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2020 NFL Draft Grades – Arizona Cardinals

One year after nabbing ideal schematic matches for Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, the Cardinals reverted back to traditional blue collar tough-guys in 2020… with the very notable exception of first round Swiss Army knife, Isaiah Simmons.
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Given the months and months of build-up to the annual NFL draft, the rush to summarize a team’s rookie draft class in a few sentences and stamp a letter grade on it has never quite made much sense to me.

In the past, I’ve compared this process to patrons at a restaurant complimenting (or complaining to) the chef based on the menu, rather than waiting to actually taste the food.

In much this same way, it obviously takes time to properly evaluate a draft. Given all of the complexities of the 2020 NFL draft, specifically, this is especially true.

So, while we cannot skip years ahead to know for certain which players will ultimately exceed or fail to live up to expectations in the NFL, we can provide a much deeper dive into each team’s rookie class.

Therefore, over the next 25 days, will be providing a detailed breakdown of each of the NFL teams’ rookie hauls, following the original draft order. Each team will be evaluated on the quality, quantity and relative safety of their draft classes (including undrafted free agents), with specific players recognized as Best Player, Best Value and Best Project, culminating in one “final” grade.

Today’s team: Arizona Cardinals

Head Coach: Kliff Kingsbury

General Manager: Steve Keim

Players selected in 2020:

Round 1, Pick 8 overall: OLB/S Isaiah Simmons, Clemson

Round 3, Pick 72 overall: OT Josh Jones, Houston

Round 4, Pick 114 overall: DT Leki Fotu, Utah

Round 4, Pick 131 overall: DT Rashard Lawrence, LSU

Round 6, Pick 202 overall: ILB Evan Weaver, Cal

Round 7, Pick 222 overall: RB Eno Benjamin, Arizona State

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Key Undrafted Free Agents:

OL Jake Benzinger, Wake Forest

DL T.J. Carter, Kentucky

OL Steve Gonzalez, Penn State

WR Jojo Ward, Hawaii

CB Jace Whittaker, Arizona

Overview of the Cardinals’ 2020 draft: One of the elements of NFL roster-building that does not get enough attention in the media is the need clubs often feel to find solutions, or at least some help, in slowing down problematic players on division rivals. This is perhaps most obvious when a divisional opponent lands a superstar quarterback or wide receiver and rivals suddenly make finding a shutdown cornerback more of a priority. In the case of the Arizona Cardinals, the transition was bigger. The offense was largely switched over a year ago with Kliff Kingsbury nabbing a dream schematic match in quarterback Kyler Murray but San Francisco and Seattle, the powerbrokers in the NFC West last year, mitigated Murray’s explosive plays by keeping him off the field with time-sapping, power-based rushing attacks that an athletic but undersized Cardinals defense simply was not properly equipped to handle. Adding more beef up front was clearly a top priority for Steve Keim and Co. in the 2020 draft with the general manager investing picks in players some feel are only “two-down” candidates. The inability to stop opposing rushing games made “running downs” the only ones that mattered a year ago for an Arizona squad which finished 28 overall in points allowed (27.6), 24 in run defense (allowing 120.1 yards per game) and, most importantly, finished the season 5-10-1 and a distant fourth in the divisional standings. The Cardinals should see immediate improvements both in their defensive rankings and in the standings based on this class. While flashy first rounder Isaiah Simmons will get plenty of the attention, Day Three picks Leki Fotu, Rashard Lawrence and Evan Weaver will be doing the dirty work. Meanwhile, Murray and the offense got incredible value in the third and seventh rounds in offensive tackle Josh Jones and Eno Benjamin, each of who possess the talent to have warranted selections a round or two earlier.

Best Player of the Cardinals’ 2020 Draft: OLB/S Isaiah Simmons

The fact that the wonderfully athletic 6-4, 238 pound Simmons lasted until the eighth pick of the 2020 draft is an indication that far too many NFL defensive coordinators were asking the wrong question – (Where does Simmons fit best?) – and not, what can’t Simmons do, as they should have been pondering. Simmons did it all while helping Clemson emerge as an annual title contender, serving as a Swiss Army Knife of sorts just as likely to be shadowing a receiver deep downfield (like in the photo attached to this article) as more traditional linebacker duties like patrolling the flats or chasing down running backs and passers. Simmons certainly was productive in these varied roles, racking up an eye-popping 192 tackles, including 25.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and five forced fumbles the past two seasons as the Tigers asked him to play closer to the line of scrimmage while also proving deadly in coverage, breaking up 20 passes with four interceptions over his career, as well. Simmons’ versatility makes him a wildcard on the Cardinals’ defense in much the same way that the highly elusive Murray is on Arizona’s offense. Further, as suggested in the Overview of the Cardinals’ draft earlier in this article, Simmons’ selection was a reflection of the unique talent on offense on other NFC West teams. The Cardinals likely view Simmons as the perfect eraser candidate to corral San Francisco tight end George Kittle, one of most difficult one-on-one matchups in all of the NFL.

Best Value of the Cardinals’ 2020 Draft: DT Leki Fotu

The expression “two-down run-stuffer” has joined “pocket passer” and “possession receiver” as one of the not-so-complimentary labels which can get attached to a player and drag him down in the draft process. This is precisely what happened to Fotu, one of my favorite prospects in this class. He ranks among the biggest, most powerful and consistent run defenders in the country over the past few seasons, but one who simply lacks the wiggle to provide much of a pass rush. Fotu won’t ever threaten Chandler Jones as the Cardinals’ top pass rusher. With his long arms, girth and raw power, however, Fotu is a plug and play option at all three of the Cardinals’ positions in their 3-4 base front, projecting as a longtime starter. Had Fotu been medically cleared to participate in the Senior Bowl, I believe he would have proven the second most dominant interior defensive lineman at the 2020 all-star game, behind only South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw, interestingly enough selected by division rival San Francisco 14 overall – exactly 100 picks before Fotu. The two-time First Team All-Pac-12 choice doesn’t have Kinlaw’s upside, but he’s proven more consistent over his career and plays a role that, while not celebrated any longer, remains key to the game of football – especially in this black and blue division.

Best Project of the Cardinals’ 2020 Draft: OT Josh Jones

Projected by many as a possible first round pick, Jones was shockingly still on the board at No. 72 overall, a reflection of remarkable depth at tackle in this year’s class. While he may ultimately prove a steal, the four-year starter is nevertheless a project for the Cardinals if they want him to compete at right tackle, as he never started a single game at this position in college, spending the duration of his career at the blindside position. Tackles make this switch all the time, of course, and Jones showed very encouraging balance and recognition when asked to block at right tackle (and guard) at the Senior Bowl, proving himself the best blocker in this year’s all-star game. Jones’ transition will take time. Kudos to the Cardinals, however, for making right tackle a priority even after re-signing left tackle D.J. Humphries, providing Murray with the bookend blockers needed for him to achieve his maximum potential.

Overall Grade for the Cardinals’ 2020 Draft: A-

Previous 2020 NFL Draft Report Cards: Cincinnati Bengals |Washington Redskins | Detroit Lions | New York Giants | Miami Dolphins | Los Angeles Chargers | Carolina Panthers | Arizona Cardinals | Jacksonville Jaguars | Cleveland Browns | New York Jets | Las Vegas Raiders | Indianapolis Colts | Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Denver Broncos | Atlanta Falcons | Dallas Cowboys | Pittsburgh Steelers | Chicago Bears | Los Angeles Rams | Philadelphia Eagles | Buffalo Bills | New England Patriots | New Orleans Saints | Houston Texans | Minnesota Vikings | Seattle Seahawks | Baltimore Ravens | Green Bay Packers | Tennessee Titans | San Francisco 49ers | Kansas City Chiefs