TEMPE, Ariz. — Andre Smith was presumed to be the fix at right tackle that the Arizona Cardinals were looking for later investing Jared Veldheer last offseason. Bene Benwikere was likely to be the seasoned cornerback who could disperse coach Steve Wilks’ message during the locker room as soon as they spent three years together with the Carolina Panthers.
Both Smith and Benwikere were believed crucial free-agent signings. Both were starters. Both were cut Nov. 26 after only 11 games.
Although neither has been directly responsible for the Cardinals’ 3-9 beginning this year, they’re both reflections of an increasing trend over the past couple of years of Steve Keim’s tenure as Cardinals’ general manager: Poor decisions in free agency over the past 3 seasons, in signings and letting gamers walk, have led Arizona to the rebuilding season and set it on track to get a top-five pick from the 2019 NFL draft.
But it wasn’t always that way. He won of the year in 2014, after an 11-5 season that began 9-1, in large part because of his willingness to take risks in the draft and an openness to sign veteran free agents such as John Abraham and Eric Winston in 2013, Antonio Cromartie in 2014 and Chris Johnson and Dwight Freeney in 2015 — all of men on the last legs of their careers who played nicely for Arizona.
Keim, who had been the architect of the Cardinals’ 13-3 2015 group that lost in the NFC Championship Game, also made some tough decisions early in his tenure, such as releasing long-time Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson shortly after taking in 2013 and discharging Darnell Dockett in 2015.
A general supervisor’s heritage is characterized by his first-round selections, but it is also judged by his free-agent decisions. Keim has made lots — 1,059 trades in total since 2013. This year, he’s made 168, already more than in 2017 with a month left in the year. A few of those moves, however, will be among the first couple of paragraphs of his epitaph, whenever his conduct as Cardinals GM comes to an end.
One stands out above others. Mathieu was kicked from LSU for failing drug tests and didn’t play in 2012, and queries about Mathieu abounded. Yet Keim rolled the dice and drafted him in the next round. The risk was, normally, rewarded. Mathieu was an impact player when he was healthy, but staying on the field was his toughest challenge.
After Mathieu’s next ACL injury, Keim signed to a five-year expansion worth $62.5 million in August 2016. The move raised eyebrows. Why sign a player as injury-prone as Mathieu to such a large deal? There wasn’t a definite response. Mathieu ended 2016 on injured reserve but played all 16 games in 2017 because his confidence began to return.
Keim, realizing the expansion was premature, strove to convince Mathieu to take a pay cut this past offseason, with $18.75 million ensured to Mathieu in mid-March if he was on the roster. Mathieu, who had been a fan favorite and also a face of this franchise, refused, and Keim released him in March. Both sides tried to negotiate a yearlong bargain for $8 million, but Mathieu ended up with all the Houston Texans for about $ 7 million.
How would that choice workout? Mathieu is having a resurgence. He’s got a career-high three sacks and is on pace for a career high in tackles while adding two interceptions so far to his stat line. And he’s played in all 12 games, a feat unto itself. All while the Cardinals’ defense, which ranked outside the top six only once in Mathieu’s five seasons with the group, suffered early-season battles and is now ranked 17th in the NFL.
That is not Keim’s sole megadeal that hasn’t panned out. He signed former cornerback and All-Pro gunner Justin Bethel to a three-year extension worth $15 million in 2015 but asked him to restructure two years later while cutting annually off the bargain to assist Bethel eventually become a free agent sooner. Bethel, who didn’t pan out as a cornerback but was as effective a gunner because there was in the NFL, signed with the Falcons from the offseason.
Then there is offensive line, which has been a responsibility this year, allowing 32 sacks while being riddled with injuries. By the end of Sunday’s game in Green Bay, the Cardinals were without all five of their projected starting offensive linemen. Three — center A.Q. Shipley, ideal guard Justin Pugh and abandoned protector Mike Iupati — are on injured reserve. Smith was released. D.J. Humphries, while expected to return this week against Detroit, has been dealing with a knee injury lately.
Keim, who, as a former offensive lineman in NC State, frees himself scouting the position, committed $120 million in contracts to 3 linemen over the past four years. These 3 players — Veldheer in 2014, Iupati in 2015 and Pugh in 2018 — were supposed to be the Cardinals’ base. Veldheer was traded this past offseason, 1 year shy of the last year of his contract, as Arizona signed Smith, who missed three games this year with an accident. Iupati has yet to play an whole year for the Cardinals.
There have also been questionable choices to try and save money. Keim didn’t re-sign cornerback Jerraud Powers after the 2015 year, when he made $4.35 million. Powers went to Baltimore for $1.75 million, and the Cardinals were left with a gaping hole in corner opposite Patrick Peterson that has not yet been filled. It’s been a carousel of auditions, but Arizona hasn’t found the stability that it had with Powers. Case in point: Benwikere. He took over as the starter opposite Peterson in Week 4, replacing Jamar Taylor, who began the initial 3 games. Taylor was cut after Week 11. Benwikere’s launch followed a week later. It’s been somewhat the same in safety. Instead of having one of the best safety tandems in the NFL, using Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger, the Cardinals have relied on veterans signed through free service to keep the deep secondary afloat.
In 2016, rather than signing Jefferson to a long-term bargain, Keim tendered him for $1.671 million. Jefferson had the best season of his career and then signed a four-year, $34 million deal with the Ravens, leaving Arizona without one of the very best young safeties in the NFL. A similar move happened with Swearinger, another defensive back Keim took a risk on. He gave Swearinger the same tender as Jefferson in 2016 and watched Swearinger have a good enough time to make a three-year contract out of Washington for $13.5 million.
Among the more notable choices of Keim’s tenure was to let long-time Cardinal and defensive cornerstone Calais Campbell walk in free agency in 2017. Keim offered Campbell $9 million each year.
Thusthe Cardinals find themselves where they are today: 3-9 and on the verge of missing the playoffs for the third consecutive season, using a roster riddled with holes and one person responsible for fixing this.