Last offseason, the entire NFL slept on Lamar Jackson's upside. They simply looked at what had taken place on the field in 2018 — that Jackson had run a lot and had been used as a gadget player before Joe Flacco was benched — and decided there was no passing upside. Jackson won the 2019 MVP award and, if you were lucky enough to draft him, likely put you into position to win your fantasy league. To this day, there are still people who hype up Jackson's downsides. Ignore those people.
Out in the desert, Kyler Murray had a ridiculous season for a rookie. There have been three rookie quarterbacks since 2000 to complete more than 64 percent of 400 or more passes: Dak Prescott, Teddy Bridgewater and Murray. And, perhaps most importantly for fantasy football purposes, Kliff Kingsbury was not afraid to allow Murray to run. Murray had one of the five highest rushing attempt totals ever for a rookie quarterback in the modern era.
Most Rushing Attempts, Rookie Quarterback
Robert Griffin III
Murray was the third-most effective rusher per Football Outsiders' DYAR metric last year, behind only Jackson and Josh Allen. And, if you look at last season's standard fantasy football points, every single quarterback in the top 8 either ran the ball 75 times or was attached to a top-5 passing offense/top-6 total offense. And yes, that includes Murray, who finished eighth in quarterback fantasy points in his rookie season, before we price in any improvement.
There was a dramatic shift in Arizona's offense in the middle of last season. Per Sports Info Solutions, the Cardinals ran 311 plays last season where they used four or more wide receivers, but 213 of those came in the first eight weeks of the season. Four wide is the classic Kingsbury offense from the Texas Tech days. But his Cardinals didn't have enough weapons to effectively run the sets. David Johnson finished third on the team in targets, and wideouts like long-time special teamer Damiere Byrd were fully integrated into the offense in these sets. Byrd's 46 targets were more than double the amount he'd had in his first three NFL seasons combined. Rookie sixth-rounder KeeSean Johnson saw just 42 targets, and he caught only 50 percent of them. Kingsbury brought in KeeSean Johnson, Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler in the same draft, but it wasn't enough to make four-wide sets work in Year One. So he tabled them down the stretch.
While it's obvious to expect fantasy gold when you pair Murray with DeAndre Hopkins, we need to understand the total impact. Not only are the Cardinals getting an elite receiver with a giraffe-neck catch radius, but they're also getting permission to run those four-wide sets they couldn't run last year. Hopkins, Christian Kirk, Larry Fitzgerald, and one of last year's rookies will make those sets much more appealing.
Obviously, as he's a wideout changing teams, it's probably worthwhile to lower your projections for Hopkins, but there's not much reason to believe that he can't raise the profile of this offense. At worst, he's a top-5 wideout over the last few seasons, and you can squint and talk yourself into him being the absolute best. Freed from a regressive Bill O'Brien offense that almost never game-planned real cushion for him, he'll be just fine.
Then we have to account for the situation that the Cardinals have forced on themselves: Their defense has some stars but is otherwise terrible. Arizona finished 23rd in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA last year and 27th in pass defense DVOA. They are being coordinated by Vance Joseph, who has exactly zero impressive seasons leading an NFL defense and who immediately turned the impressive core of the 2015-16 Broncos into merely good. The Cardinals drafted the wildly versatile Isaiah Simmons in the first round, which sounds great, but will Joseph get the most out of him?
In other words: There's not much reason to believe the Cardinals are going to break out defensively, which means that Murray is still going to get a lot of passing attempts this year. Murray was in the top 10 without the four-wide offense being a key factor for Arizona, and there's still a little bit of room for that pie to grow. The Cardinals have also been blessed by the schedule, with NFC East and AFC East dates and games against the Lions and Panthers. There will be some potential smash spots for Murray this season. These poor defenses on the schedule also establish a high floor for Murray.
Finally, Murray has room to grow from last season's performance. Per Sports Info Solutions' charting data, Murray had only four dropped or defensed interceptions last season. When we look at historical averages to try to determine how “lucky” his interception rate was, we think he was actually unlucky on the whole with +0.5 interceptions. To put that into some unflattering one-on-one comparisons, Carson Wentz had 10 dropped or defensed interceptions last year. Daniel Jones had seven in roughly 100 fewer attempts. The raw numbers might say that Jones and Murray were similarly likely to get turned over in their rookie season, but the underlying data supports that a little less.
No quarterback was sacked more than Murray in 2019, and that's an area where a little better offensive line play mixed with better recognition from Murray will help. It is worth pointing out that Murray did what he did with by far the most broken offensive line of 2019. Marcus Gilbert was signed to be the starting right tackle last offseason and tore his ACL, missing the entire season. His backup, Jordan Mills, went on IR after Week 4. The Cardinals papered over that spot with the selection of Houston's Josh Jones at the start of the third round, giving them a position they can vastly improve upon thanks to better health and better talent.
You won't get the same kind of discount you could get on Jackson last year because the Hopkins trade and Murray's general placement on last year's fantasy football leaderboards make him a little more obvious. But the combination of Kingsbury's general philosophy and Murray's talent gives him the same chance to take the league by storm like Jackson did last year. Deshaun Watson and Prescott are probably the No. 3 and No. 4 quarterbacks after Jackson and Patrick Mahomes as far as known quantities at the top of the draft. Don't be surprised if Murray forces his way into that tier in his second season as a starter.
And, if everything breaks just right, Murray could make it six seasons in a row with a different No. 1 fantasy football quarterback.