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Here’s a quick reminder for those living under a rock for the past month that the Arizona Cardinals are 4-0 for the first time since 2012.
They also happen to be the lone unbeaten team in the NFL.
While it’s easy to pinpoint what’s gone well for this team, ala Kyler Murray, we mustn’t overlook a series of tactical additions made last spring by much maligned Cardinal General Manager Steve Keim.
Specifically a series of moves that took place on Wednesday, March 17th, 2021. If you remember, that was the start of the new league year and also the kickoff to NFL free agency. This has been a period in recent memory that has not served Keim well, with notable whiffs beings the likes of DT Jordan Phillips, LB Devon Kennard and QB Sam Bradford.
Thankfully for the Cardinals, on this faithful Wednesday, Keim brought his A-game and left with an absolute bounty.
With the league’s annual salary cap increase temporarily halted due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the large majority of NFL teams were predictably cash strapped going into free agency.
The Cardinals were no exception, operating with limit funds thanks in part to their then recent splurge on one J.J. Watt. Contrary to public opinion, according to advance metrics, Watt has been relatively productive to start the season.
He was however rather expensive, signing with the Cardinals on March 1st for roughly $31 million dollars over two years (with $23 million guaranteed) following his subsequent release from the Houston Texans.
He is also sackless through four games.
Thankfully for J.J., just sixteen days after he opted to become a Cardinal, Steve Keim would put together perhaps his best 24 hour period of personnel additions in recent memory.
Lets review the March 17th triplets that have helped fuel the Arizona Cardinals 4-0 start.
March 17th – 10:20am: The Cardinals sign WR A.J. Green
After last season’s second half offensive struggles for the Redbirds, it was beyond evident that the team needed to be on pursuit for upgrades at pass catcher. At the time, the team lacked a realistic option outside to pair with All Pro DeAndre Hopkins and thus set their sights on free agency to remedy the situation.
With a bevy of quality names available, including Hopkins’ old running mate in Will Fuller, Arizona shocked the NFL landscape by taking a cost effective, one year flier on the then 32-year-old A.J. Green.
Needless to say, the reception to the move was mixed with many questioning the addition of a player that looked all but done during his final days in Cincinnati.
Yet with a cap hit of roughly $3.5 million, Green took less to land with the Cardinals in part because of his desire to be a singular piece to a much larger puzzle.
What has transpired through the first month of the season has been just that and more, with Green shockingly leading the Cardinals in both receiving yards (248) and yards per catch (16.5). He has undoubtedly benefited from playing with the likes of Murray and Hopkins, with the latter often freeing up single coverage for the former All Pro to operate.
The 2020 Arizona Cardinals were too often reliant on “backyard football” as quality defenses quickly caught up to this trend. Since his arrival, however, Green has allowed the Cardinals intermediate passing game to blossom with receivers Christian Kirk and Rondale Moore both flourishing in the slot.
With a large majority of the 2021 free agent receiver class struggling (Fuller, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Curtis Samuel), it’s the ageless A.J. Green who appears to be having the last laugh.
March 17th – 12:49pm: The Cardinals trade a 2021 third round pick to the Raiders for Center Rodney Hudson, 2021 7th round pick
On the eve of NFL free agency, it was more than common knowledge that the Arizona Cardinals were set to go big game hunting in search of an upgrade at the center position. Then current starter Mason Cole had just completed a marginal 2020 campaign that ended with a critical missed block in Week 17 that cost the Cardinals Kyler Murray in the process.
As a result, Keim knew it was time to swing for the fences.
The initial target for the Redbirds was Packer standout Corey Linsley who had just finished off an All Pro year partnering with MVP Aaron Rodgers.
The problem was, however, that Keim and company had a puke point when it came to guaranteed dollars and an offensive linemen that was about to enter the wrong side of 30. As a result, the deep-pocketed LA Chargers swooped in and stole Linsley out from under the Red Sea.
Yet, as if the football gods were listening to Arizona’s plea for an upgrade, Jon Gruden famously came to the Cardinals rescue. After word initially leaked that Gruden was set to release Raider All Pro Rodney Hudson over a contract dispute, Chucky quickly connected with buddy Steve Keim on a deal that would send the stud blocker to the desert.
The deal was inexplicably consummated for a mere third round pick.
Hudson has been a godsend for the Arizona Cardinals, who went from having a complete liability at the position to perhaps the best in the game. The former Florida State Seminole is the anchor of a Cardinal offensive line that has largely kept Kyler Murray clean through four games.
It should also be noted what Hudson has done for the development of right guard Josh Jones, who is experiencing a breakout season in his second year. For the first time in nearly half a decade, Arizona’s interior offensive line is a force to be reckon with.
That’s largely due to the fact that, in a division that sports the likes of Aaron Donald among others, the Arizona Cardinals now have an equalizer in the form of this 3x Pro Bowler.
March 17th – 4:08pm: The Cardinals sign K Matt Prater
Of all the things that went awry at the tail end of the 2020 season, it was perhaps the kicking game that was amongst the most frustrating to watch.
Local product Zane Gonzalez was not good. Let’s just leave it at that.
For the better part of three months last fall, Keim and company screwed around at one of the most vital positions in football that subsequently cost them meaningful games, missing the post season as a result.
Too often, Gonzalez would be allowed to try and redeem himself to his team only to fail spectacularly in the process. Those who would point to his productive 2019 season failed to recognize the large majority of those kicks were under minimal pressure as it related to in-game situations.
Translation: they were hallow kicks.
So as the Cardinals and their expectations grew, so too did their kicking needs.
Enter NFL kicking phenom Matt Prater.
In what was uncharacteristic for the first day of free agency, much less the first waive, Keim rightfully made it a priority to nab what was undoubtedly the bell of the ball of free agent kickers.
With what limited money the Cardinals had, they wisely invested in securing one of the most clutch kickers in recent memory. For context, in 2021, Prater’s cap hit of $2 million is higher than the likes of Markus Golden, Kelvin Beachum and James Conner.
And he’s been worth every penny.
This man is a weapon for a team that is, for better or worse, no longer afraid to attempt the most aggressive field goals imaginable. In a division that remains paper-thin when it comes differentiating the four contenders, Matt Prater acts as an emphatic trump card for a team seemingly on the cusp of greatness.
Like both Green and Hudson, the Arizona Cardinals are not 4-0 without the addition of the man who now holds kicking records for three different NFL franchises.
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