After finally ending their postseason drought by returning to the playoffs for the first time in six years — only to get blown out by the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams in the NFC Wild Card Round — the Cardinals seem convinced they more closely resemble the team that opened the season 7-0 than the club that lost five of its last six games, including that lopsided playoff collapse.
That's the main reason why GM Steve Keim chose not to go on a spending spree in free agency this offseason, deciding instead to put a priority on re-signing as many of Arizona's own free agents as possible while also inking quarterback Kyler Murray to a massive extension (five years, $230.5 million including $160 million guaranteed) right before the start of training camp. Although the Cardinals helped to restore a big part of their core group by bringing back players like tight end Zach Ertz, running back James Conner and wide receiver A.J. Green, they also lost some key free agents in edge rusher Chandler Jones, receiver Christian Kirk and tailback Chase Edmonds.
They did swing a draft-day trade with the Ravens to acquire a No. 2 wideout in Marquise "Hollywood" Brown to play opposite DeAndre Hopkins, but the Cardinals can't be assured they are anything more than a possible playoff contender because A) Hopkins now will serve a six-game suspension to start the season for violating the league's PED policy, and B) they still have issues at some key positions, namely pass rusher, defensive line and cornerback.
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury has been fond of saying the main reason why the team struggled down the stretch for a second consecutive season was because of injuries to Hopkins and Murray, but the defense struggled as badly as the offense, and another second-half slide could be coming if those problems don't get resolved.
If Kingsbury and Murray are going to keep this unit afloat until the return of Hopkins in Week 7, a lot must happen. Namely, Brown needs to step into a bigger role than expected and help carry the load as a No. 1. The good news is, Brown will get help in the pass-catching department from the veteran Green, second-year speedster Rondale Moore and an established tight end in Ertz, who proved to be a valuable security blanket for Murray in 2021 following his midseason trade to Arizona from Philadelphia. In just 11 games, Ertz tied the franchise record for catches by a tight end (54), and the Cardinals will have him for a full season this year.
Green, who turns 34 on July 31, returns on another one-year deal. In his debut season in Arizona, he finished with 54 receptions for 848 yards and three touchdowns, and Kingsbury believes those numbers can improve if Green and Murray can establish a more consistent chemistry and work on their communication. The real wild card at receiver figures to be Moore, whom Kingsbury expects to fill the shoes of free-agent departure Kirk. That will mean working both out of the slot and also lining up on the outside.
Drafting tight end Trey McBride from Colorado State with a second-round pick came as a bit of a surprise, but with fellow tight end Maxx Williams still working his way back from ACL surgery and a desire to help strengthen the running game by utilizing a "12 Personnel" package more routinely, McBride will get his share of playing time as a rookie.
Conner, who rushed for 752 yards and 15 TDs and had 37 receptions for 375 yards and three more TDs, returns to lead Arizona's rushing attack. The team thinks it may have found its No. 2 tailback in Keaontay Ingram, a sixth-round pick from USC.
On the offensive line, the Cardinals return four of their five starters — left tackle D.J. Humphries, left guard Justin Pugh, center Rodney Hudson and right tackle Kelvin Beachum. They signed free agent Will Hernandez to play right guard and drafted more depth at the position with the selections of Virginia Tech's Lecitus Smith and Oklahoma's Marquis Hayes. Hudson was the only starter signed through 2023, however, meaning Arizona could have a much different look up front after this season.
The Cardinals knew when they lost Chandler Jones to the Raiders as a free agent that no one person would be able to replace the franchise's all-time sacks leader. That's the very reason why they used three draft picks on players they think can compete for an eventual starting job at outside linebacker.
Maybe one of them can do it, but it may not be easy getting third-round picks Cameron Thomas and Myjai Sanders and sixth-rounder Jesse Luketa up to speed right away. Though Keim and Kingsbury envision each of them battling for at least some playing time, a more likely scenario is that Dennis Gardeck gets the first real shot at starting opposite Markus Golden, Thomas slides in as a backup defensive end behind J.J. Watt and Sanders and Luketa vie for reserve duty at OLB while also earning time on special teams.
More of a concern really is what the Cardinals will be able to expect out of their two young starting inside linebackers, Zaven Collins and Isaiah Simmons. The two former first-round picks are being counted upon heavily to patrol the middle of the field and be reliable both against the run and in pass coverage. It took Simmons two seasons to emerge as a dependable defender, although he still needs seasoning and more time to sharpen his skills. Collins lost the starting job as a rookie in training camp, getting beaten out by veteran Jordan Hicks, who is now in Minnesota. Arizona brought in a veteran in Nick Vigil from the Vikings to lend a hand, but for Collins, it's either sink or swim.
Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see if the Cardinals make any additions to the defensive line after releasing 6'6" tackle Jordan Phillips, who proved to be a bust in his two seasons in the desert, and not re-signing veteran nose guard Corey Peters. Arizona didn't address either position in free agency or the draft. Keim, however, has a reputation for bringing in solid veteran help on the cheap during training camp.
In a perfect world, Byron Murphy Jr. would move back to slot corner where the Cardinals can better utilize his skills. That's a luxury that the team probably can't afford. A lot will depend on the growth of second-year man Marco Wilson, thrust into a starting role as a rookie opposite Murphy. Wilson held his own until teams began picking on him down the stretch.
The Cardinals return two of the most dependable and seasoned specialists in the league at their respective positions in kicker Matt Prater and punter Andy Lee, who have 33 years of NFL experience between them. Prater gave Arizona the reliable consistency it hadn't had at kicker in years, and he still possesses one of the strongest and most accurate legs in the business. Lee was equally consistent as usual, ranking third overall with a 49.0-yard average, although his totals dropped on punts inside the 20.
Coordinator Jeff Rodgers continues to put together dogged units on kick and return coverage, but the Cardinals haven’t uncovered a viable threat as a return man. Moore, the lightning-quick receiver from Purdue, is expected to get the first shot to man both roles.
The Hopkins suspension casts a huge shadow of skepticism. Though it's not fair to pin so much pressure on just one player, the world knows how ineffective Arizona's offense was a year ago without him in the lineup. The team's only hope is that Brown comes through in a big way and Murray, assuming he gets the help he needs, can take another big step in his development as a franchise quarterback. The team is banking on that after signing him to a record It still won't be enough, however, if the defense doesn't hold its own, can't be disruptive up front and on the back end and the two young inside linebackers don't deliver as hoped. It's possible the Cardinals will either shine or stink, and that's the bottom line.