Steve Keim: Chris Johnson “still has the passion for the game”

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GLENDALE, Ariz. – Cardinals general manager Steve Keim saw something in running back Chris Johnson that no one else in the NFL saw: He saw that Johnson still had “some gas left in the tank,” and that’s why he brought him in midway through training camp this past season.

“I don’t know if there was a perception about Chris (Johnson), but the one thing that I will say is that he was a good teammate, he was a great person in our locker room,” Keim said from the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Ind. “Sometimes, with these free agents, you don’t know what kind of people they are. Chris was a guy that was a team guy, quiet and reserved, yet, at the same time, still has the passion for the game.”

Arizona brought Johnson in on a one-year, $870,000 deal, and he lived up to his end of the bargain, even if he didn’t get to play out the entire string of games because of injury. In 11 games (nine starts), Johnson rushed for a team-high 814 yards and three touchdowns.

From all reports, it seems like Johnson wants to return to the Cardinals and take care of some unfinished business, and according to Keim, the team has interest in bringing him back as well. Keim says the team will meet with Johnson’s agent, Joel Segal, this week and see if they can hash out a new deal to bring Johnson back for the 2016 season.

Another Cardinal who is due for a new deal is safety Tyrann Mathieu, who was having a career-year until his season was cut short due to a second ACL injury in three seasons.

Keim says the team will look at addressing Mathieu’s contract situation soon. He says no deal is “imminent,” but he knows how important Mathieu is to the Cardinals moving forward.

“He (Mathieu) made a lot of strides maturity wise,” Keim said. “Just his work ethic, (and) his passion for the game, I think he took it to another level, and I think you saw that in his play this year (89 tackles, a team-high 16 passes defensed, 5 interceptions, 11 tackles for loss and a forced fumble). He’s done a fantastic job. He’s a guy that’s certainly done a nice job for us.”

According to, the Cardinals have $19,405,977 in cap space with their top 51 contracts for the coming season. The great thing about this number is that, right now, Arizona is only carrying $252,049 in dead money. Having that low a number has to take some pressure off Keim, as he and the team are getting prepared for the start of free agency, with the 2016 NFL Draft coming not too soon after that.

“The one thing we wanted to do when I took over (as general manager) three years ago, was to eliminate dead money, and I think we’ve done a good job for the most part of eliminating dead money,” Keim said. “That goes back to my philosophy with some of the one-year contracts, and not getting into a position where you’re being so active in free agency, and guaranteeing large numbers. When you get in that position, you have cap casualties, you have dead money that follows, and I think it’s one of those situations where you have to be in a win now mode. You can never say, ‘You’re building for the future.’ Fans don’t want to hear that, organizations don’t want to hear that. Our expectations are to win, and to win now. To me, you have to draft well, and you have to spend through free agency. It’s a difficult task, because you have to have a tough balance, but at the same time, in free agency, it can be fools gold. You see these guys: Why do they hit the market, and the money that comes attached to those players? My philosophy has always been to somewhat sit back, let the market play itself out, and see where the numbers go, and find guys who are the right people; the right passionate players to fill in your locker room.”

One of those “right passionate players” Keim mentioned could possibly be a quarterback. Now, whether the Cardinals find that person through free agency, or the NFL Draft, remains to be seen, but it’s no doubt a position that needs to be addressed, with Carson Palmer being 36-years old, and backup quarterback Drew Stanton hitting the free agent circuit on March 7.

“I think, as a GM, you’re always looking for the future,” Keim said. “You look at the final four quarterbacks in this year’s season: Carson (Palmer), Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and you look at their ages, (and) supply and demand is an issue at that position. Finding that position is the hardest job for a general manager to have.”

“There’s no secret that we’re always trying to look for the next guy,” Keim said. “To be in a situation like Green Bay (Packers) was years ago when they took Aaron (Rodgers) after Brett Favre was their starter. That’s obviously the ideal situation, but how many times are you sitting in the 20’s (in the Draft) where you can take a guy you see as the future? When you evaluate that position, and over the years that I’ve looked at quarterbacks, it’s one of those things where, when you see a quarterback that you fall in love with, a guy that’s a franchise player, you know in your heart and your gut that this is the guy. It’s so hard to find that position; you want them to be that guy. You see things you like on tape, (and) his character is good. All the dots connect, yet, at the same time, you’re not convinced that this is the guy. If you miss on a player, and you take him high, it sets you back three or four years, so that’s the difficult position we’re in.”

With right tackle Bobby Massie coming up on the end of his rookie contract, Keim and the Cardinals had to be looking toward the future with that position in mind. There’s no guarantee that Massie would hit the free agent market and decide to remain with the Cardinals, so the “long term solution,” in Keim’s words, was for the team to draft tackle D.J. Humphries with the 24th overall pick in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

Humphries struggled quite a bit in his rookie season. Head coach Bruce Arians felt Humphries didn’t truly understand what it was to be an NFL professional, and as a result, it set him back.

Humphries did come along as the season went on, which was a good sign, especially if he is to be the starting right tackle for Arizona next season, if Massie doesn’t return.

“Not everybody’s going to contribute (in their rookie season),” Keim said. “Our second, third and fourth (round) picks, they all started for us. When you look at (outside linebacker) Markus Golden, you look at a (running back) David Johnson, you look at (defensive tackle) Rodney Gunter from Delaware State, all those guys started for us as rookies. So, when you look at the (NFL) Draft, you say, ‘Oh, well maybe they missed on the first pick,’ not so fast. There are some guys that take some time to develop, and you have to keep in mind that it’s a long-term situation, not short-term.”