an unproductive player this summer by dealing him to fill the team’s greatest need. He turned a mistake into Chandler Jones.
The idea that there simply isn’t enough top-round talent in the draft has been floated recently by some GMs, but Keim doesn’t buy that.
“The fact is we screw it up,” he said. “Every year, there are second-, third-, fourth-round picks that have tremendous success, that if you re-draft it should have been first-round picks.
“If you went back now and said that (Cardinals running back) David Johnson was a 20th pick would anyone question that? (Safety) Tyrann Mathieu? There are lot of different reasons and scenarios but quite frankly there’s talent throughout the whole draft.”
Keim and his staff will continue to mine the college ranks for those players, and they have taken further steps to evaluate them by sending out even more assistant this offseason. No matter how much work they put in, however, there will always be variables beyond their control so Keim said it boils down to trusting the process.
“If a guy is an impact player I don’t care what position he plays,” Keim said. “To me, you take him and you don’t look back.