Kyler Murray and the Cardinals look to surprise in Kliff Kingsbury's second year as head coach
Time has a way of changing perceptions, and in the case of the Arizona Cardinals, the perceptions of the franchise couldn't be more different today than they were only one year ago.
Remember when their general manager was on the hot seat, their new head coach wasn't deserving of the role because he had a losing record in college where he got fired by his alma mater, and the quarterback was supposedly too small to make it in the NFL? Steve Keim, Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray have everyone singing a different tune in 2020, and with good reason, too.
Keim not only pulled off the move of the NFL offseason by acquiring superstar wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in a trade with the Texans, but he also helped rebuild a decimated defense with key additions through free agency and the draft. Kingsbury's offense finally got off the ground and showed its potential, and now he's got even more weapons with which to work. And as for Murray, all the former No. 1 overall pick did was set a bunch of team records on his way to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors with the expectation and promise to be even better in his second year.
"I can't wait for the season to start," Murray says. "We're going to do some damage."
Murray became just the second rookie quarterback in history to pass for at least 3,500 yards and rush for 500 or more yards, and he proved he could stay healthy, starting all 16 games and not missing any time until a sore hamstring knocked him out of the second half of a Week 16 game at Seattle. With a full year now under his belt and less unfamiliarity to deal with, some seasoned NFL analysts predict that Murray can take a second-season leap the way Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson did and make a run at league MVP.
That scenario might not be so hard to fathom considering how Keim helped his young quarterback by addressing a handful of critical areas on offense. It started in January with the return of future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald on a one-year deal and catapulted in March with the blockbuster trade for Hopkins, who has averaged 90 catches, 1,200 receiving yards and eight touchdowns per year during his first seven NFL seasons. Murray now has three top-notch receiving targets in Hopkins, Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk, the former second-round pick who continues to trend upward.
Dual-threat running back Kenyan Drake, who was brilliant in Arizona following his midseason trade from the Dolphins, signed a one-year transition tag deal and adds even more credibility to Kingsbury's up-tempo spread offense. Drake now essentially gets the entire backfield to himself in 2020 to showcase his slashing running style, pass-catching abilities and speed separation skills. Add them all up, and it figures to make it nearly impossible for opposing defenses to account for everyone lining up in Kingsbury's no-huddle offense.
The Air Raid looks to be more than ready for liftoff.
As with any offense, though, it all starts up front with the Cardinals' offensive line, and Keim didn't neglect to strengthen that unit, either. He re-signed starting left tackle D.J. Humphries to a three-year extension and found a capable starter to plug in on the right side — three of them, in fact, with veteran Marcus Gilbert, last year's primary starter, Justin Murray and third-round pick Josh Jones. Initially Gilbert, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, was expected to man the right side while Jones got acclimated, but the 10-year pro has opted out this season, meaning Jones will probably get the chance to start right away. Kelvin Beachum, who has been a full-time starter for three different teams across his eight-year career, was signed to a one-year deal to provide a veteran presence and could step in if Jones struggles. Humphries and guards Justin Pugh and J.R. Sweezy didn't miss a game in 2019, and for now, it looks as if Mason Cole, who started all 16 games a rookie in 2018, will be the starting center.
As much as Keim and the Cardinals did during the offseason to make life easier for Murray, they did even more on the other side of the ball. It's not like the defense didn't need a facelift. Arizona ranked last in the league in yards allowed per game (402.0) and total receptions allowed (421) and tied for last in total interceptions (seven). The Cardinals' defense was second-to-last in passing yards per game (281.9) and touchdown passes (38) and third worst in completion percentage (70.1).
It wasn't just bad. It was embarrassing.
It didn't help that the Cardinals were without their best cornerback, Patrick Peterson, for the first six weeks of the season due to a PED suspension, and that it took him that many more weeks to finally return to form. Or that their No. 2 corner, Robert Alford, missed the entire season upon fracturing his leg toward the end of training camp. Unfortunately, Alford tore his pec in training camp and he's expected to miss another season. Byron Murphy Jr., the team's second-round pick last year, is expected to replace Alford in the starting lineup once again.
The Cardinals added three new starters via free agency, snagged a potential game-changing defender and loaded up on depth in the draft. Jordan Phillips (Bills) gives Arizona the disruptive force on the interior line it hasn't had since Calais Campbell. Devon Kennard (Lions) can now draw some double-team attention away from All-Pro Chandler Jones as his bookend at outside linebacker. De'Vondre Campbell (Falcons) brings needed stability at inside linebacker, where first-round pick Isaiah Simmons (Clemson) figures to start his NFL career. Simmons played five different positions in college, and although he is pegged as an inside linebacker, he could move around like he did at Clemson, according to defensive coordinator Vance Joseph. "If it's a job we think he can do, we will put him out there," Joseph says. "That's why he was drafted. I want Isaiah to be Isaiah. What we saw him do on Clemson tape, I want him to do all those things if possible."
Arizona further beefed up its defensive line with fourth-round picks Leki Fotu (Utah) and Rashard Lawrence (LSU) and drafted a tackling machine who can help back up starting middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, the league's third-leading tackler in 2019, in sixth-round pick Evan Weaver (Cal).
Special teams have been a strength for the Cardinals since they hired Jeff Rodgers as their coordinator in 2018 and subsequently promoted him to assistant head coach last year. Though they haven't gotten much out of their return game since Peterson was an All-Pro punt returner as a rookie, the rest of the units shined again in 2019. Kicker Zane Gonzalez was named a Pro Bowl alternate after finishing fourth in the league in points (127) and field goals made (31), both of which ranked third best in franchise history. Veteran punter Andy Lee, meanwhile, had the NFL's second-best gross average (47.8) after leading the league a year ago and remains one of the most reliable legs in the business. Expect Rodgers to audition multiple candidates for the primary return duties, but there is speed and deceptiveness in two of the most likely candidates, Andy Isabella and Kirk.
The NFL is well known for its worst-to-first turnarounds, but it's important to remember that the Cardinals haven't had a winning season in four years and are coming off a 5-10-1 season in which they stumbled often and didn't find their way until December. The roster received such an injection of extra skill and dependability, though, that it's not difficult to imagine this club emerging as a possible playoff contender. It won't be easy in the always-tough NFC West, but with a third wild-card team added to the mix in each conference, don't be shocked if the new-look Cardinals are able to make a lot of noise in 2020.