NFC West: Steve Keim

TEMPE, Ariz. -- For months, the message from Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim was the same.

Arizona would use its 120-man draft board to pick the best player available, regardless of need. And if you asked Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, the team didn't have any glaring needs. But with three rounds of the NFL draft in the books, the Cardinals have four new players and each addressed a specific need.

[+] EnlargeTroy Niklas
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)Troy Niklas is expected to solidify a Cardinals tight end corp that is the foundation of Bruce Arians' offense.
Safety. Tight end. Pass rusher. Speed receiver.

Coincidence? I think not. And Keim all but said it was a smokescreen.

"I told you we were the only two you can believe," Keim said with a smile.

To which Arians followed: "Truth kills, baby."

But this was a draft in which Arizona could get away with picking for need. The work done over the last 16 months has put the Cardinals in a position in which they were a few specific positions away from turning a long-term corner. They addressed a handful -- left tackle, third receiver, kick returner and cornerback -- in free agency. The rest, as Keim would prefer it, would be found through the draft.

"I think that's the emphasis you put into building that board," Keim said. "We saw best player available but there is an emphasis on who impacts our football team the most. We are never going to leave a good player on the board to the side, but we do want to find guys who are going to impact us the most."

Sometimes who that is and who's atop their boards may not match up.

Arizona's first-round pick, Deone Bucannon, plugged a hole at strong safety. Second-round pick Troy Niklas solidified a tight end corps that is the foundation of Arians' offense. The Cardinals used their first third-round pick on Kareem Martin, who can provide relief on the defensive line while evolving into a pass rusher, and their second third-round pick on John Brown, a small-school speedster who can take the top off defenses and return kicks.

Of the group, Bucannon and Niklas probably were among the best players available when Arizona went on the clock. But Martin was a pick with the future in mind. And Arizona was high on Brown from the start.

"You have to almost look at it with a three-year view and understand that when we are talking about certain positions, they may not be the biggest need right now but in 2015, that may be our biggest need," Keim said a week before the draft. "So, if you can continue to have rollover and develop players, young players that can replace those guys when either their contracts are up or players move on, I think that's the way that ultimately you'd love for it to go."

That didn't seem committed to best-player available, rather than to picking for need. By late Friday, Keim said, the Cards' board was starting to look a little picked over.

"There are still quite a few players that we covet that are left," Keim said. "Rounds four, five and six should be fruitful for us. It has been picked pretty good."
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Sometimes Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim may be too smart for his own good.

In the lead-up to the draft, Keim was open and honest about his intentions this week: he wanted to move back and collect more picks. After the Miami Dolphins completed the 19th pick on Thursday night, Arizona went on the clock with its eventual pick, Washington State safety Deone Bucannon, still on the board. But Keim stayed true to his philosophy, entertaining trade offers that would’ve allowed Arizona to add to its six picks.

[+] EnlargeDeone Bucannon
AP Photo/Michael ConroyTrading down in the draft on Thursday night didn't prevent the Cardinals from nabbing physical safety Deone Bucannon.
With Bucannon and another safety, Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, available at 20th, the Cards struck a deal with New Orleans, trading back to 27th and acquiring a third-round pick, 91st overall.

“We didn’t want to go back too far because we didn’t want to lose the player,” Keim said.

It was a risky move. Instead of picking Bucannon at 20th and preparing for Friday’s second and third rounds, Keim hedged his bets that Bucannon would last seven more picks.

“I think you measure the risks versus the reward, and we had enough players on our board that we felt comfortable with,” Keim said. “He’s the guy we could’ve taken at 20 but we took a gamble and we were thrilled. We’re very excited to get him at 27.”

Yet Arizona ran the risk of letting its biggest need slip away at the cost of another third-round pick that the Cardinals “so badly wanted,” Keim said.

But when a defense struggles to stop tight ends and wide receivers as much as the Cardinals last season, when is that risk too great? Of the 29 touchdowns the Cards gave up in 2013, 17 were to tight ends. It’s been written about before but that was the difference between watching the playoffs and playing in them.

The Cardinals’ decision makers had a common refrain throughout the past few months: They didn’t have a glaring need. But Keim and Cardinals coach Bruce Arians used the word “need” often Thursday night, so, obviously, there was a desire to pick a good safety early. When Arizona went on the clock at 20th, Clinton-Dix had slipped right into their grasp. At 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds, Clinton-Dix would’ve filled the “specific need” Keim had talked about. Then Arizona traded down.

“We liked Clinton,” Keim said.

“Nothing that we didn’t like about him,” Arians said.

“It was just that this guy’s size, speed and his physicality, we felt like was a better fit,” Keim said of Bucannon.

Then why not take Bucannon at 20 and eliminate the risk of losing him? After a successful 2013 draft, Keim hasn’t made any mistakes, yet, that would warrant crucifixion by type. But he definitely was playing with fire Thursday night.

After the pick, Keim explained why obtaining another third-round pick was so crucial.

“Just looking at the players that are potentially there and what it also allows us to do if we want to move, it just gives you great ammunition and get a potential impact player in this draft in the third round – now two of them,” he said. “Or, potentially, maybe package something and get two second-rounders. It just gives you a lot of ammunition.”

Stocking up on picks and players on Friday and Saturday makes sense and, as the Cardinals proved last year, could produce impact players. But at what risk? Arizona should feel fortunate Bucannon was still there at 27th.

The Cardinals got their man and their picks. High risk. High reward.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- When the Arizona Cardinals began preparing for next week’s NFL draft a year ago, the process mirrored that of making a guest list for a wedding.

Last May, general manager Steve Keim and his team of scouts began with 13,000 names of college seniors and draft-eligible juniors. Then they pared that down to 2,000 NFL-caliber prospects. Then they began making the Cardinals’ draft board with 591 players. That list was then whittled down to 120.

“It’s been a long year,” Keim said.

[+] EnlargeSteve Keim
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesOnce Cardinals GM Steve Keim, right, has his draft board set, picking the players is the easy part.
Going from one plateau to another took a lot of time and effort from Keim, coach Bruce Arians, vice president of player personnel Terry McDonough and about seven scouts who scour the country looking to unearth football gems. But the first cut, from 13,000 down to 2,000, might have been the easiest because the Cardinals eliminated players who they didn’t think were worthy of being drafted based on their measurables and stats.

The next cut, down from 2,000 to 591, took place over the course of three sets of meetings.

“It’s a long process,” Keim said. “It’s one of those things that you put so much time and effort into this process throughout the year, and it comes down to three days.

“And then after it’s over, you kind of have this feeling of, ‘Wow, it’s all over with after all that work.’”

With their research and evaluations producing a list of almost 600 prospects, the Cardinals' scouting department reconvened this week for about four days of meetings. A horizontal draft board was used at first, Keim said, on which players were graded by position. Once the 591 players were listed, Keim used a “Cardinal filter” to vet prospects and eliminate those with character or medical concerns, as well as players who just don’t fit Arizona’s scheme.

The result was a 120-player draft board, which the Cardinals will draft from next week. that list are the top 20 players the team wants.

Making a board wasn’t done just to organize Arizona’s year-long stash of research and scouting. It was ultimately built to take the emotion out of drafting.

In the past, the war room would become the scene of heated conversations bordering on table-turning arguments. And that was when the team was on the clock. With Keim’s top 120 board, any discussions about who to take where and when are hashed out before the draft begins.

“I’m telling you, the momentum sometimes in these draft rooms can go crazy and next thing you know a player that you had down here, you’re looking at two rounds higher just because of the excitement or need at that position,” Keim said. “This takes the emotion out of it. We’ve already had these conversations, so it’s next man up.”

Take 2013 for example.

Arizona had selected running back Stepfan Taylor in the fifth round, and when they found themselves on the clock for a second time in the sixth round, sitting atop the Cardinals draft board was another running back, Andre Ellington. Because they had committed to their philosophy of following the board, the Cards went with Ellington. It seemed to have worked out for the better.

“A lot of times, if emotion played into it, you’d say, ‘Well, we already took the back,’” Keim said. “The good thing is we had those conversations and we knew we couldn’t pass on Andre because of his grade.”

With all the work done and all the emotions suppressed for now, it’s time for Keim and his team to wait until Thursday when all they will have to do is look at their board.
The more weight Arizona Cardinals running back Andre Ellington puts on this offseason, the better for him and the Cardinals.

[+] EnlargeAndre Ellington
Jennifer Stewart/USA TODAY SportsCardinals GM Steve Keim is aiming for running back Andre Ellington (pictured) to share some of the backfield load with Stepfan Taylor in 2014.
He’s already gained 10 pounds in the two months since Arizona's season ended, coach Bruce Arians said Friday at the NFL combine. But if general manager Steve Keim has his way, Ellington won't be using that added weight to protect his body from carrying the ball 30 times a game next season -- even if Arians wants to build the offense around Ellington this season.

Keim doesn’t plan on Ellington being Arizona’s featured back in 2014. Then again, Keim doesn’t plan on anybody filling that role.

“I don't know that there are many featured backs in the NFL,” Keim said. "Adrian Peterson, those types of guys. Most teams use a platoon of backs and that would probably be no different than us.

“To say you're going to play him 25 to 35 snaps, pounding the ball between the tackles, you're probably leaving yourself open to injuries. So any time, we can take a young man like him, add some weight without losing his speed and movement skills, I think you're doing yourself a favor.”

Keim compared Ellington to Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson based on their physical similarities. And like those backs, Ellington’s strengths, Keim said, are his speed, acceleration and movement.

But the difference is that Charles and Johnson are featured backs.

Charles had 259 carries in 2013 for 1,287 yards. The next most carries were by Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. And Johnson had 279 carries for 1,077 yards -- 222 more than the next Titan.

After last season, Arians said Ellington could be a feature back if he’s used similarly to his role in 2013, which saw him evolve into a receiver. Arians said in December that Ellington’s receiving ability creates mismatches for defenses similar to tight ends like New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham or San Francisco’s Vernon Davis.

“I've never been around a running back who stepped on the field and tried to do things he's never done before and played wide receiver as good as he does,” Arians said at the combine. “He plays it as well as most of our starting wide receivers. He has a unique talent we want to look at and continue to build our offense around this year.”

To save Ellington’s body from the daily beat down that comes with being a featured back -- just ask Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, who routinely sat out practices during the week to rest -- the Cardinals will be relying on Stepfan Taylor to pick up crucial third downs and important yards.

In 2013, six of Taylor's 36 carries went for first downs and he had a 40 percent third-down conversion percentage.

With Rashard Mendenhall an unrestricted free agent this year and his name rarely getting mentioned in Indianapolis, Taylor’s thunder to Ellington’s lightning could be the platoon Keim wants.

“He and Andre are really polar opposites, when you talk about perimeter runner than you have an inside pounder like Stepfan, who when the game was on in Seattle and we needed a first down to ice the game, we gave it to Stepfan and he had a 10- or 11-yard run to finish the game,” Keim said. “He's a guy we have big expectations for us. He's very smart. He's articulate. Great young man, works his tail off.

“I think the future is really bright for him."
TEMPE, Ariz. -- It’s not even an election year, but there’s a lot of campaigning going on in Arizona.

First, everyone has nominated Bruce Arians for his second straight Coach of the Year award.

Then linebacker Karlos Dansby stumped for himself to win the Defensive Player of the Year.

And, most recently, Arians endorsed Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim for Executive of the Year.

[+] EnlargeBruce Arians, Steve Keim
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsCardinals coach Bruce Arians, left, and GM Steve Keim, right, have overseen a major roster overhaul.
“I want to say this publically: If he doesn’t win Executive of the Year, something is wrong,” Arians said Monday. “People want to talk about Coach of the Year, I just coach the team. He deserves to be Executive of the Year. What he did in his first year is phenomenal. I’ve been around a little bit. It’s a great job, the faces he’s gotten and the players he brought in that have contributed during the season.”

Keim has executed 239 transactions this season, among them signing free agent gems such as Dansby and John Abraham, and trading for quarterback Carson Palmer. He was also responsible for drafting safety Tyrann Mathieu and running back Andre Ellington.

Since Day 1, Keim and Arians talked about churning the roster. The bottom handful of roster spots were never safe, and Keim, thanks in large part to his scouting background, would comb through the waiver wire and a list of free agents weekly searching for the next impact surprise.

“There’s no doubt we wanted new faces,” Arians said. “Once you start getting injuries, sometimes the guys that are on the street aren’t good enough to help you. We’ve brought in guys every Tuesday (for tryouts). The bottom half of the roster, the bottom 10 guys, we’re churning all the time, looking for keepers.”

Keim’s stiffest competition for the award comes from Kansas City General Manager John Dorsey, who rebuilt a team that went 2-14 last season. The Chiefs are 11-4 this season, a turnaround that started with Dorsey trading for quarterback Alex in March.

But there is more to Keim than his ability to find players and unearth the next best thing.

“He’s very approachable,” Arians said. “He does his job. He’s got a ready list of 10 guys at every position all the time. It’s a good collaboration, and it’s the best way to do it.

“You make all your decisions that are best for the Cardinals. They’re Cardinal decisions. Nobody’s ego is in the way. He’s just great to work with.”
TEMPE, Ariz. – While coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim are always on the lookout for ways to improve the Arizona Cardinals, they kept their finger off the trigger before Tuesday’s trade deadline.

In fact, Arians made it sound like they weren’t involved in any trade talks this year.

“We were status quo,” Arians said on his weekly SiriusXM NFL Radio appearance. “We’re always willing to listen. And Steve and I are always proactive in trying to see if something’s better for our organization and our football team, but I like our group of guys right now.

“We are who we are, and we’re finding out that we’re a little bit better than we thought we were.”

And that includes Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who was the subject of the biggest trade rumors this season.

Arians didn’t know about said rumors, which began Sunday morning, until he arrived at University of Phoenix Stadium for the Cardinals' game against Atlanta. He didn’t talk to Fitzgerald about the rumors, Arians said, and the potential of a trade never became a distraction, mainly because Keim quashed the idea early Monday morning.

“Larry’s a professional,” Arians said. “The one thing he knows is how we feel about him.

“He’s going to retire a Cardinal. I don’t know where it came from. We love him to death and he is the face of the franchise.”
TEMPE, Ariz. – Bradley Sowell had just finished lifting weights Wednesday morning when he looked at his cell phone. A text message was waiting. Sowell was needed in general manager Steve Keim’s office.

Sowell thought it could only mean one thing: his month-long run with the Arizona Cardinals was over. Why else would the GM want to see him other than to cut him?

As Sowell found out after he met with Keim, there’s another reason a general manager would summon a player to his office: to name him the starting left tackle.

Sowell will replace the recently traded Levi Brown on the Cardinals’ offensive line Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, with Nate Potter earning his paycheck as a versatile swing tackle and guard.

[+] EnlargeBradley Sowell
AP Photo/Bill FeigBradley Sowell (far left) will go from a spot down the Cardinals' bench to one on the offensive line Sunday starting at left tackle.
The undrafted free agent out of Mississippi had just three days to work with the first team, preparing for a front seven that’s given the likes of Seattle, Buffalo and the New York Giants fits.

“[I’m] as ready as I can be, I can imagine,” Sowell said. “I won’t know until I’m out there. All I can do is try my hardest and get out and see what I got.”

The Cardinals wouldn’t have made the Brown move on Wednesday if they didn’t think Sowell was ready, coach Bruce Arians said this week. He consulted with the veteran defensive players, who threw their support behind Sowell.

But Arians doesn’t hope Sowell will just be a stopgap at a position that’s plagued the Cardinals for years. Although he’s tied as the lowest-paid starting left tackle in the league at $480,000, Sowell is being given a chance to prove he’s worth an extension.

“That’s his opportunity right now, to prove to us come January, February that we don’t need to make that look behind door number two,” Arians said. “That’s his job right now, to take this opportunity like these other young guys have and run with them. And I expect he will.”

Arians and offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin coached Sowell in Indianapolis, so both knew what they were getting when he was signed on Sept. 1. Sowell was thrown into the Colts’ playoff game last season in Baltimore at right tackle because of an injury (after he himself spent the week feeling ill) and was able to hold his own against Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger.

Sowell was surprised when the Colts released him after training camp, but when he started seeing who Indianapolis was drafting and signing, he figured he’d be a casualty of the numbers game. At that point, Sowell just hoped he would land in a good position.

He couldn’t have asked for a better situation -- rejoining the two coaches who mentored him during his first season and returning to playing left tackle, his natural position.

Keim doesn’t see a drop-off from Brown to Sowell.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a drop,” Keim said. “I think it’s going to either be maintained or it’s going to potentially have some growth in that area. I think Bruce hit on it. Levi was playing so inconsistent that I think Bradley can step in and play at least to that level, if not better.”

Especially against the speed rush, the one area that wound up being Brown’s kryptonite.

Ask Sowell and he’ll tell you he’s more of an athletic tackle than a power tackle.

Ask Arians and he’ll tell you Sowell has done well against the Cardinals’ speed rushers.

But ask Keim, and he’ll temper expectations of the young Sowell, preparing the fan base for the possibility of a rough few weeks with San Francisco, Seattle and Atlanta on tap after Carolina.

“I think the one thing you got to understand is there’s no question that all young players are going to take their lumps,” Keim said. “I don’t think that’s going to be any different for Bradley. We don’t expect him to jump in and look like [Cleveland left tackle] Joe Thomas Week 1. He’s going to have his issues from time to time, but what we’re banking on is a guy who’s going to continually grow and get better and a guy we can win with in the future.

“He certainly has all the physical tools, the size, the length, the athleticism. Now [it] comes down to putting it all together on Sundays.”

Whether Sowell is the answer will be seen Sunday against the Panthers at University of Phoenix Stadium. By nightfall, the pundits and critics will be able to label Sowell as better or worse than his predecessor.

But Goodwin already knows. Sowell is different, and sometimes "different" means "better."

“Different from the standpoint [of] fresher legs,” Goodwin said. “Obviously he’s younger, doesn’t have the wear and tear Levi had, and he’s eager. He’s a second-year player so he thinks he’s the best out there. So he’s got a chance to prove it now.”

But does Sowell really believe that, or is it just coachspeak?

“He better,” Goodwin said with a laugh. “When you play in the National Football League you better think you’re the baddest dude on the field at your position. I think, hopefully, he’ll be OK.”
TEMPE, Ariz. – The plan to move left tackle Levi Brown had been in the works since Week 1, Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said Wednesday.

He had multiple conversations with Cardinals president Michael Bidwill and coach Bruce Arians about Brown throughout the first four weeks of the season, culminating in a decision to move the former first-round draft pick this week, whether that was by trading or releasing him.

“I don’t think it comes as any surprise that Levi Brown was not living up to our expectations on the field,” Keim said. “At the end of the day we just felt like it was in the organization’s best decision and best interest to move on from Levi. When the opportunity arose with Pittsburgh to make a trade, we jumped at the opportunity.”

Arians said the Brown he watched on tape wasn't the same player he saw during camp. Arians kept referring to Brown’s performance in a 2011 game against New Orleans, but the Cardinals did not play the Saints that year. Brown finished the second half of 2011 on a strong note, earning a contract extension.

Soon after Arians was hired, he used to word “elite” to describe Brown, who missed of all 2012 with a triceps injury. But he first noticed Brown wasn't living up to those lofty expectations on the last day of OTAs this spring.

“I credited that just to a year off,” Arians said. “The tackle [we] got back isn’t the same guy.”

Brown allowed four sacks in four games this season, with three coming in the opener against St. Louis. His vulnerability was defending the speed rush, which exposed Brown’s lack of lateral movement.

Brown's inconsistent play ultimately cost him his job, Keim said, which will go to second-year left tackle Bradley Sowell. Arians and offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin coached Sowell last season in Indianapolis and claimed him off waivers on Sept. 1. Arians and Keim both felt he was simply their best option at left tackle.

“I don’t think there’s any risk because the problems that we’ve incurred, I don’t think would get any worse,” Arians said. “And hopefully they’re going to get better and not just in pass protection but in the run game also.”

Brown’s base salary this season was $4.75 million, and he was scheduled to earn $6 million next season and $5 million in 2015 and ’16. However, the remaining amount of his $7 million signing bonus, reported to be $4.2 million, will go against the Cardinals’ 2014 cap.

Sowell’s base salary this year is $480,000.

The chances of Brown making it through this week as a Cardinal weren’t very high, Keim hinted. Arizona wasn’t going to bench him, and if the Cardinals couldn’t trade him, he would’ve most likely been released.

“I think Bruce and I both agree that, at the end of the day, when you realize that he was not in our long-term plans, instead of belaboring the point and keeping him on our roster, that it was just in the best interest of the organization to move on,” Keim said. “And move on as quickly as possible.”
Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has been typically direct when assessing what's at stake for third-year running back Ryan Williams as the team approaches its third game of the 2013 preseason.

"Every evaluation is critical for him now," Arians told reporters. "He's missed so much that I want to see how he does in practice before I put him in a game. Hopefully, he’ll do as well as I think he will and be able to get out there and play full speed and get tackled."

Williams, the Cardinals' second-round choice in 2010, has played in just five games over his first two regular seasons. Knee and shoulder injuries were to blame. Related knee trouble sidelined him for long stretches of training camp. The team expects Williams to play against San Diego on Saturday night, but Williams' availability is very much a day-to-day situation.

The organization is rooting for him.

General manager Steve Keim, one of the people most excited about Williams' potential before the 2010 draft, recently delivered what Williams called a pep talk.

When I was at Cardinals camp, I noticed that Williams' locker was next to the locker for receiver Larry Fitzgerald. One day, Williams sat at his locker and waited while Fitzgerald conducted an interview at the next stall. The rest of the locker room had cleared out. Williams was waiting for Fitzgerald to finish so the two could grab lunch together.

A player could do worse than having the GM and the team's most iconic player in his corner. At this point, though, there can be no substitute for performance. Williams must play. He must play well. He must remain healthy enough to practice and play again. Time is running out.

Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim was chatting about his team on the sideline during a training camp practice when a wide receiver caught a pass in stride and pulled away from the secondary.

Except it wasn't really a wide receiver with the ball in his hands. It was cornerback Patrick Peterson, and the sight of him running with the football was compelling enough to redirect Keim in midsentence.

"He is so natural," Keim said. "Watch him running routes, particularly stops and digs. You watch him drop his weight at 219 and accelerate out of the break, that's not what cornerbacks do. He can come out here and just run a route, and you're just like, 'He looks like Percy Harvin running a route. How does he do that?'"

Keim has seen much more of Peterson at receiver in two-plus weeks of subsequent practices. He is now calling Peterson the closest thing he's seen to Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders in ability.

"From an ability standpoint, I've never seen anything like him," Keim told Robert Klemko. "He's the closest thing in the league to a Bo Jackson, a Deion Sanders. I've seen him stand on the field flat-footed and throw the ball 65-70 yards. He goes out to practice as a wideout, and runs a 10- and 15-yard out as well as anyone on our team. His value to our team is really unparalleled."

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesPatrick Peterson has earned Pro Bowl honors for his ability as a return man and a cornerback.
Peterson returned four punts for touchdowns as a rookie and earned Pro Bowl honors in that capacity. He earned Pro Bowl honors as a cornerback in his second season, picking off seven passes. Could Peterson, with only four receptions for 10 yards to this point in his career, become that type of contributor on offense? It's doubtful any cornerback could play enough snaps on offense while remaining an every-down player on defense, but if any current corner could do it, Peterson would be the one.

Jackson played football and baseball, but he didn't play two positions in the NFL. Sanders dominated at cornerback and caught 36 passes for the Dallas Cowboys in 1996. He had 188 career receptions, three for touchdowns. Peterson is much sturdier than Sanders, outweighing him by about 20 pounds while showing similar ability with the ball in his hands. Peterson would have a better chance at holding up physically. Arizona goes only three deep at receiver, so there could be opportunities for Peterson without forcing the situation.

I came away from Cardinals camp thinking Peterson would get enough snaps on offense to make his presence on offense more than a gimmick. Keim's latest comments reinforce that idea. At face value, the "unparalleled" comment means the Cardinals value Peterson more than they value any other player on the team, including receiver Larry Fitzgerald. That does not mean the Cardinals plan to pay Peterson the way they are paying Fitzgerald, necessarily. Fitzgerald leveraged an over-the-top rookie deal into two extremely player-friendly veteran contracts, to the point that the salary-cap consequences are burdensome. But when the GM is comparing a young player to Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders from an ability standpoint while calling that player's value to the team unparalleled, I'd imagine the agent is taking notes. Peterson is signed through 2014 and is earning $4.6 million per year as the fifth player chosen in the 2011 draft class.

Praise for Peterson is nothing new in Arizona. Here is what Fitzgerald said of Peterson last offseason:
"From a physical standpoint, he has no weaknesses at all. Most guys you go against, bigger guys, I can manipulate them on the field or physically. Patrick is just so different. He has the game-changing speed. He can run with anybody in the league. His ball skills are like playing with another receiver. He can tackle you in the run game. He knows what’s going on, is a student of the game.

"You want to draft a guy to carry the torch for your team, Patrick Peterson epitomizes that. Just his maturity. He’s 22 years old [now 23]. He just got married. His outlook on life, the way he carries himself, the way he performs, it’s like a 30-year-old. He just gets it. To get it at that young of age, that is a scary combination when you couple that with elite talent."

Also last offseason, then-coach Ken Whisenhunt called Peterson "the same creature" as Fitzgerald in terms of talent, community involvement and the will to be great. He pointed to a rough 2011 defeat against Cincinnati when Peterson had hurt his Achilles tendon. Logic said the Cardinals needed to be careful. The defeat had eliminated them from playoff contention. One game remained in the season. Why risk it?

"He came out and played the next week against Seattle," Whisenhunt said. "It was that important to him. And that was very Larry-esque."
Candor and perhaps even foreboding marked recent comments from Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians regarding injured running back Ryan Williams.

"It's hurting (Ryan) extremely not to be on the field competing for the job because those other guys are doing so well," Arians told reporters covering the Cardinals.

The new leadership in Arizona is certainly rooting for Williams, a once-promising second-round pick still trying to shake a catastrophic knee injury suffered in 2011. Steve Keim, in his first year as the Cardinals' general manager after more than a decade with the organization in other roles, was among those most excited about Williams' potential before the injury. I can recall Keim's excitement at camp in 2011 upon seeing Williams unleash speed cuts upon a defense that had trouble running with him.

But as Arizona demonstrated in releasing longtime safety Adrian Wilson, who had played at Keim's alma mater (NC State) and was close to him, the Cardinals aren't going to let sentiment override reason when making personnel moves.

Arizona released Wilson and fellow starting safety Kerry Rhodes because those players' contracts were out of alignment in the team's view. The same fate awaited guard Adam Snyder, signed to a $17 million contract one year earlier.

The Cardinals' more recent decision to release outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield also comes to mind. Schofield was just 26 years old, but he had been prone to injuries and was scheduled to earn $1.3 million in salary for 2013, the final year of his contract. Arizona seemingly could have used him, but not at the wrong price, not with the injury factor looming and not with Schofield likely to depart following the season anyway.

The market affirmed all these decisions. Wilson, Snyder and Schofield took less money to play elsewhere. Rhodes remains unsigned and likely will not command anywhere close to the $6 million in salary he was scheduled to receive from the Cardinals.

Williams is in a different category. The team still hopes his knee troubles subside sufficiently for the third-year pro to factor in a backfield featuring Rashard Mendenhall, Alfonso Smith and rookies Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington. Salary isn't a significant concern. Health is the issue. Unfortunately for Williams, time might not be on his side.

Good, bad contracts in the NFC West

August, 2, 2013
Larry Fitzgerald has leveraged a favorable rookie contract into two massive extensions negotiated almost entirely on his terms.

The result is a contract that will begin counting between $13 million and $16.25 million against the salary cap from 2014 through 2016.

@Jason_OTC of Over the Cap has broken down this deal and several others in the NFC West as part of his "Best & Worst" series on NFL teams.

A few additional thoughts on each NFC West team:
  • Arizona Cardinals: The team has moved to unload punitive contracts. Most of the heavy lifting is done. Deals for Fitzgerald, Levi Brown and Daryn Colledge stand out as ones qualifying for potential redress in the future. Early indications suggest the Cardinals have adopted a more strategic, disciplined approach regarding contracts. They have a new management team featuring Steve Keim, Jason Licht and Mike Disner. The latter two worked for the New England Patriots previously. Disner also worked at the NFL Management Council.
  • St. Louis Rams: The Rams arguably overpaid Jared Cook and others in free agency, but they did so knowing the team would be stocking its roster with low-cost draft choices over the coming seasons. Trading the second overall pick in the 2012 draft returned high-value picks to the Rams, allowing for some luxury buys in free agency. The Rams under the old labor agreement were too frequently drafting near the very top of the round, saddling them with player-friendly deals with negative cap consequences.
  • San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers get high marks for just about all their deals, with one notable exception. Carlos Rogers' contract stands out as one case of the team paying too much. It's obvious the 49ers will want to draft for that position in 2014, especially after losing young No. 3 corner Chris Culliver to a season-ending knee injury this week. The 49ers initiated the process at safety this offseason when they used a first-round pick for Eric Reid after declining to pay a premium for Dashon Goldson.
  • Seattle Seahawks: Seattle gets low marks for its deals with Percy Harvin, Sidney Rice and Zach Miller. The team gets high marks for its deals with Max Unger and Kam Chancellor. Those sets of deals were negotiated under different terms. Seattle played retail prices for Harvin, Rice and Miller. Unger and Chancellor were Seattle draft choices. The Seahawks negotiated more favorable deals by approaching both players well before free agency, a tactic the 49ers have perfected. Rice and Miller got their contracts when Seattle had no one else it wanted to pay, frankly. Note that Seattle has a new contract negotiator in Matt Thomas.
One of the Arizona Cardinals' nine draft choices for 2013 did not make it to training camp.

That could be a good thing in the long run for receiver Ryan Swope, whose concussion problems led the team to place him on the reserve/retired list Thursday as training camp approached. The move spares Swope from suffering additional damage to his brain, a matter of increasing concern in the NFL.

The Cardinals used a sixth-round pick for Swope because they thought he could provide quickness on shorter routes and straight-line speed on deeper ones. They knew concussions had been a problem for Swope, but they thought he was worth a sixth-round choice in part because the head injuries hadn't kept him off the field much.

"Then to couple that with the amount of production he had, and then going into the combine, the guy has answered every test," general manager Steve Keim said after the draft. "His times at Indy were remarkable. He ran in the high 4.3s. His three-cone, which is one of my favorite drills, which judges a lot of the change-of-direction and movement skills, he ran a high 6.5, low 6.6, which was easily one of the best times at Indy this year."

We should expect the Cardinals to remain in the market for a receiver with vertical speed, an element new coach Bruce Arians values more than some other coaches do. Arians was with the Pittsburgh Steelers when Mike Wallace was an emerging deep threat for the team. He's installing an offense emphasizing deeper routes.

Update: Swope says through @Rep1Sports that he suffered another concussion during spring practices and retired on the advice of doctors. He'll go back to school and reassess in a year. Note that the Cardinals will retain his rights while he's on the reserve/retired list.
A look at what to expect as the Arizona Cardinals begin the Bruce Arians era:

[+] EnlargeBruce Arians, Steve Keim
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsNew coach Bruce Arians and GM Steve Keim, right, have given the Cardinals' roster a major overhaul.
Biggest change to expect: The Cardinals, the only NFC West team with a new coach, were going to be better on offense this season even if they had retained the previous coaching staff. They have a chance to be much, much better with a more competent quarterback (Carson Palmer) and upgraded personnel on the offensive line. The scheme will change Insider as well even though Arians shares Pittsburgh roots with predecessor Ken Whisenhunt. Arizona will no longer play with a fullback, explaining why the team traded Anthony Sherman, who had been a draft pick from the Whisenhunt era. The offense will put greater emphasis on deeper pass routes.

What success would look like: Larry Fitzgerald smiling again. Running backs healthy enough to average better than 3.1 yards per carry. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles picking up where Ray Horton left off. Daryl Washington restoring the team's confidence in him. Tyrann Mathieu making his mark on the field, not off it. Patrick Peterson returning a punt for a touchdown again. Palmer reviving his career with a healthy Freddie Kitchens coaching him. Avenging 58-0.

Protecting the nest: Winning at home is where it starts for the Cardinals. They lost home games to Buffalo, St. Louis and a by-then-struggling Chicago team last season. The 2013 home schedule won't be easy with playoff teams such as Seattle, San Francisco, Houston, Indianapolis and Atlanta scheduled to visit. Two visiting teams with losing records last season, St. Louis and Detroit, also could be tough. There is simply no realistic way to compete without winning at home, however.

More or fewer wins? "More" is the answer reflexively given how bad the Cardinals were while falling from a 4-0 start to 5-11 last season. We figured Palmer could be worth another three victories over last season if he played about as well as he did with Oakland. Arians and general manager Steve Keim have turned over much of the roster, however, so we're still getting a feel for this team. I'm looking forward to visiting Cardinals training camp at University of Phoenix Stadium beginning Sunday.
Our Future Power Rankings Insider seek to identify which teams are best positioned for success in 2016. That made me wonder which NFC West teams had their head coaches and general managers under contract that far into the future.

A look at the landscape for each NFC West team:
  • Arizona Cardinals: Coach Bruce Arians and GM Steve Keim signed contracts through the 2016 season. In both cases, the team has an option for 2017. These two are just starting out together.
  • St. Louis Rams: Coach Jeff Fisher signed a five-year contract running through the 2016 season. GM Les Snead is signed through the 2015 season. Fisher and Snead were hired at about the same time. They enter their second season together with the NFL's youngest roster.
  • Seattle Seahawks: Coach Pete Carroll's five-year deal runs through the 2014 season. GM John Schneider initially signed a three-year deal through 2012. Schneider and the Seahawks quietly extended his contract through 2016. The deal has been done for more than a year, without fanfare. Carroll would seem to be in line for an extension over the next year or so.
  • San Francisco 49ers: Coach Jim Harbaugh's five-year deal runs through the 2015 season. GM Trent Baalke is signed through the 2016 season as part of an extension the team announced in February 2012. The 49ers are pretty much set.