Bruce Arians (left) and the Cardinals are searching for their quarterback of the future beyond backup Drew Stanton (center) and starter Carson Palmer.
INDIANAPOLIS – His team won 13 games and reached the NFC Championship game behind a quarterback that was in the NFL's MVP discussion.
The future does not leave Steve Keim's thoughts, however. As good as Carson Palmer has been, the knowledge the Cardinals need a long-term answer at quarterback "keeps me up at night."
"You do realize you have to find the next guy, and if you don't find the next guy you're not going to be in that position very long," the Cardinals' general manager said. "It's the cold-hearted reality."
The Cardinals have considered post-Palmer life. "We have talked about it a bunch," coach Bruce Arians said. But that is no
guarantee that the team will draft one this year. Arians said he thinks this quarterback class could provide that opportunity – the Cards do draft 29th in the first round, much too low to have a chance at any of the top prospects – but it is not guaranteed.
Forget the future for a moment. There is uncertainty behind Palmer just for 2016. Backup Drew Stanton is set to be a free agent, although Arians sounds confident he will return. Matt Barkley arrived too late last season to have any practice time or preseason work in the Cards' offense, so Keim still sees him as an unknown.
Palmer is 36, though. Thinking about who the starter will be once Palmer's contract ends after 2017 is both prudent and necessary. Finding that guy is not as simple.
Of the quarterbacks Keim has evaluated as "really good" in his years in the NFL, he saw all of them at that level immediately, he said. (Keim acknowledges there was one QB he thought was going to be really good and was not, although he declined to give a name.)
There are other times when Keim said he has found himself trying too hard to like a quarterback just because he realized the need, to the point where it was getting too easy to overlook flaws. That, Keim said, can't happen.
So the Cardinals walk the tightrope. There are no plans to be picking high in the draft anytime soon. Keim doesn't want to force a pick, nor pass on a good player. Keim poses a hypothetical: If the Cardinals see a quarterback at the end of the first round with a grade of 79 and a chance to develop into an NFL starter, but there is a cornerback who has a grade of 87 with a chance
to develop into a Pro Bowler, can the Cards afford to say 'We must have the QB'?
At the same time, Keim said "you can't be afraid to miss" on taking QBs in the mid-to-late rounds just hoping you can find a gem.
"That's the hardest position to find, and you have to keep throwing darts," Keim said.
The top QB prospects – North Dakota State's Carson Wentz, California's Jared Goff, Memphis' Paxton Lynch – all could be drafted by the time the Cards are picking in the first round, and all three have reasons for pause in terms of "franchise quarterback" viability. Beyond that are flawed options that will need developmental time.
Arians isn't a believer in quarterbacks learning from the sideline, although he knows with Palmer in place, "if we draft one, he's going to hold a clipboard for a year."
That'd be at least a year, with Keim believing Palmer "has a lot of good snaps left."
"You learn from practice. You have to get him every snap," Arians said. "The trick with a young guy is you have to get him practice to where he is improving in your offense, not someone else's offense (on the scout team). When they are sitting there and not playing, it's very hard to develop them.
"You may take a rough year (with a win-loss record), but today, you don't get a year on your contract as a coach. You may get your ass fired trying to get this guy developed. That's the fine line, taking one and playing (a young QB) or taking one and sitting him. In our situation, he'd sit for a year and hopefully be the future."
That was the idea when the Cards took the flier on Logan Thomas in the fourth round in 2014. It didn't work. The search continues.
"Show me a GM who hasn't found a franchise quarterback that has longevity," Keim said.
Images of coaches, general managers and players speaking with the media at the NFL Scouting combine in Indianapolis