The inside story of how the football fates, and some befuddling dealmaking, conspired to make 2018 top 10 pickJOSH ROSENthe most compelling figure in the 2019 NFL draft—and why the competitive, cerebral quarterback is getting a start fresh in Miami after Arizona moved on from him
JOSH ROSEN didn't believe, really believe, it would happen until a few minutes before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell stepped to the dais in front of an estimated 200,000 fans on Lower Broadway in Nashville and put Rosen's Cardinals on the clock with the first overall selection in the 2019 draft. Arizona management, linked for months to eventual No. 1 pick Kyler Murray, had finally engaged potential trade partners for Rosen in those moments before the draft, taking calls from the Giants, Washington and Miami.
Word spread fast. Rosen's agent, Ryan Williams, called to deliver the news to his client as Rosen watched the draft in the $1 million Scottsdale condo he'd purchased in 2018. Then, new Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, who only days earlier had tutored Rosen on his playbook, called Rosen to say the decision had been no reflection on his play. "We think the world of you," Kingsbury told him. It's not you, it's me.
That Rosen had been team president Mike Bidwill and general manager Steve Keim's 10th overall pick in 2018 mattered not. Goodell returned to the podium 15 minutes after putting the Cardinals on the clock and read the draft card: "With the first pick in the 2019 NFL draft, the Arizona Cardinals select Kyler Murray, quarterback, Oklahoma." Rosen had been through the draft only a year ago, and he'd seen the smoke screens and the subterfuge. He'd let himself think this might be one of those baseless draft rumors. Then it wasn't.
"My heart really didn't believe it was going to happen until a couple minutes before it happened," Rosen told SI two nights later. "Common sense sort of kicked in then, but my heart didn't want to believe it." After Rosen's 13 starts, 2,278 passing yards, 11 TDs, 14 interceptions and three precious wins, Arizona made Murray and Rosen the first QBs chosen by the same team in back-to-back first rounds since the Colts took Art Schlichter in 1982 and John Elway in '83.
Elway forced a trade to the Broncos six days later. Rosen and his agent believed a deal would materialize much sooner this time around. Each of this year's QB-needy teams had ample draft capital to make a move, and there was a general consensus that the 2019 class of quarterbacks wasn't nearly as strong as the previous one, which included five first-rounders. Williams was sitting behind his desk in the modish Laguna Hills, Calif., offices of his agency, Athletes First, watching the 49ers select edge rusher Nick Bosa with the second pick when Keim texted giving him permission to supplement Arizona's efforts to find a trade destination for his client. Then at No. 6 the Giants took Duke quarterback Daniel Jones, and Keim asked Williams if the Patriots liked his client and might be open to making him the heir apparent to Tom Brady.
Williams was taken aback and grew angry. How did Keim not already know the answer? The whole world knew, or had a good idea, that the Cardinals were taking Murray. Why are we negotiating trade terms now instead of weeks ago? Keim was texting all the right things: "We want to do what's best for Josh and also what's best for the organization." But his actions spoke louder. He wanted a first-round pick in return for Rosen, and might be willing to settle for a second-rounder. A Washington exec, upon hearing that price, chuckled over the phone: "That's really bold for someone who just took a QB."
And if that bid failed? Keim told Williams he would keep both quarterbacks on the roster. The GM said the Cardinals had done a study showing that on average over the past three seasons fewer than half the starting QBs in the league had played all 16 games. Many teams had to rely on a backup for five or more games. Keim felt the two first-rounders could coexist and give Arizona the deepest QB room in pro football.
While agency staffers in the next room celebrated the selection of other clients with wine and pulls of Tito's vodka, Williams called Rosen with an update: The Cardinals might actually keep you. "If that's their position," Rosen told him, "then I'll just beat him out and Kyler can be the backup." Williams's reply: "They don't want that, and they know they don't want that. We're getting a trade done."
AS THE DOLPHINS—whose nominal starter was 36-year-old journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, a March free-agent signing—emerged as front-runners in the Rosen trade negotiations the next morning, the Miami media scrambled for information on the biggest name of the NFL draft's second day. "I've talked to multiple people about Josh Rosen today," tweeted Miami Herald veteran Armando Salguero. "The play is not what troubles. The person does." It's the type of nebulous assessment that has followed Rosen throughout his career, inflamed by what evaluators see as his too-candid sound bytes and what was judged a tepid endorsement last spring from his UCLA coach, Jim Mora Jr. "He needs to be challenged intellectually so he doesn't get bored. He's a millennial. He wants to know why," Mora said. "Josh has a lot of interests in life. If you can hold his concentration level and focus only on football for a few years, he will set the world on fire."
Rosen says: "I don't think you can go back to any team I ever played on and find someone who will say I was a bad teammate. All my teammates throughout my entire career in football had my back. I loved them, they loved me. I've never been uncoachable. I've been tough to coach because I'm hypercompetitive and always get to the bottom of things. I can be a prickly personality at times, but none of it's ever malicious. I don't think anyone who really knows me on a deep level thinks I'm a bad guy. I like to think I'm a good guy."
Rosen resolved at the beginning of the 2019 draft process, when reports connecting Murray to the Cardinals surfaced, to take the high road. He showed up to work with the Cardinals—as recently as the day of the draft he was at the offseason program—and kept quiet in the media. When he unfollowed the Cardinals' social media accounts on draft night after Murray was picked, people noticed. Former wide receiver Steve Smith, on NFL Network, slammed Rosen for supposedly not wanting to compete. Rosen laughed it off privately, telling a friend, "I wonder if I unfollow Parley for the Oceans [a climate change awareness group], that will bring the same kind of attention for their organization, and maybe we can save the planet."
"I absolutely would have competed if they kept me, but I would've been kind of bummed about it because I knew I wouldn't get a fair shake," Rosen says. "A GM's not going to draft a quarterback [one year] and another one the next year, higher, and then play the first one. It's admitting you made two mistakes. It just wouldn't happen."
You might expect a player whose prospects were thinning pick-by-pick to shut down and go to a dark place, or stomp around and boil. But that's not Rosen. As trade talks cooled on Thursday, Williams told him it looked as if a deal would have to wait another day—if one were coming at all. "I'm fine," Rosen told him. "It's not like I'm some child soldier in Darfur. I've had it pretty good. I think it's time I had some legitimate adversity handed to me."
"I try to put everything into perspective," Rosen tells SI. "If I'm bummed I'm getting traded by the Arizona Cardinals, I try to think I'm living in an awesome condo in the middle of Scottsdale. I'm on a team, I have food on my table, a good family. Life could be a lot worse, so you count your blessings and try to put good energy out into the world."
By the start of the second round, the Dolphins were the only team still clearly in the market for a starting QB. They held the 48th pick—but instead of offering it to Arizona for Rosen they traded down, deeper into the second round, acquiring the 62nd pick from New Orleans. Keim and the Cardinals finally accepted a deal at 62. How Arizona went from bundling draft picks in 2018 and trading up for the 10th overall pick (Rosen) to a last-minute deal for the 62nd overall pick (plus a fifth-rounder) to dump Rosen is for the moment known only by the people in that war room. The Cardinals did not respond to requests for comment.
Two days after Murray was chosen, Rosen shot a video thanking the Cardinals staff and fans and his teammates. He wished Kyler Murray good luck and offered him a deal on his condo in Scottsdale. He showed up at Larry Fitzgerald's charity softball tournament and won the game's MVP and the home run derby, sending nine moonshots into a picturesque desert sky. Miami is an unknown, with a first-year head coach (Brian Flores) and a first-year offensive coordinator (Chad O'Shea), both from a Bill Belichick coaching tree that has yet to bear fruit for the rest of the NFL. It might not have been Rosen's first choice, but it wasn't his last choice either.
It's Groundhog Day for Josh Rosen: He's a rookie again, with the benefit of experience. Looking back, he saw some opportunities to mentor other players in Arizona that he let slip. He wants to fix that. "There are little moments where you can step up and be a leader and help a guy," he says.
"I think some people take this chance for granted and think it will last forever," Rosen continues. "I got a little newsflash after Year One: You've really got to give it absolutely everything you've got every day, because this game is fleeting."
Why QBs no longer need to stand tall, teams want players they can plug in now and one position went from overlooked to coveted
1 THE KYLER MURRAY MOVE
Ten years ago Kyler Murray would have been a middle-rounds pick. It was believed that short quarterbacks simply couldn't play in the drop-back, passing-centric NFL. But not only did the Cardinals take the 5'10" Murray with the No. 1 choice, they also traded to Miami—for pennies on the dollar—Josh Rosen, the 10th pick in 2018, who checks all the boxes for a conventional NFL QB.
It's reasonable to say that Murray's ceiling is Russell Wilson Plus. Murray is a faster and quicker runner than Wilson, plus his arm is livelier. And like Wilson, Murray is a phenomenal touch passer. But it was not the success of Wilson, a largely improvisational QB, that made Arizona more comfortable with Murray; it was Baker Mayfield. The 6-foot, No. 1 pick of 2018 ignited the Browns as a rookie, playing at a high level predominantly—but not exclusively—from the pocket. Success inside the pocket will always be vital, but with Mayfield, and now Murray, we're seeing teams rethink what that looks like.
New Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury is expected to run a highly structured, quick-strike offense. He likely believes that Murray's obscured vision in the pocket can be mitigated by spread shotgun formations that present quick throws outside and defined reads downfield. College concepts once trickled into the NFL, but in the last five to 10 years, they've gushed in. Hiring Kingsbury and spending a bounty to draft the unique QB he covets represents, by far, the largest investment yet in college-style tactics.
2 SCHEME FIT EMPHASIS
The rookie wage scale implemented by the NFL's 2011 collective bargaining agreement has resulted in midlevel veterans being replaced by cheap players fresh out of college. The terms of that CBA also severely restrict how often and hard teams can practice. And so coaches are left with young talent they have had less time to groom. This makes it more critical than ever for them to draft players who can fit their schemes right away.
So, what do the 49ers, Raiders, Jaguars, Bills, Panthers, Chargers and Seahawks have in common? They run fairly straightforward zone-based defenses that are dependent on a four-man rush. All seven teams used a first-round pick on a defensive lineman who, at the very least, can contribute immediately in their third down front: DE NICK BOSA (San Francisco), DE Clelin Ferrell (Oakland), DE Josh Allen (Jacksonville), DT Ed Oliver (Buffalo), DE Brian Burns (Carolina), DT Jerry Tillery (San Diego) and DE L.J. Collier (Seattle).
Obvious scheme-fit starters were taken at other spots, too: Linebackers Devin White and Devin Bush went to the Buccaneers and Steelers, respectively, both 3-4-based teams that prioritize run-and-chase speed in the middle of the field.
The Lions, trying to become the Patriots of the Midwest, drafted do-it-all tight end T.J. Hockenson to fill the Rob Gronkowski role. And the Falcons and the Vikings, who both feature traditional outside-zone blocking on offense (think '90s-style Broncos), found quick, athletic guards in Chris Lindstrom and Garrett Bradbury.
3 SAFETY FIRST (OR AT LEAST SECOND)
Expanding your defensive scheme almost always involves safeties, the most maneuverable pieces on the chessboard. Lately, with offenses using more flex tight ends and running the ball out of three-receiver sets, defenses have taken to replacing their third linebacker with a third safety, putting more athleticism on the field. And so it's no surprise that, after free agency this year brought sizable contracts to a host of safeties (Landon Collins, Earl Thomas, Tyrann Mathieu, Lamarcus Joyner, Adrian Amos and, on the second tier, Kenny Vaccaro, Tashaun Gipson and Eric Weddle), this draft also proved how highly teams value the position. Since 2010, NFL drafts have averaged 4.7 safeties taken in the first two rounds, but this year, teams selected six pure safeties in those rounds (including DARNELL SAVAGE, the first one off the board, at 21 to the Packers), plus two more who may well play the position (Joejuan Williams in New England and Lonnie Johnson in Houston).