How free-agency failures put the Cardinals in a deep hole

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Andre Smith was supposed to be the fix at right tackle that the Arizona Cardinals were looking for after trading Jared Veldheer last offseason. Bene Benwikere was supposed to be the experienced cornerback who could spread coach Steve Wilks' message throughout the locker room after they spent three years together with the Carolina Panthers.

Both Smith and Benwikere were considered key free-agent signings. Both were starters. Both were cut Nov. 26 after just 11 games.

Although neither was directly responsible for the Cardinals' 3-9 start this season, they're both reflections of a growing trend over the past few years of Steve Keim's tenure as Cardinals' general manager: Bad decisions in free agency over the past three seasons, in signings and letting players walk, have led Arizona to this rebuilding season and put it on track for a top-five pick in the 2019 NFL draft.

But it wasn't always that way. Keim was a league darling during his first few years as general manager. He won executive of the year in 2014, after an 11-5 season that started 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 guys on the last legs of their careers who played well for Arizona.

Keim, who was the architect of the Cardinals' 13-3 2015 team 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 over in 2013 and releasing Darnell Dockett in 2015.

A general manager's legacy is defined by his first-round picks, but it's also judged by his free-agent decisions. Keim has made plenty -- 1,059 transactions in total since 2013. This season, he has made 168, already more than in 2017 with a month left in the year. Some of those moves, however, will be among the first few paragraphs of his epitaph, whenever his run as Cardinals GM comes to an end.

One stands out above the others. Keim was praised -- if not glorified -- for taking a chance on Tyrann Mathieu in the 2013 draft. Mathieu was kicked out of LSU for failing drug tests and didn't play in 2012, and questions about Mathieu abounded. Yet Keim rolled the dice and drafted him in the third round. The risk was, generally, rewarded. Mathieu was an impact player when he was healthy, but staying on the field was his toughest challenge.

After Mathieu's second ACL injury, Keim signed him to a five-year extension 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 clear answer. Mathieu finished 2016 on injured reserve but played in all 16 games in 2017 as his confidence started to return.

Keim, realizing the extension was premature, tried to convince Mathieu to take a pay cut this past offseason, with $18.75 million guaranteed to Mathieu in mid-March if he was still on the roster. Mathieu, who was a fan favorite and a face of the franchise, refused, and Keim released him in March. The two sides tried to negotiate a one-year deal for $8 million, but Mathieu ended up signing with the Houston Texans for $7 million.

How'd that decision work out? Mathieu is having a resurgence. He has a career-high three sacks and is on pace for a career high in tackles while adding two interceptions thus far to his stat line. And he has played in all 12 games, a feat unto itself. All while the Cardinals' defense, which ranked outside the top six just once in Mathieu's five seasons with the team, endured early-season struggles and is currently ranked 17th in the NFL.

That isn't Keim's only 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 a year off the deal to help Bethel become a free agent earlier. Bethel, who didn't pan out as a cornerback but was as effective a gunner as there was in the NFL, signed with the Falcons in the offseason.

Then there's offensive line, which has been a liability this season, 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, right guard Justin Pugh and left guard 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 recently.

Keim, who, as a former offensive lineman at NC State, prides himself on scouting the position, committed $120 million in contracts to three linemen over the past four years. Those three players -- Veldheer in 2014, Iupati in 2015 and Pugh in 2018 -- were supposed to be the Cardinals' foundation. Veldheer was traded this past offseason, one year shy of the final year of his contract, as Arizona signed Smith, who missed three games this season with an injury. Iupati has yet to play an entire season for the Cardinals. Pugh, also oft-injured throughout his career, suffered a broken hand and an MCL injury, the latter of which landed him on IR in Week 11.

There have also been questionable decisions to try to save money. Keim didn't re-sign cornerback Jerraud Powers after the 2015 season, when he made $4.35 million. Powers went to Baltimore for $1.75 million, and the Cardinals were left with a gaping hole at corner opposite Patrick Peterson that has yet to be filled. It has 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 started the first three games. Taylor was cut after Week 11. Benwikere's release followed a week later. It has been somewhat the same at safety. Instead of having one of the best safety tandems in the NFL, with Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger, the Cardinals have relied on veterans signed through free agency to keep the deep secondary afloat.

In 2016, instead of signing Jefferson to a long-term deal, Keim tendered him for $1.671 million. Jefferson had the best season of his career and then signed a four-year, $34 million contract with the Ravens, leaving Arizona without one of the 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 season to earn a three-year contract from Washington for $13.5 million.

One of the more notable decisions 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 per year. He signed with the Jaguars for $15 million per season, though he wanted to return to Arizona, and had a career-high 14.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, while Arizona has yet to fill his void on the interior of the line.

Thus, the Cardinals find themselves where they are today: 3-9 and on the verge of missing the playoffs for the third straight season, with a roster riddled with holes and one person responsible for fixing that.