Somers: NFL conference title games bring back memories of Arizona Cardinals' 2017 draft

Kent Somers
Arizona Republic
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To fully enjoy the NFL's conference championships Sunday, Cardinals fans must stay in the moment and not let their minds drift to what could have been.

That won’t be easy if Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has a big day on a bum ankle. Or if Eagles pass rusher Haason Reddick makes life miserable for the 49ers and quarterback Brock Purdy.

That’s because Mahomes or Reddick could easily be Cardinals right now if a series of events that began early in 2017 had played out differently, if the Cardinals had made better decisions or had better luck.

Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians talks with Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer (3) during the second half against the Dallas Cowboys at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sept. 25, 2017.

The 2016 season was as disappointing as any for the Cardinals since they moved to Arizona in 1988. In 2015, they went 13-3, advanced to the NFC championship game, and had quarterback Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald and other key veterans returning. But they slumped to 7-8-1 in 2016, missed the playoffs and had the 13th overall pick in the 2017 draft.

Palmer was 37 and it was time to start planning for his successor. Wisely, coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim had fallen in love with Mahomes after working him out at Texas Tech. 

“Skill-wise, he’s off the chart,” Arians said later on the Pardon My Take podcast. “But mentally, he was right there with Peyton (Manning), Andrew (Luck) and Tom (Brady). I mean, he’s like, sharp.” 

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If Mahomes was gone when the Cardinals picked, they would have settled for Deshaun Watson.

They were caught off guard when the Chiefs traded up to No. 10 and selected Mahomes, and the Texans traded up to 12, one pick ahead of the Cardinals, and took Watson.

Given Watson’s subsequent behavior, missing out on him was not a loss. But losing Mahomes? That one continues to hurt.

Patrick Mahomes' ability to plant and throw effectively could be affected by a high right ankle sprain he suffered during an AFC divisional game.

Alex Smith was the Chiefs' quarterback at the time, and everyone outside Kansas City figured the franchise was set at quarterback for a few years. But the Chiefs had become infatuated months before with Mahomes, and knew they had to trade in front of franchises that were needy at quarterback, such as the Cardinals.

“As that draft was falling, I was like ‘He’s ours,’” Arians said.

Then he wasn’t. And neither was Watson. So the Cardinals took the next highest player on their draft board: Reddick.

The failure to make Mahomes a Cardinals set the franchise back years. Palmer retired after the 2017 season. So did Arians, for a year, before reversing the decision and taking over the Buccaneers.

The Cardinals were left scrambling for a quarterback. They traded up to 10th overall in 2018 and drafted Josh Rosen. A year later, they drafted Kyler Murray as No. 1 overall and traded Rosen to Miami.

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Current Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (left) and former Cardinals quarterback Josh Rosen (right).

Rosen’s been under contract with a total of seven teams, and Murray is still trying to prove worthy of the first overall selection and the $230 million contract extension he signed before last season.

Being outmaneuvered in the pursuit of Mahomes and Watson wouldn’t have been so bad if Reddick had amassed his 39.5 sacks the last three seasons for the Cardinals, instead of dividing them between the Cardinals, Panthers and Eagles.

Only Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt had more sacks in that three-year period. And Reddick forced more fumbles, 13, than anyone else in those seasons.

So where did it go wrong between Reddick and the Cardinals? From the beginning.

Arizona Cardinals linebacker Haason Reddick runs off the field during practice at the Tempe facility, Friday, September 22, 2017.

The Cardinals, like a lot of other teams, didn’t think Reddick had the frame to rush the passer as successfully in the NFL as he did at Temple.

He was 6-foot-1, 237 pounds and lacked the bulk and length of most elite rushers. Reddick played well at inside linebacker at the Senior Bowl, and the Cardinals, along with other teams, envisioned him playing there.

It was a mistake. Reddick bounced between inside and outside linebacker in his first three seasons in Arizona. He ping-ponged in and out of the starting lineup, too. Playing in three different defensive systems for three different coordinators in his first three years hurt, too.

Through it all, Reddick became an easy person to root for. It’s not easy being a No. 1 pick who has failed to meet expectations, but he never bristled at questions about his failure to find a significant place on the Cardinals' defense.

Cardinals' Haason Reddick (43) forces a pass on Bills' Josh Allen (17) during the third quarter at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. on Nov. 15, 2020.

In 2020, the Cardinals moved Reddick to outside linebacker exclusively. He responded with 12.5 sacks, and because the Cardinals had not picked up an option for a fifth year, Reddick became an unrestricted free agent. 

Lucrative, multi-year offers did not roll in for Reddick during the spring of 2021. The Cardinals signed outside linebacker Markus Golden to a two-year deal worth $9 million, while Reddick signed for one year with the Panthers.

That one year helped him make a lot of money. Reddick finished with 11 sacks and in the off-season signed a three-year, $45 million contract, with the Eagles, $30 million of which is fully guaranteed.

Reddick gave the Eagles a great return on their millions. He had 16 sacks in the regular season, one of four Eagles with at least 10, and Philadelphia led the league with 70. The Cardinals finished with 36.

Reddick and that pass rush are reasons the Eagles are slight favorites to beat the 49ers in the NFC title game. Mahomes is obviously a huge factor in the Chiefs playing in their fifth consecutive AFC championship game.

Watching both of them Sunday could be painful for Cardinals fans who haven’t successfully blocked out the past.

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