The Arizona Cardinals wrapped up their 2020 NFL draft just a few short weeks ago after ending the 2019 season with a lot of excitement in the desert. Kyler Murray won Offensive Rookie of the Year, the offense and defense showed growth and improvement as the season went on, and Kliff Kingsbury proved he can game plan at the highest level. Seeing a coach grow and mature, admitting his mistakes, and improving upon them was a breath of fresh air for an organization coming out of a 3-13 2018 season. A season that felt like 0-16.
In 2019 they finished 5-10-1 but it felt like 9-7.
With the excitement for the 2020-2021 season already growing rapidly, Steve Keim fanned those flames by pulling off a deal to land Deandre Hopkins, a consensus top-three receiver in the NFL, without having to lose their #8 pick. Keim got it done with David Johnson and a 2nd round pick in the 2020 NFL draft.
*Spoiler Alert* Houston got fleeced.
Biggest Team Need: Defense
As great as the future looks for the Cardinals, there were still glaring holes in the roster that need to be addressed. The Cardinals ranked 23rd in the NFL in 2019 with a 7.2% DVOA on defense (a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every play to the league average based on situation and opponent), 30th in the NFL in third-down stops, 30th in 4th quarter points allowed, 31st against the pass, and allowed over 1,100 yards and 16 touchdowns to tight ends.
Many fans and analysts argued offensive line was the biggest need, and the argument makes sense. It’s important to protect your quarterback. But it’s just as important to make sure the opponent doesn’t score 27.6 points per game. Which happens to be what the Cardinals defense allowed last season. That was good for 28th in the NFL, and dead last in the competitive NFC West.
Second Primary Team Need: Offensive Line
The offensive line was under scrutiny due to allowing 48 sacks. Prior to the 2020 NFL draft, the Cardinals fan base was clamoring for a large offensive tackle like Jedrick Wills, Tristan Wirfs or Andrew Thomas. Big, mean, nasty, and impenetrable. Professional analysts mostly agreed and Arizona was mocked across the board to be taking a tackle.
But from a statistical perspective, the offensive line was not the biggest team need as many claimed or thought. The Cardinals offensive line actually improved as the season went on. And their pass blocking was quite good in some key metrics. For example, the Cardinals offensive line only allowed quick pressures on 18.2% of dropbacks, which ranked 6th best in the entire NFL.
Throw in the fact that Kyler Murray was responsible for 23 of those 50 sacks, the picture becomes a bit clearer that the biggest area of need for the Cardinals was on the defensive side of the ball. As the season progressed, Kyler’s sacks went down as he learned when to extend plays and when to let them die. Essentially, the better Kyler got, the better the offensive line got.
Arizona Cardinals 2020 NFL Draft Results & Grades
Today, we look at how the Cardinals addressed their needs via the 2020 NFL draft, and why this year’s draft could be defined by three characteristics: depth, leadership, and value.
Round 1, Pick 8: Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson
In typical NFL draft fashion, the results didn’t always match the speculation, and the Arizona Cardinals ended up with a linebacker at pick #8.
Oh, sorry, he’s a safety? A cornerback?
The Cardinals drafted a Swiss Army knife.
Picking Isaiah Simmons at 8 started the three themes of this draft. Depth, leadership, and value.
The Cardinals had already signed linebackers Devon Kennard and De’Vondre Campbell, two veterans with a track record of pressuring the Quarterback and defending Tight Ends, respectively. Which was why many saw the Cardinals going offensive tackle.
However, Isaiah Simmons projects as a day 1 starter, giving Vance Joseph veteran depth at the linebacker position. With his versatility, Simmons provides the Cardinals depth at Safety and Corner. Simmons’s size and speed are undisputed. His 4.39-second 40 yard dash time at the combine was faster than Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliot, and Saquon Barkley.
Giving Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph a starting linebacker core of Chandler Jones, Jordan Hicks, Isaiah Simmons, Devon Kennard, and De’Vondre Campbell is an enviable position. You now have five starting linebackers for a team that runs a 3-4 defense, and they’re fast too.
Then, there’s the leadership aspect.
Isaiah Simmons had been voted team captain for the Clemson Tigers in 2019, an often-underrated benefit. While it may not seem like much, being voted team captain showcases that Isaiah Simmons was there for one thing and one thing only. To win games by playing the game the right way, treating his teammates the right way, and striving for excellence. Qualities the Cardinals hadn’t put a premium on in past drafts.
*Cough* Robert Nkemdiche *Cough*
The value of getting Simmons at 8 was shocking to many. Simmons was the 5th highest-graded player at the combine and 3rd highest-rated defensive player in the entire 2020 NFL draft. Many reputable big boards had him as the 2nd best overall prospect. All but one mock draft had him falling past the Panthers at 7 – at worst. The only mock draft that put him at #8 overall was our very own Time Skew 1st Round Mock Draft. In that mock Simmons was projected to go the Falcons after the Cardinals traded back.
When Roger Goodell announced Derrick Brown at 7, with Simmons still on the board, the choice became clear for Steve Keim. The Red Sea agreed. Isaiah Simmons represented one of the top 3 talents across the entire draft with proven leadership, filling a very clear team need. It doesn’t get better than that.
Round 3, Pick 72: Josh Jones, OT, Houston
Remember how analysts and fans wanted the Arizona Cardinals to go big on the offensive line? Somehow, the Cardinals were able to pull that off in the third round.
Josh Jones represented one of the biggest head-scratchers of the 2020 NFL draft. Not quite as mysterious as the Packers trading up for a quarterback in the first round, but Josh Jones had been projected to go as high as 8th to the Cardinals in the first round. It was so mind-boggling when Kliff Kingsbury was asked about it, he had this to say:
“We’re calling saying, ‘What’s going on, did he kill somebody last night? Is there something we don’t know about? What’s the issue?”
While the #8 overall projection was a bit dramatic, other mocks had him as a surefire first-rounder, or a very early second-rounder at worst. Mel Kiper Jr. had him as high as #15, and NFL.com had him at #14. Regardless of whether he was projected as a day 1 pick, or early day two pick, landing at #72 to the Arizona Cardinals is one the greatest values in the entire draft, which could turn out to be one of the premier draft steals in retrospect. I’ll get back to you on this in three years.
So, who is Josh Jones?
Josh Jones is a 6’5”, 319lb offensive lineman out of Houston. His senior year he allowed one sack, no quarterback hits, and only three hurries. Pro Football Focus rewarded Jones handsomly with a 93.2 grade on the year – the highest grade ever given to an offensive tackle in college. That includes first rounders Andrew Thomas, Jedrick Wills, Tristan Wirfs, and Mekhi Becton.
Josh Jones is the closest you can get to lining up against a wall of bricks. Just like that, Steve Keim was able to acquire first-round talent for a position of need in the third round. But wait, there’s more!
Jones was also selected as a team captain in the 2019 season. Adding a talented leader at a position of need in the third-round makes this pick an easy one to grade.
An extra body on the offensive line. Team captain. First round value in the third round. Depth, leadership, and value.
Round 4, Pick 114: Leki Fotu, DT, Utah
With two picks in the fourth round, Steve Keim went back to defense adding depth to the line. At pick #114 in the 2020 NFL draft, Keim drafted Leki Fotu, a Defensive Tackle out of Utah.
With free agent DT Jordan Phillips already signed, Leki Fotu adds additional size to the Cardinals defensive front. At 6’5” 330lbs, he is a massive human known for his quickness and run stopping prowess.
Fotu is an explosive player with excellent first step quickness. His pedigree includes high scool rugby, and if you want to see what a giant human running over smaller humans without pads looks like, check out Leki Fotu in high school.
Leki Fotu is consistently graded low at rushing the passer. However, having Chandler Jones and Devon Kennard on the outside means Fotu needs to do what Fotu does best – stuff runs. The Arizona Cardinals struggled against the run, making Fotu an obvious solution to a team need. Fotu gives Vance Joseph that gap-plugging size and quickness in a division that features the 49ers and Seahawks. The NFL’s #2 and #4 rated rushing teams last season.
Not only does this pick fill a team need, but the value at the pick was also solid. Fotu wasn’t as much a steal as Simmons or Jones, but some projections had him going as high as a late day 2 pick.
Oh yeah, he was also a team captain in 2019.
Round 4, Pick 131: Rashard Lawrence, DT, LSU
A recent report claimed the SEC is so packed with NFL talent that coaches from other divisions are actually using that as a recruiting tactic. Come play for us and you won’t get your face smashed in.
Slightly dramatic? Sure. Accurate? Definitely.
Rashard Lawrence comes to the Cardinals from SEC powerhouse LSU after winning the College National Championship in 2019. Lawrence finished his career at LSU with 120 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, 9 sacks and seven passes broken up.
At 6’2”, 308 lbs, Rashard Lawrence is a big body with championship experience, known for his toughness, strong hands, and competitive nature. His draft position was on par with projections having him going anywhere from late in the third round to early 5th round in the 2020 NFL draft. Lawrence does not project to be a starter in Vance Joseph’s 3-4 defense, but he provides more depth on a defensive line that lacked depth all of 2019.
Rashard Lawrence was also an LSU team captain last season. The pattern is pretty clear at this point.
Pick Grade: B-
Round 6, Pick 202: Evan Weaver, LB, California
When asked about what he loves about football, Evan Weaver had this to say:
“I think winning and hitting people as hard as you possibly can and really taking the soul out of people. Once you get to the third, fourth quarter, they don’t want to play anymore because they just don’t want to hang with you. And just wanting to do it and the will to have to beat somebody up for a whole four quarters and just keep it going through a 12-game season, but now 16. Just having the will and want to win.”
That attitude of winning and hitting is what every team looks for in players, especially linebackers.
What makes this pick even better is that Weaver backed up his intensity on the field. He led the entire FBS in tackles in 2019 with 181 and ended his college career with over 400 tackles.
Relentless and durable are two resounding descriptions of Weaver. He played in 49 of a possible 50 games for Cal, starting in 31 of them. Weaver gives the Arizona Cardinals intensity and depth at the linebacker position. Weaver does not project as a starter, but his intensity and commitment could put him in a position to be a late-round steal.
There are concerns related to his athleticism at the NFL level. Despite that, most analysts had him going in the fourth or fifth round.
Evan Weaver also served as a team captain in 2019.
Round 7, Pick 222: Eno Benjamin, RB, ASU
Most people acknowledge how great Kenyan Drake was for the Arizona Cardinals last season. To which, the Cardinals rewarded him with the Transition Tag which will pay $8.5 million in 2020. Not bad for a running back who started the 2019 season with 174 rushing yards through 6 games for the Miami Dolphins.
However, what is often overlooked is why Drake ended up with the Cardinals in the first place. David Johnson, Chase Edmonds, and D.J. Foster all fell victim to injuries in 2019, leaving the team in “scramble mode” at the running back position. There was no depth in the backfield, and despite the Cardinals use of the air-raid, the running game had become a staple of the offense.
Eno Benjamin is projected to compete for the 2nd running back spot against Chase Edmonds. Adding him to the backfield gives the Cardinals four RB’s with Drake, Edmonds, Benjamin and Foster. The depth they needed last season.
Benjamin is a standout running back out of Arizona State University where he excelled in creating something out of nothing. His ability to fool defenses, and sometimes his own offense, allowed him to create excitement in Arizona. However, it also led to issues with inconsistent production. Eno often outran his own lineman and blockers, and would benefit from giving his offense the opportunity to line up blocks. Granted, an NFL offensive line won’t struggle staying ahead of their running back, the fact remains: Eno needs to learn when to create, and when to wait.
Several mock drafts had Eno Benjamin going as high as the third round, which gave the Cardinals great value at pick #222 for a depth position they seriously needed. Only the second offensive player taken for the Cardinals in this draft, Eno Benjamin is an in-state running back that won’t start for the Cardinals, but gives them a fast backup on a fast-paced offense.
Eno was also a team captain, and for those keeping track at home, the Arizona Cardinals selected team captains with every single pick in the 2020 NFL draft.
Depth, leadership, and value.
Overall Draft Grade: A