Everyone is eager to see Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury make their NFL debuts
Following a miserable 3–13 season that tied for their worst record since relocating to Arizona in 1988, the Cardinals didn't waste any time in their attempt turn the franchise around in 2019. They started by making a coaching change, purging Steve Wilks and the majority of his staff after just one season and looking outside the box for his replacement, hiring a young, innovative, offensive-minded college coach in Kliff Kingsbury to shake things up.
That's exactly what might happen, too. One of the benefits of finishing with the worst record in the league is owning the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and the Cardinals used it on former Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, a player Kingsbury had tried to recruit to Texas Tech and a potential superstar who could change the very landscape of the NFL with his dual-threat talents as both a pocket passer and a runner.
Murray's addition signaled the end for quarterback Josh Rosen just one year after he was drafted 10th overall, but that's what had to happen for the franchise to go all-in on Murray, who promised at his introductory news conference: "You're getting a winner. Every time I touch the field, I'm going hard no matter [what] the scoreboard [says]."
With a defense already in place that features anchor-type talent in cornerback Patrick Peterson and edge rusher Chandler Jones as well as new faces such as veteran outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, all eyes will be focused on what Kingsbury and Murray can do with the offense. Expect the Cardinals to run an insanely fast up-tempo style with an aerial attack featuring multiple receivers, including Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk and a bevy of rookie draft picks led by speedster Andy Isabella and the 6'5" Hakeem Butler.
With Rosen getting dealt to the Dolphins in a draft-day trade, the 5'10" Murray now becomes the epicenter of Kingsbury's version of the Air Raid offense. It will be interesting to see how defenses react to Murray's speed and elusiveness as he operates out of the shotgun formation the majority of the time.
He should have a better offensive line than Rosen did. The Cardinals, who were forced to use 10 different starting combinations up front because of injuries, brought in two new starters in guard J.R. Sweezy, a free agent addition from the Seahawks, and veteran right tackle Marcus Gilbert, obtained in a trade with the Steelers. Left tackle D.J. Humphries, center A.Q. Shipley and guard Justin Pugh return from knee injuries, and there has been an influx of experience and youth through free agency and the draft.
After missing all but one game in 2017 (because of a wrist injury) and having a subpar season in '18, running back David Johnson is convinced he can return to his 2016 All-Pro form, when he led the NFL in yards from scrimmage (2,118) and total touchdowns (20). The goal, he maintains, is still to rush for 1,000 or more yards and finish with 1,000 or more receiving yards. Look for Johnson, one of the best receiving threats in any NFL backfield, to get 25-30 touches per game and line up frequently as both a slot receiver and a out wide. Johnson welcomes the thought of running out of shotgun sets. "I actually love that," he says. "I did that in college. That's all we did in college is that gun-read option-type thing. I think it really opens up more space for me and makes me able to read the defense a little bit more besides getting the ball from under center."
Though he will be 36 when the season starts, Fitzgerald still has plenty of game — he had his three most productive (by number of receptions) NFL seasons from 2015-17 — and he can help mentor a young stable of receivers that includes a third rookie in KeeSean Johnson as well as Bears castoff Kevin White, the former first-round pick who has battled injuries since joining the league.
Keep an eye on the tight end position, where veteran newcomer Charles Clay could have a career revival in this system, and holdover Ricky Seals-Jones, a natural pass catcher, could thrive. The team also added a veteran blocker in Maxx Williams and drafted UCLA's Caleb Wilson, who led all FBS tight ends in receiving yards.
Upon hiring former Broncos head coach Vance Joseph as their new defensive coordinator, the Cardinals switched back to a 3-4 base, a system they used to average a top-six defensive ranking from 2014 through 2017.
It starts in the back end, where Peterson is still in his prime although he is set to miss the first six games of the season after being suspended for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy. The good news is that Peterson is finally getting some real help with the additions of athletic playmaker Robert Alford and rookie Byron Murphy. Alford expects to see heavy action as most teams tend to shy away from throwing to Peterson's side of the field. Murphy, a local product from Scottsdale by way of the University of Washington, figures to excel as the team's nickel corner right off the bat.
In starting safeties Budda Baker and D.J. Swearinger, Arizona has a pair of explosive playmakers who bring a ton of spark. The depth in the secondary is much better overall with additions such as veteran corner Tramaine Brock Sr., the versatile Josh Shaw and rookie safety Deionte Thompson, the former Alabama standout who fell to the Cardinals in the fifth round.
If the back end does its job, Jones, the NFL's sacks leader since 2016, could be in the hunt for a 20-sack season. He'll be flanked by the ageless Suggs, the league's active career sacks leader who despite turning 37 in October still has managed to average 9.6 sacks over the past five full seasons. The defensive line remains stout with the venerable Corey Peters and the always-available Rodney Gunter, in addition to new defensive end Darius Philon (from the Chargers), end/outside linebacker Brooks Reed (from the Falcons) and rookie Zach Allen, who can line up just about anywhere and is expected get plenty of action.
In the middle is where the Cardinals' defense will either sink or swim. New inside linebacker Jordan Hicks (formerly of the Eagles) has to stay healthy and be productive after signing a four-year deal worth $36 million. Third-year pro Haason Reddick, the team's first-round pick out of Temple in 2017, must prove he can thrive in an unfamiliar role.
About the only dependable thing here for the past two seasons has been veteran punter Andy Lee, who after setting a franchise single-season record with a 47.3-yard punting average in 2017 broke his own record last season with an NFL-high 48.6-yard average a year ago. The 37-year-old is under contract for two more seasons.
The Cardinals can't be exactly sure what they have at placekicker. Zane Gonzalez returns after taking over for the injured Phil Dawson, but Gonzalez is only 10-of-18 from 40 yards and beyond in his two years in the NFL. He likely will face some competition in training camp.
Expect Kirk, the Cardinals' crafty young receiver, to handle most of the punt returns with T.J. Logan and possibly Isabella or a surprise pick sharing the role as kick returner.
Normally, a first-year head coach with no previous NFL coaching experience would be afforded the courtesy of a honeymoon period. Not so with Kingsbury, who will be on something of a hot seat right away upon replacing a one-and-done coach in Wilks. Expectations are soaring in Arizona because of Kingsbury and Murray, his tied-to-the-hip flashy quarterback, and if they can't return the Cardinals to at least seven or eight wins, it will be a disappointment.
GM Steve Keim's job is on the line. The talent all seems to be in place, but another ugly performance could result in some serious changes and set the franchise back years.
Prediction: 4th in NFC West
(Top photo courtesy of www.azcardinals.com)