Josh Rosen's presence at a workout could signal if Cardinals are drafting Kyler Murray

NFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

PHOENIX – In the guessing game that is the story of the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, and whether the Arizona Cardinals are going to select Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray and trade Josh Rosen, an executive offered a telltale sign as he departed the league’s annual owners meetings in Phoenix last week.

“The [start of Arizona’s] offseason program will be interesting,” he said. “I’d imagine if [the Cardinals] are going to do something, there’s going to be some pressure before today and when he’d [Rosen] normally be expected to be in the building.”

In this game of will-they-or-won’t-they poker, April 8 has become important. That’s when Arizona officially begins the voluntary phase of its strength and conditioning program.

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Voluntary” deserves strong skepticism in Rosen’s case for two reasons: A healthy starting quarterback entering his second year in the NFL is almost always expected to show up for these workouts – even in the case of strength programs. And the Cardinals have a new staff that will want to begin its interactions with Rosen as soon as possible. Which in Arizona’s case comes next week.

If Rosen isn’t on the trade block, there is no good reason for him to be absent when the offseason workouts begin. Barring some cooked up excuse by the franchise or Rosen himself. It’s notable that Arizona already pushed back the offseason workouts – from Monday to April 8 – supposedly in hopes of creating a more compact schedule for players this offseason. Coincidentally, pushing those workouts back also created an additional week of wiggle room for the Cardinals when it comes to acting on any deals for Rosen that may have picked up traction at the owners meetings.

It's unclear if Josh Rosen will be the Cardinals' starting quarterback for the 2019 season. (AP)
It's unclear if Josh Rosen will be the Cardinals' starting quarterback for the 2019 season. (AP)

Level of Rosen trade interest from Chargers, Giants and Patriots

Instead of having five days to work on a trade coming out of the meetings, Arizona will have had 12 before Rosen would potentially report for workouts. In terms of creating more runway for trade negotiations, it makes sense because the Cardinals have to know the workout program creates a signal that should finally cut through all the half-confirmations that are floating around the league when it comes to Rosen’s availability.

At the owners meetings, all of the teams that would logically have some Rosen involvement were relaying vague interest at best. The Los Angeles Chargers? If there was a pursuit, it was being kept under wraps at the very highest level of the organization. The New York Giants? Despite reports of serious interest, several league sources connected them with drafting Duke’s Daniel Jones rather than trading for Rosen. The New England Patriots? A team source in New England wasn’t fully convinced the Cardinals had settled on trading Rosen. Meanwhile, teams like the Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins seemed eager to take themselves out of the Rosen conversation entirely.

On one hand, it seemed like the kind of approach expected from NFL teams slow-playing a trade and trying to depress the cost required to pay. On the other, nobody was spinning up talk of a “hot” Rosen market, either. It didn’t feel like any kind of land-rush to acquire him – possibly because so many NFL teams feel like they have other options at quarterback either in this draft or 2020, or currently sitting on the roster.

That also might be part of the problem for Arizona right now, even if the franchise intends to draft Kyler Murray No. 1 overall. There may not be enough of a demand for Rosen to get anything more than a second-round pick for him. And if Arizona is intent on waiting for a better offer, it might be entering April facing the reality that a better offer may never exist.

3 scenarios for Rosen

Which brings the Cardinals to a weird spot. Facing the start of a workout program with a player who should attend but who also may be on the trade block. That’s what next week represents. It also may be what other NFL teams are waiting for: the final clue about how committed Arizona is to trading Rosen and drafting Murray.

As the executive put it of Rosen and the Cardinals: “He’s a [22-year-old] starting quarterback. If you’re not trading him, a lot will be new again this year, OK? There’s a new coaching staff and a new offense. Some of the guys they picked up [in free agency] are new. So [Rosen] – if he’s the guy – he pretty much should be the one unlocking the doors for everyone to come inside the facility [on April 8]. That’s what you insist on from a young starting quarterback. Baker Mayfield, [Sam] Darnold, [Josh] Allen, [Lamar] Jackson – I’m sure those guys will all be at their voluntary workouts. If Rosen isn’t [in Arizona], that’s pretty interesting I’d say.”

Given that kind of expectation, a lack of attendance in the offseason program could fall in a litany of categories.

1. Rosen doesn’t attend because it’s a voluntary portion of the program. That wouldn’t be a great look given the aforementioned realities about this stage of his career and the coaching staff changes.

2. Rosen doesn’t attend because he or his agent believes the quarterback is on the trade block and one or both wants a resolution to the situation.

3. The Cardinals tell Rosen to stay away because he’s on the trade block and they don’t want to risk a freak injury – or thrust him into an awkward public relations dance when he won’t be on the roster in a month.

Beyond those three reasons, any other explanation for Rosen’s lack of attendance will be seen as something contrived – either the team or the player trying to explain away a waiting game that is going to get only more awkward as the draft approaches.

And if Rosen attends? Then it means he’s the Cardinals starting quarterback in 2019 and Murray isn’t the sure target that he has appeared to be. That, or Arizona is approaching the trading of Rosen on a Machiavellian level – doing everything it can to make suitors show their top offer … even at the expense of continuing a charade to new levels.

Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray has a fan in Kliff Kingsbury, but it's unclear if the infatuation is strong enough for the Cardinals to draft him No. 1. (Getty Images)
Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray has a fan in Kliff Kingsbury, but it's unclear if the infatuation is strong enough for the Cardinals to draft him No. 1. (Getty Images)

Are Cardinals playing gamesmanship?

To the Cardinals’ credit, there is still a possibility that all this assumption about Murray is a fabricated ruse to engineer some kind of trade of the pick. One where Rosen was recruited into the plan and then kept in the fold as Arizona sent all kinds of contradictory signals to keep trade suitors off balance. That seems highly unlikely, of course. But it’s also worth remembering that Baker Mayfield going No. 1 overall in the 2018 draft wasn’t accepted until hours before he became the pick. It can be argued that this situation is even more ripe for misinformation because at least in 2018 we were absolutely certain the Browns were taking a quarterback No. 1 overall.

But you could also argue that there are far more reasons to believe Arizona is, was, and has always been going with Murray in the top spot. Starting with general manager Steve Keim and head coach Kliff Kingsbury verbally opening the door to a Rosen trade at the NFL scouting combine in February. Continuing with some of the same open-ended commentary through the owners meetings in Arizona.

Even the not-so-subtle language has been suggestive, like when Kingsbury is asked about Murray and lavishes deep praise, while alternately giving Rosen a solid but far less effusive nod. Or when Kingsbury was asked at the owners meetings about two of the top defensive pass rushers on the board – Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and Alabama’s Quinnen Williams – and responded with a short, cliche-filled assessment that made that tandem come off as an afterthought in the organization.

Maybe that was gamesmanship, too. And maybe the Cardinals’ visit with Bosa – which seemed to have been pushed out into the media strongly by the organization – is more than another smokescreen. Regardless, there is surely some lying taking place right now. Just like there was when it came to the Browns last year, when the franchise was so surely locked on Sam Darnold or Josh Allen. We all know how that turned out, so anything seems possible with the Cardinals having arguably more options this year.

But we also have something the Browns didn’t have last offseason: A deadline of sorts that could show their draft intent. Arizona has that. And in a week, one way or another, the future of Rosen and Murray should seem more obvious than it does right now.

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