Arizona Cardinals get offseason back on track with strong 2022 NFL Draft
TEMPE — The Arizona Cardinals’ offseason was largely criticized for not having that gusto of that hungry team looking to get back to double-digit wins and a consecutive postseason.
They didn’t go and add a plethora of outside free agents despite needing to fill multiple holes.
They retained a handful of key contributors in running back James Conner and tight end Zach Ertz, but watched notable starters Christian Kirk, Chandler Jones and Chase Edmonds head elsewhere this free agency.
Throw quarterback Kyler Murray’s contract extension saga into the mix and fans around the Valley were left befuddled, wondering what exactly the plan was inside the organization.
But following a 2022 NFL Draft that saw Arizona address a lot of its needs, the large majority of those questioning the team’s methods have grown quiet.
That’ll happen when you kick off the draft with a trade for a proven NFL veteran that automatically fills a need and helps smooth what’s been a rough offseason at the same time.
However you want to cut it, the Cardinals came out the other end of the NFL Draft a better squad.
“I think when you get down to it, this is a projection-based business and it’s forecasting which can be difficult for every NFL team,” GM Steve Keim said Saturday.
“Yet at the same time, the mental makeup of the guys we drafted is something I’m really excited about and then the first pick, No. 23, he’s got some creditability that comes with him.”
The addition of Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, on top of the added draft pick at No. 100, was an absolute home run for a team that desperately needed a high-profile option opposite DeAndre Hopkins. It set the tone in a big way.
Not only does Brown bring proven NFL production — 1,008 yards and six touchdowns on 91 catches in 2021 — his addition also helps quiet the noise surrounding Murray and his desire for a new contract.
And let’s not forget the financials. Brown is expected to make $2.1 million this season and $13.4 million in 2023 after the team exercised his fifth-year option on Friday.
A Murray contract extension after the NFL Draft seems all but certain at this point after bringing in someone as close to the signal caller as Brown is. The two came up through the college ranks at Oklahoma, talking trash to Baker Mayfield and rolling over the starting defense during their days on the B squad to where they are now.
You don’t bring in someone’s close friend to turn around and not hand out a long-term deal. That’s just bad business.
“It made sense in so many ways for me,” Keim said Thursday. “To lose a guy with the caliber of Christian Kirk hurt. But to be able to add a guy like this is, particularly in today’s market with the numbers and where they’re going, having two years of control-cost and to have the vertical threat that he provides is really big.
“He’s been very durable too. … Nowadays when you see these guys they’re generally slots or outside receivers, this guy gives you a number of different options because of his explosiveness.”
But for as impressive as the trade was, it didn’t take long for that offseason noise to creep back in after nabbing Colorado State tight end Trey McBride, rightfully so in the moment.
With glaring needs for a legit pass rusher, more depth at cornerback and along the interior on both sides of the line, Keim and Co. opted for the best available player on their draft board.
But peel back the layers a bit more and this pick is a future payoff in the eyes of the Cardinals.
Zach Ertz, while still playing at a high level as a pass catcher, isn’t getting any younger. If he plays through the entirety of his new three-year deal, he’ll be 34 years old.
Maxx Williams, who is back on a one-year deal and has been the team’s primary blocking TE, doesn’t have a timetable for his return from a season-ending knee injury after a strong start to 2021.
It was evident the Cardinals hit another gear when they got their tight ends involved, with Williams poised to hit career marks before going down and Ertz expanding the offense even more upon his arrival midseason.
Arizona feels McBride is a solid mix of the two, bringing blocking and pass-catching ability on top of high character traits. It’s about looking to the present while also keeping an eye on the future for Keim.
“You can never have enough guys like that, with his athleticism, the pass-catching ability, being able to play that move F-Back, H-Back, and In-Line Y,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said Friday. “Just tremendous upside, tremendous athlete. … The character is through the roof.”
As for addressing their pass-rushing needs, the Cardinals double dipped in the third round, using its original 87th overall pick and the 100th from the Brown trade on San Diego State DE Cam Thomas and Cincinnati DE Myjai Sanders.
We won’t know if either of the defensive-ends-turned-outside-linebackers will remedy the hole left behind by Chandler Jones, but the organization has some options to work with opposite Markus Golden.
Like McBride, the duo brings strong character traits.
Thomas has modeled his game after J.J. Watt and has a love for the state of Arizona already. Sanders feels this is the best defense for his abilities and is ready to run through a wall for Kingsbury.
“I think one of the things about the particular players that we drafted, they were complete players,” Keim said. “When I say ‘complete player,’ we always say, ‘Do they play hard? Do they play smart? Do they play physical?’ Can you check those boxes?
“Regardless of where you’re going to go in the draft, whether you have leadership and all those intangibles, and every one of those guys that we took today are high character, very physical, very tough intense players. And again, you can’t have enough of those guys in your locker room.”
The focus on adding to key positions of need only continued on Day 3, giving those around the team exactly what they had been asking for over most of the offseason: more depth.
Sixth-round pick and former USC running back Keaontay Ingram brings another body to the running backs room led by James Conner.
Guards Lecitus Smith (sixth round) and Marquise Hayes (seventh round) join an offensive line room with snaps up for grabs. It’s also a plus that Hayes spent time with Murray and Brown during their days at Oklahoma.
Seventh-round cornerback Christian Matthew brings an eager energy, and Jesse Luketa adds another body to the outside linebackers equation.
Obviously, late-round picks are late-round picks for one reason or another.
But just because they heard their name called on Day 3 doesn’t mean their NFL path has already been decided.
“I think all of them were guys that we anticipated would go higher,” Keim said. “I just think a couple of these guys … they may not have all the bells and whistles, but at the end of the day, how many times have you seen on TV that a fifth-, sixth-, seventh-round pick became a real player. That’s because of one thing or another and generally it’s because of the mental makeup.”
Arizona is far from done in terms of their roster building. There are still undrafted free agent signings on top of scouring the pool of veterans looking for work.
But after Saturday’s conclusion of the draft, the Cardinals are in a much better position than they were days prior.
It’s on them to keep the momentum churning.