There's no doubt this year's NFL Draft is loaded with potential difference-makers, but when the Arizona Cardinals are on the clock with the 13th overall selection in April, will the team select an athlete who can help them immediately?
For most NFL franchises, a first round draft pick is inserted into the lineup and competing for a large role early in their rookie season. Whether the player is ready for that role or not, teams gamble with playing time because they've typically drafted a player at a position of need where depth is a weakness.
However, as NFL teams trend toward an increasing reliance on rookies and younger players, the Cardinals are headed in the opposite direction. In each of the last two seasons, Arizona's first round draft picks have barely played, as 2015 first round selection D.J. Humphries sat out his entire rookie season while 2016 first round draft choice Robert Nkemdiche was inactive for the majority of the year.
In an interview with NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah, Cardinals' general manager Steve Keim said that the team's decision to keep Humphries and Nkemdiche on the sidelines was a reflection of the organization's willingness to stay true to the developmental process with each player. Even though the Cardinals really liked the athleticism both players brought to the table from day one, Keim said serving as a meaningful contributor in the NFL requires an attention to detail and a certain level of maturity and the Cardinals needed Humphries and Nkemdiche to grow in those regards.
"To me you have to stay true to the process," Keim said. "We stack our board accordingly from 1 to 120 with the guys who we think are the best players in the draft who fit what we do and we don't stray away from it. Robert Nkemdiche is a perfect example of a guy who had a tremendous amount of talent, did not have the year that most people envisioned. It's a growing process for a lot of these young guys. Robert is a guy that's a young player, has all the talent in the world, but really needs to understand how to be a pro and that's on him and we have big expectations for him this year."
It's no secret head coach Bruce Arians would rather rely on a time-tested veteran than an up-and-coming rookie, and the Cardinals' decisions in free agency reflect the organization's admiration for veteran assets. Within the first few days of free agency, Arizona secured contracts with safety Antoine Bethea, linebacker Karlos Dansby and kicker Phil Dawson, all of whom have spent at least 10 seasons in the NFL.
Keim said one of the greatest challenges in his role as a general manager is striking a balance between building for the future and crafting a roster capable of winning for the present, and he said that attacking that challenge has helped shape his approach to his job.
"That's the challenge every day, but really you have to as a GM look in the mirror and realize that you're doing the right things for the organization long-term," Keim said. "But you do owe it to those guys, the Larry Fitzgeralds, the Carson Palmers to try to win now. And we really owe it to our fanbase. To me, when people say are you going for it this year, are you really going to sell out? To me, the mindset you have to have is you're going for it every year."
Throughout the offseason, Keim and Arians have admitted that part of ensuring the Cardinals are able to remain in a "win now" mode beyond 2017 is finding a successor at the quarterback position for Carson Palmer.
Arizona may wind up using its first or second round draft choice in 2017 on Palmer's eventual replacement, which likely means the Cardinals would once again allow one of the team's top draft picks to spend the year on the sidelines learning from a veteran in front of him.
"You can never put yourself in a situation, to me, where you're thinking or you're letting your fans know that you're in a rebuilding phase," Keim said. "That doesn't exist in the NFL anymore and there's no doubt that we have to identify that next quarterback. As you know, it's a quarterback-driven league and if you don't find one, you're probably not going to be in the league very long."
During his interview with Jeremiah, Keim also acknowledged his disappointment in the team's 7-8-1 finish in 2016, especially considering Arizona returned so many key pieces off of a roster that won 13 games and made it to the NFC Championship game in 2015.
Keim said the Cardinals' failures last season were a direct reflection of the organization's failure to pay attention to detail, and that the primary focus for the team this offseason is ensuring it has the pieces in place to reverse that course.
"I think it was attention to detail, the little things you know," Keim said of Arizona's struggles. "The roster really didn't change a lot, in fact, I thought in some respects it was better. But the little things, where the attention to detail whether it was minimizing mental mistakes whether it was missing a kick here, we didn't answer the bell this year and there's no doubt this offseason we have to correct those things."