Arizona Cardinals target availability and love for the game in free agency

Mar 12, 2024, 2:26 PM

Monti Ossenfort and Jonathan Gannon chat at rookie minicamp...

Arizona Cardinals GM Monti Ossenfort and head coach Jonathan Gannon chat during rookie minicamp on Friday, May 13, 2023. (Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)

(Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)

The best football players are wired different. They mistake pain for love. They need struggle to survive. Their greatest strength is found between their ears.

The Cardinals are trying to build a football team with a certain breed of competitor, overhauling the entire roster from the ground up and the inside out. They are trying to assemble a group of men who cannot function without the sport of football.

It’s an admirable strategy and a difficult task. College players are prepped and professionally trained for the interview process ahead, from the NFL Combine to individual pro days. They all profess an undying love for football. Many of them are lying.

Arizona’s former general manager once said he missed more on the person than he did the player. Current GM Monti Ossenfort has taken the opposite approach. He finds the players first, the ones who exhibit relentless fury and full commitment between the lines, on the playing field. Then he makes sure their answers match the tape.

Ossenfort has certainly been active in the NFL’s early free agency period, addressing many needs on defense. He added two defensive tackles; a starting cornerback; and a two-way linebacker who can hit and cover. He did not overspend for marquee names meant to splash and distract. He recruited young, hungry football players that show up every weekend.

For Ossenfort, there is a statistic that clearly measure an athlete’s love of football: Games played. Because those who truly love football yearn to perform 17 times a year. It’s like a Purple Heart, a badge of honor, a special fraternity.

The newly acquired Justin Jones, Bilal Nichols and Mack Wilson haven’t missed a game in two seasons.

Head coach Jonathan Gannon has his own way to measure love of football. During his combine interview with Alabama cornerback Terrion Arnold, he staged a conversation that sounded like this:

“Show me your technique on press coverage,” Gannon said.

“Excuse me?” the player replied.

“Yeah, I used to play receiver back in the day,” Gannon said. “Try and jam me.”

“Coach, do you want me to hit you for real?” the player said.

“Yeah, hit me for real,” Gannon said.

That’s impressive.

Ultimately, the Cardinals’ playoff hopes in 2024 rest on Kyler Murray, and if a reborn/rehabbed quarterback can rediscover his MVP status. But the Cardinals’ new regime deserves a little blind faith and a lot of credit for their hardcore approach.

In their first attempt, they engineered a four-win football team that flashed in December. They were an underfunded, undermanned team that nobody wanted to play because they never stopped fighting, hitting or competing. Because they never stopped showing up. And it’s true what they say about the NFL:

The best ability is availability. Because that takes real love of the game.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on Arizona Sports.

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Dan Bickley

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Arizona Cardinals target availability and love for the game in free agency