DC Vance Joseph excited Cardinals stocked defense in free agency, draft

Apr 29, 2020, 7:55 PM | Updated: Apr 30, 2020, 8:20 pm
Arizona Cardinals DC Vance Joseph talks to fellow coaches during the team’s Red and White Practic...
Arizona Cardinals DC Vance Joseph talks to fellow coaches during the team’s Red and White Practice Saturday, August 3, 2019, at State Farm Stadium. (Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)
(Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)

From an outside perspective, Steve Keim used his eyes like a quarterback baiting a safety.

To start the Arizona Cardinals’ offseason, the general manager traded for receiver DeAndre Hopkins, perhaps indicating he wasn’t going to stand pat with the offense as quarterback Kyler Murray entered his second NFL season. Most onlookers thought he’d go after an offensive tackle or a receiver with Arizona’s first-round draft pick.

But after free agency began and the draft came and went, it became clear the priority was on defense. There was good reason for it.

“I walked away out of that press box every game and I said, ‘You know what?’ I vowed we would fix this defense,” Keim said Saturday after Arizona took four defensive players in the draft, including linebacker Isaiah Simmons in the first round.

“Last year I felt bad for coach (Vance) Joseph because in some situations, we just didn’t have the right players or we endured some injuries that put him in a tough spot.”

On paper, it looks like Joseph, the Cardinals defensive coordinator, will have a chance to prove doubters wrong.

Keim signed 341-pound defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, outside linebacker Devon Kennard and inside backer De’Vondre Campbell as his big free agency moves. All have played for successful defenses as starters and all are in or hoping to reach the prime of their careers.

Throw in the draft picks, and Joseph has something to work with.

“Campbell was our top guy in free agency that we thought we couldn’t get because of — his money was going to be so big but he came back to us and took a one-year deal just to prove himself,” Joseph said on a Tuesday video call.

“I think Jordan has not hit his ceiling yet. He’s looking to prove everyone wrong that he can be a top-10, top-15 d-lineman,” the DC added, before saying of Kennard, “As a SAM backer, he’s ideal. He’s heavy-handed versus the run-game. He’s a dominant run-stopper. He’s averaged seven sacks a year as a dropper.”

Joseph found himself under fire often last season.

Preseason releases of two projected defensive linemen, Darius Philon and Robert Nkemdiche, shot the depth. Patrick Peterson’s suspension due to a positive PED test and Robert Alford’s broken ankle took away the Cardinals’ starting cornerbacks to begin Joseph’s first year under Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury.

At the conclusion of 2019, Arizona ranked 23rd in Defensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), per Football Outsiders. They allowed the most yards per game (402) — the pace inflated that to some degree — gave up the fifth-most points per game (27.6) and especially struggled in pass coverage. Tight ends killed them.

Despite improvements late, changes were necessary. Arizona replaced the defensive line coaches, hiring a familiar and well-respected face in Brentson Buckner to lead that position group. That was a big part of the attraction for Phillips’ decision to join the Cardinals.

Including Pro Bowler Budda Baker and a healthy Peterson and Alford, the Cardinals have confidence in a secondary that could also benefit from Simmons’ versatility.

Specifically, Joseph put his support behind 2019 supplemental draft pick Jalen Thompson, who grabbed hold of a starting safety spot.

“As our defense played better, he played better,” Joseph said. “Jalen’s first day [with] us was the first day of camp … up to Week 13, 14 he was still learning the defense. He obviously played good football late for us. He’s a great open-field tackler and he’s going to play the ball better.”

Byron Murphy, also entering his second season, is expected to make a leap at nickelback after he spent 2019 switching between outside corner and the slot.

Throw in added depth added via the draft, and the pressure is on Joseph to coach — not to patch a sinking ship’s holes with Scotch tape.

“It’s always pressure, and it’s pressure from me,” the defensive coordinator said on a conference call Tuesday. “I want to be the best, honestly, and I want us to play top-10 defense. The pressure is always solved by having four draft picks here and having two corners start Week 1 for you.

“I’m looking forward to this season. Obviously, last year we had some rough moments, but I thought the last month-and-a-half we got better.”

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