Steve Keim’s Arizona Cardinals GM tenure had fair share of hits, misses
Jan 10, 2023, 9:18 AM | Updated: 10:46 am
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
The transition to a new general manager offers time to reflect on how the departing executive fared. For the Arizona Cardinals, it is a lengthy period of time with Steve Keim, a decade.
He stepped away from his duties as GM on Monday after first taking them on in 2013.
Keim’s resume is one full of hits and misses, with a bigger string of recent misses catching up to him in 2022 before a health-related leave preceded his decision to leave his post permanently.
Here is a look back on all the major points of his tenure:
Home run with Arians, pop-outs after
(Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
Keim hit the ground running in 2013 with the hiring of then-60-year-old Bruce Arians, who led the Cardinals to the 2015 NFC Championship Game and a record of 49-30-1 across five seasons.
It was a very successful era from 2013-17, a home run for the franchise that trended toward long-term stability.
But the replacement for Arians would be Steve Wilks, who in terms of experience only had one season (2017) as defensive coordinator and three years as the Carolina Panthers’ associate head coach. Even though the team was in a rebuilding state, Wilks’ 3-13 campaign was such a disappointment that he was let go after a year.
That’s when Keim and the Cardinals got bold with the hiring of Kliff Kingsbury to bring a high-octane offense to the Valley. Kingsbury lacked any NFL experience and sported a 35-50 record as head coach for Texas Tech before he was fired from that job.
While Kingsbury had the Cardinals progress in each of his first three seasons, a 10-2 start in 2021 was followed by a 23-game stretch of 5-18 football, including an embarrassing loss in the Wild Card round to the Los Angeles Rams.
Kingsbury was fired on Monday but Keim will not be sticking around to hire his fourth head coach.
Eventful quarterback moves
Carson Palmer (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Keim had a way of attaching quarterback moves to a head coach.
The arrival of Arians was matched with the acquisition of re-tread quarterback Carson Palmer, who went on to have five solid seasons, including a 2015 Second Team All-Pro nod as Arizona made a deep playoff run.
For Wilks’ tenure, Keim would move up five spots in the 2018 NFL Draft by giving up a third- and fifth-rounder to select Josh Rosen.
That proved to be rather unwise, as Rosen has been unable to stick anywhere in the NFL, even as a third-string option.
Keim, though, moved fast off Rosen in one year, using the No. 1 pick the Cardinals had earned via Wilks’ 3-13 stint to select Kyler Murray. During the same 2019 NFL Draft, the general manager traded Rosen for a second-round pick used on receiver Andy Isabella (more on him later) and a 2020 fifth-rounder.
Murray, to this point, has grown into an enigma with Kingsbury’s tenure spanning his first four NFL seasons.
He made two straight Pro Bowls from 2020-21, at points showing the upside to be one of the league’s next great star quarterbacks. Inconsistency in the back end of Kingsbury’s tenure, however, has led to concerns about if Murray can still be that type of high-end QB.
For some fans, it has gone far enough to question if Murray is even the long-term answer at all, a conversation complicated by Murray’s torn ACL and massive contract extension that came in 2022.
Trading big with picks
(Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
If there is a signature positive of Keim as GM, it is his big trades.
The Palmer deal with the then-Oakland Raiders was the start, and it took only a swap of 2013 draft picks and a conditional pick in 2014.
Then, attaching a second-round pick to offensive guard Jonathan Cooper brought in pass rusher Chandler Jones, who was the most productive sack artist in the NFL over his time with the Cardinals.
Sure, the DeAndre Hopkins acquisition for David Johnson and no first-round picks included was a no-brainer that any general manager would have jumped on. But Keim executed the deal and got Murray the signature pass catcher he needed — an amazing one at that.
Tight end Zach Ertz was well on his way to being added to this list before a knee injury ended his 2022 season, so he’s a to-be-determined. As is Hollywood Brown for Arizona’s 2022 first-rounder.
Brown’s own injury, Hopkins’ suspension and then Murray’s injury didn’t allow us to see the full vision of what the wideout’s addition meant to Arizona. And it turns out Brown’s place on the team may prove to be even more important if the team explores trading Hopkins.
Lack of depth deep in the draft
RB Andre Ellington (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
If there is a signature negative of Keim as GM, it was his inability to build depth for the Cardinals roster through the deeper portions of the draft. That’s something all good NFL teams do, but Arizona was unable to really hit on picks outside the first three rounds.
Defensive tackle Rodney Gunter (fourth round, 2015), running back Andre Ellington (sixth round, 2013), running back Chase Edmonds (fourth round, 2018) and offensive lineman Earl Watford (fourth round, 2013) are the only meaningful contributors you can pick out of that bunch.
Two 2020 fourth-round picks in defensive linemen Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence, plus cornerback Marco Wilson, a 2021 fourth-rounder, are the best chance at being important pieces in more recent times.
One success story wasn’t even in the actual NFL Draft. Safety Jalen Thompson, a fifth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Supplemental Draft, is by far the best value Keim got outside the top end of the draft.
Whiffing up top
DT Robert Nkemdiche (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Keim also missed badly on some key draft picks. In the first round, Cooper (seventh, 2013) defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche (29th, 2016), linebacker Haason Reddick (13th, 2017) and Rosen all busted in Arizona. Reddick was the lone guy to find success late in Arizona and then elsewhere — and he has found plenty, a bitter pill to swallow.
The jury is still out on linebackers Isaiah Simmons (eighth, 2020) and Zaven Collins (16th, 2021), but when it comes to the type of impact you’d expect from a first-rounder, the signs of that haven’t been there.
Defensive back Deone Bucannon (27th, 2014) and offensive lineman D.J. Humphries (24th, 2015) worked out in various ways, with Bucannon making weaves early before floundering out of the league in five years, while Humphries has been a solid mainstay at left tackle.
Karlos Dansby (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Keim’s ability to locate the right veterans to sign on cheap, one-year deals often brought terrific returns. Keim had a way of finding talented, drifting players that needed a reset somewhere, getting them into Arizona and having them get paid big time after one season.
Linebacker Karlos Dansby was the first iteration of this in 2013 (122 tackles), followed by cornerback Antonio Cromartie the next season. Both of those guys went on to sign expensive four-year contracts elsewhere.
Dansby even made a third stint in the desert, playing his last NFL season with Arizona in 2017 and piling up 95 tackles.
That same process didn’t get running back Chris Johnson paid, as he stuck around in Arizona on one-year deals, but he did have a serious impact in 2013, rushing for over 800 yards in 11 games.
Pass-rusher Dwight Freeney signed midseason in 2015 and added eight sacks in limited duty before he bounced from Atlanta, Seattle and Detroit in his final two NFL seasons.
Pass rusher Terrell Suggs came to Arizona in 2019 and was productive.
Then, arguably the best of this bunch was running back James Conner last season. Conner signed a one-year deal worth $1.75 million and proceeded to make the Pro Bowl with 18 total touchdowns in 2021. For this one, Keim was the GM to give the veteran that big payday, extending Conner for three years.
More hits than you remember
You know when you look through the catalog of a band and go, “Man, they had a few more good ones than I remember.”
Believe me, Keim was not good at drafting. But let’s not ignore how big he hit on some of his selections.
Third-round 2013 selection Tyrann Mathieu changed games constantly with his playmaking at safety and made a Pro Bowl.
The 2015 NFL Draft was by far Keim’s best, grabbing Humphries in the first, the productive edge rusher Markus Golden in the second and running back David Johnson in the third.
Johnson at one point was viewed as perhaps the best offensive weapon in football after 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns in 2016. Injuries came for him soon after but even that one season of elite play stands out.
The best pick and post-Arians move of Keim’s tenure was drafting safety Budda Baker in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He has become the heart and soul of the organization, a signature player and the type of victory a GM puts at the top of their resume.
Ultimately, though, the hits didn’t go much further.
There are arguments for two wideouts: John Brown (2014 third-rounder) and Christian Kirk (2018 second-rounder), who produced to different degrees on their rookie deals and looked great in the NFL once they got out of a Cardinals uniform. Defensive end Zach Allen (2019 third-rounder) has a chance of joining that trio if he leaves in free agency.
But as we covered, the duds were there up top, and that’s before getting to more in the second round like Isabella, Kevin Minter (2013) and Troy Niklas (2014), plus a rough strikeout rate in the third round via Kareem Martin (2014), Brandon Williams (2016), Chad Williams (2017) and Mason Cole (2018).
And again, while it’s too early to make definitive rulings on the 2020-22 drafts, it doesn’t look good.
DE J.J. Watt (Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)
Keim rarely shelled out big-time money on the free agent market. Offensive guard Justin Pugh is probably the most notable one on a long-term contract, a five-year deal worth $45 million for a fine contributor who had injuries derail two of those five seasons.
J.J. Watt on a two-year deal worth $31 million was the largest. An injury impacted his 2021 campaign early, one he was very good in, and then Watt ended up with 12.5 sacks in his final NFL season this year.
There was the 2019-20 offseasons, when Keim spent big on defensive lineman Jordan Phillips, linebacker Jordan Hicks and pass rusher Devon Kennard over the course of two years. Phillips and Kennard failed to live up to their contracts, while Hicks played productive football despite the team trying to move off his deal at the tail end.
The cash was mostly used on re-signings, like Patrick Peterson, Larry Fitzgerald, Murray, Baker, Hopkins, Humphries and Jones.
Off-the-field issues, health-related leave of absence
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
There was no shortage of off-the-field issues under Keim’s tenure, especially in the past year. From Murray’s public contract negotiations to Murray’s homework clause to legal issues for assistant coaches.
Running backs coach James Saxon was arrested and pled guilty to domestic battery before this season. He left the team after initially being put on administrative leave.
Offensive line coach and run game coordinator Sean Kugler was sent home after he allegedly groped a woman in Mexico City. He was fired Nov. 21, only for Kugler and his lawyers to dispute the charge.
Then there’s Keim, who pled guilty to extreme DUI in 2018, putting the franchise in a bad place as Wilks began his brief time as coach.
Keim’s own tenure ended with a health-related absence that began in mid-December.