Q&A: Cardinals GM Steve Keim on First-Round Quarterbacks, Scouting Mistakes, and Running an NFL Franchise

Steve Keim knows the Cardinals. This is his second year as Arizona’s general manager, but his 16th with the organization. He started as an area scout in 1999, working the entire East Coast, from Maine to Miami. Since then, he’s been promoted to the director of college scouting, the director of player personnel, and, finally, to the big chair before last season.

In his first year in charge, there was an argument for Keim as the best general manager in football. He grabbed Tyrann Mathieu in the third round before selecting Andre Ellington in the sixth. His debut free-agent class yielded Karlos Dansby (went to the Pro Bowl) and John Abraham (put up double-digit sacks). Under Keim and first-year coach Bruce Arians, the Cardinals won 10 games and just missed out on the playoffs. This year, Arizona started its season with a win over San Diego, thanks in part to a big night from Carson Palmer.

One of Keim’s first moves was trading what amounted to a sixth-round pick for Palmer last April, and that’s where I’ll pick up the conversation I had with Keim during an early-August practice.

On Carson, I remember you said at the combine that you felt like he was a guy who allowed you not to reach at that 20th pick for a quarterback. You could roll things over into this year if you needed to. At what point in the draft did you know you weren’t taking a quarterback in the first round?

Probably the minute Blake Bortles was off the board. There were other guys that we liked, but I’ve said this many times, my philosophy is that if you’re convinced a guy is a franchise quarterback, and that’s going to be the player you’re going to invest your long-term future in — if you’re convinced — you take him. Regardless of first pick, second pick, fifth pick, 20th pick. If you’re not convinced that quarterback is the answer, you don’t take him, for several reasons. If you take that guy, and he doesn’t pan out, you just cost yourself about four or five years. Because that guy’s going to end up having to play, and you can’t expect him to do it right now. You’re going to have to give him an opportunity to play, and if there’s a rocky road, you’re going to have to give him time to work through that rocky road.

My thought is this: If you’re convinced, you take him in the first round. If you’re not convinced, you take him in Rounds 4-7 if they have certain physical traits that you’re excited about — à la Logan Thomas.

But people generally panic. The other part of it is the confidence I have in [Carson]. Carson is 34 now? He’s a healthy 34, he’s energetic. After the season, he came into my office as fired up as some of these rookies. He’s excited about the pieces of the puzzle we’re putting together for him. Does he have two or three more years in him? It remains to be seen. The last great quarterback I was around was here when he was 35 to 38 [Kurt Warner]. Until we find somebody better than Carson Palmer, he’s going to be our quarterback.

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And you mean better than Carson Palmer today.

Yeah, well, when I say that, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I wouldn’t take a shot on a guy in the first round if he’s the future. But just to draft a quarterback because he’s young, I’m not going to panic like that. I’d rather use those high picks on players who are impact players at important positions. Again, building your supporting cast. If you’re sitting there at 20, 27, and you’re forcing a quarterback that you don’t believe in, you might have just passed up a guy that’s a potential Pro Bowler. And that makes you worse.

It’s not a secret. It’s just the philosophy behind it. People think differently. I know you have to have a good one, and a great one to win. I think that if you take Carson Palmer, if you protect him, if you upgrade the offensive line — which I feel like we have. Then you add pieces of the puzzle we didn’t have, the speed element. So we have Fitz, Michael Floyd.

[As he’s talking, John Brown, the Cardinals’ third-round pick from Pittsburg State, makes a catch.]

And then you add this guy, who catches everything and is off the charts in terms of foot speed, explosiveness, route running. You add Teddy Ginn to the mix. You’re creating major mismatches, because somebody is going to be on a linebacker.

It seems like you guys are comfortable in the draft with a player like [inside linebacker] Kevin Minter, who might not play much as a rookie because you have talent at that position. Does that worry you when your young guys can’t break in right away, or do you just chalk it up to having a front end of the roster?

When you’re a personnel guy, you have to look at the long-term health of your organization. There’s always a tough balance. Coaches always want to win now. Not that personnel guys don’t, but personnel guys look at it from the standpoint that, “This guy is going to set us up for the future. This guy is the long-term answer.” It’s not just a quick fix with a guy who’s going to make us better right now.

In reality, you tell me, how many guys that you draft are guaranteed to be impact players?

It doesn’t happen that often.

Yeah! You want to talk about a humbling exercise. That’s one thing you need as a personnel guy — you need humility. You need to have confidence, in believing what you’re seeing. But you also need to grow, and the only way you can grow is to self-evaluate and to have humility and be realistic and say, “I missed on this guy. Why did I miss?”

You build that Rolodex of players over the years, and you can step back and say, “This guy reminds me of Jon Beason.” This guy’s got a chance. Or, “This guy reminds me of X player, and he failed. That concerns me. He has the same traits.”

That’s how you grow in this business on the personnel side. If you went and looked at the first-round picks from the past five years, it tells you what an inexact science the NFL draft is. Take the past five years, 2014 to 2010, go down 1-32, and ask, “Is he a Pro Bowler, is he a starter, is he out of the league?”

I equate scouting and personnel to golf. You can get damn good at golf, you can be Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson. And you can always have a bad round, a couple shots you hit in the drink. It’s no different in scouting. You can become one of the best scouts in the NFL, but at the end of the day, you’re going to miss on players because you’re judging the human element.

That’s what I’ve come away with. When you miss on players, you’re generally missing on the person and the character. The passion and the want-to. Or you’re missing on the ability to comprehend and understand NFL offenses and defenses because they’re so complex. If you can’t learn, and you don’t have passion for the game, it’s going to weed you out in the end.

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Are there one or two traits that you find yourself falling back on a little more now, now that you have a base of knowledge about what types of guys pan out?

Early in my career, I was fixated on size and movement skills and explosiveness. I wanted twitchy athletes. Those are the guys I fell in love with.

I missed on a lot of them. Because at the end of the day, they didn’t love it. They weren’t passionate. When they couldn’t understand and they couldn’t learn  in this day and age, a coach isn’t going to put you on the field if they can’t trust you. They’re going to put in the overachiever with great instincts that understands the game.

Now, I find myself still in love with those guys with great size and movement skills, but at the same time, I’m putting just as much stock in the piece of the puzzle that’s passion, and smarts, and football instincts.

Is it strange for you that you’re sitting in the GM chair now?

It’s a lifelong dream. Every day, I wake up and my feet hit the floor and I thank God. I swear to you. Every day, I wake up and say, “I’m a general manager in the NFL.” I pray that I always maintain that attitude, because it’s what keeps me on edge. Here I am, I get to do a job that I absolutely love. I’m living a dream.

I tell this story all the time. I was always infatuated with the draft and college recruiting. I would always get Mel Kiper and Max Emfinger’s draft publications. I told my mom when I was 9 years old, she didn’t have to save money for college, because I’d get a scholarship. This is before I even started playing football. And I told her I’m going to have an opportunity to play in the NFL, and when I’m done, I’m going to be a general manager in the league. She just snickered. I was a very average student. And she told me that if I ever concentrated on math and science as hard as I studied those damn football players, I may be successful.

I think about it now, and I am living the dream. I hope everybody in life has the ability to do something that they love. You root for people, because you hear about so many people that are unhappy in their job. And I think, “Why me?” I got to become the general manager of a National Football League team at 39 years old. It’s amazing, even at that age, to have that opportunity.

Do you think it’s an advantage to have been with one organization the whole time?

I do. Because I feel like I understood the culture. I understood what needed to change. Sometimes, learning what not to do instead of what to do is just as valuable. I always felt like if I had the opportunity one day, I’d like to be aggressive. I think you see that with you how we’ve churned the back end of the roster.

Everybody that I’ve worked with, I feel like you can open up and learn from. I’ve always been of the mind-set that just because I’m the general manager doesn’t mean I have the answers. I hope I can learn from one of our area scouts. I always hope I can be open-minded, and listen, and put the trust in the people around me.

Was that the biggest challenge, going from being a scout in control of your own, small world to the forward-facing side of being in charge?

Here’s the problem: I went from a position where I didn’t have to do the administrative duties I have to now. It was a phenomenal job. I looked at all the top players in the country, and I looked at all the guys in free agency. So now, I go into the draft, and I’m still catching up. We’re starting draft meetings, and I’m getting to guys late.

That has to drive you crazy.

That’s the no. 1 part that drives me crazy about this job. I want to come out of the fall knowing all the players at Florida State, Tennessee, Georgia, and I can’t do it. I cannot do it. I’d love to get out on the road more, and I’m dying to go to Michigan, to go to Ohio State, NC State to do school calls. But I can’t do it. And that’s why you have to trust your scouts. Because when those guys are on those college campuses, and they get the feel from the schools, coaches, that’s how you get the best feel about the players. You see what you do on film, and you’re hearing from these coaches, and you’re talking to them personally. And then I’m seeing this guy practice and watching his practice habits. That’s the best way to piece together an evaluation.

So I’m sitting here after buzzing through three tapes, and I’m thinking, I don’t have a feel for him. I have to bring him in. I have to listen to him. Getting in late in the game is awfully tough.

Do you think you’re better at it now than you were last year?

Oh yeah. You hope every year you learn how to tweak things. This year, I vowed to get out more than I did, so I vowed to get out a little bit more. Maybe not to do a full school call, but I can go to a Saturday game and tie it into a town we’re playing in.

Now that your name is on the picks, do you think you’re more antsy when a guy isn’t playing as early as you’d like?

I wouldn’t say that. I would just say it’s more stressful. Your reputation, to some degree, is on the line. But at the end of the day, my personality is that I’m going to take my swings and continue to stay aggressive. You can’t be scared to whiff. As long as you’re being smart and logical about the process, you can’t be scared to take risks, à la Tyrann Mathieu. When you’re weighing risk versus reward, you can take your chances.

Filed Under: NFL, Arizona Cardinals, Carson Palmer, Steve Keim, Robert Mays, Grantland Q&A

Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays