The honeymoon period is over for head coach Kliff Kingsbury. After going 5–10–1 his first year with rookie quarterback Kyler Murray and then finishing 8–8 in 2020 and missing the playoffs by losing their regular-season finale at the Rams, the Cardinals most likely need to make it to the postseason this year for Kingsbury to reach the fourth and final year of his current contract.
After an aggressive offseason by general manager Steve Keim, who brought in multiple big-name veteran players through free agency and trades such as J.J. Watt, A.J. Green, Malcolm Butler and Rodney Hudson, Kingsbury will be under more pressure than ever to shape the team into a real contender.
The pieces are all there, starting with Murray, who followed up his Offensive Rookie of the Year performance with a Pro Bowl season and aims to make an even higher leap in his third year. In addition to getting another full year with one of the NFL’s top wide receivers in DeAndre Hopkins, Murray has a couple of new targets in Green and rookie speedster Rondale Moore, the team’s second-round pick out of Purdue. The pass rush could be one of the best in the league with Watt joining Chandler Jones, who missed most of 2020 due to a torn biceps. Keim also improved the offensive line and running back rooms in addition to strengthening the linebacker corps and special teams units.
Playing in the always-tough NFC West will make things difficult for the Cardinals, but they’ve done enough to give themselves a real chance to return to respectability.
If Murray takes another huge step in his development, especially when it comes to better recognition of defensive coverages and schemes, the possibilities are endless. The dual-threat has already made great strides by eliminating his sack totals, showing off more of his elusiveness and making smarter decisions overall.
“With Kyler, it is just continue to master your craft,” Kingsbury says. “This is a position that you’re never going to reach perfection, but you’re going to work towards that. It’s the little things each and every day, consistency each and every day. He made huge strides from Year One to Year Two, and I’m expecting him to make the same strides this season.”
Having a pair of veteran wide receivers to target in Hopkins and Green, who have combined for 12 Pro Bowl appearances and eight All-Pro selections, will only make Murray’s life easier. Beyond them, it will be interesting to see how Kingsbury decides to divvy up the touches between Christian Kirk, Moore, Andy Isabella and KeeSean Johnson. One thing is for certain: Moore will be utilized in multiple ways, including lining up in the backfield on occasion to run reverses and fly sweeps and take fade routes. At press time, Larry Fitzgerald still hadn’t made a decision on whether to return for an 18th season.
The Cardinals still have plans to add some spark along with more depth at the tight end position, but they did fill a hole at running back. Following the free-agent departure of Kenyan Drake to the Raiders, they added former Steelers featured back James Conner on a one-year deal. The 6'1", 233-pound Conner, who made the Pro Bowl in 2018, makes for a bigger, more bruising back whom Arizona can pair with the 5'9", 210-pound Chase Edmonds. Expect both of them to receive an adequate number of touches. The depth is unproven behind Conner and Edmonds, but Moore offers the Cardinals a versatile, change-of-pace talent when he lines up in the backfield.
It’s on the line where Arizona stabilized its offense. The biggest move was acquiring three-time Pro Bowl center Rodney Hudson from the Raiders in exchange for a third-round pick. He’s a huge upgrade over Mason Cole, who was dealt to the Vikings, and he’s exactly the type of seasoned leader and anchor in the middle that the Cardinals have been lacking. The other two key moves were re-signing right tackle Kelvin Beachum to a two-year contract and bringing in veteran right guard Brian Winters, who should end up starting after competition in training camp with Justin Murray and second-year pro Josh Jones. Offensive line coach Sean Kugler has said that Jones can play either spot and will have a long career in the NFL whatever position he plays. Arizona loves what it has on the left side of the line in tackle D.J. Humphries and guard Justin Pugh, and the depth from players such as Joshua Miles, Max Garcia, Lamont Gaillard, Branden Bowen, Koda Martin, Murray and Jones might be the best Arizona has had during Keim’s nine-year tenure as GM.
The secondary might not be as strong as it once was, but the Cardinals’ front seven could be dynamic with the additions of Watt and rookie inside linebacker Zaven Collins, the healthy returns of outside linebackers Jones and Dennis Gardeck and interior pass rusher Jordan Phillips and the re-signing of outside backer Markus Golden. Losing Haason Reddick to free agency shouldn’t hurt the team’s sack totals. He had 7.5 of his team-high 12.5 sacks during a late-season three-game stretch, but pairing Watt with Jones will more than make up for that. Arizona also hopes to get even more production up front from run-stuffers and second-year disruptors Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu.
The 6'4", 260-pound Collins, Arizona’s first-round pick out of Tulsa, is expected to challenge veteran Jordan Hicks for the starting Mike linebacker role right off the bat, and the long-term plan is for him to line up side by side with last year’s first-round pick Isaiah Simmons. The depth at both the inside and outside linebacker positions is fairly solid, with Devon Kennard, Tanner Vallejo, Kylie Fitts, Ezekiel Turner, Reggie Walker and, potentially, sixth-round pick Victor Dimukeje from Duke.
After letting 10-year veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson walk as a free agent, Keim signed fellow veteran Malcolm Butler to a one-year deal to man the No. 1 starting outside corner role. Arizona is gambling that veteran Robert Alford can handle the No. 2 spot after he missed each of the past two full seasons because of a pair of freak injuries. Byron Murphy Jr. returns as the full-time nickel/slot corner who can move to the outside if needed, and the Cardinals may have found a couple of steals in the draft in fourth-round pick Marco Wilson from Florida and sixth-rounder Tay Gowan from UCF. The back end is solid with All-Pro free safety Budda Baker, one of the best in the business, along with capable talents in Jalen Thompson, veteran free agent signee Shawn Williams, Chris Banjo, Deionte Thompson and Charles Washington.
Punter Andy Lee, who will turn 39 just before the season starts, and newly signed kicker Matt Prater, who will turn 37, remain two of the best in the business. Prater, especially, is seen as a massive upgrade over former kicker Zane Gonzalez both in his accuracy and his ability to hit from long range. Arizona lost one of its top gunners in receiver Trent Sherfield, but the team returns other key players on its coverage and return units in Gardeck, Turner and Fitts, among others. The Cardinals also have a shiny new option for their primary returner in the rookie Moore, who is small but elusive.
If Murray keeps ascending at his present pace, the rest of the offense takes another step forward in Kingsbury’s innovative designs and the defense proves to be as dominating as it looks on paper, the Cardinals should be able to battle for a playoff berth. Keim signed a handful of former veteran stars who will bring much-needed leadership and physicality to the team, and if two or three of Arizona’s draft picks are able to contribute right away, as expected, the Cardinals have a chance to be the talk of the NFL in 2021.