Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5.
The Cardinals openly talked about how running back David Johnson’s contract was bad news for them. It was a typical big running back extension, almost immediately regrettable. It looked like the Cardinals had no choice but to either carry Johnson and his $14.2 million in cap space (and perhaps have to let go Kenyan Drake in free agency) or give Johnson away in a trade. It looked like they might even have to do a salary-dump trade, like Houston did with Brock Osweiler.
And then, somehow, the Cardinals shipped off Johnson and got one of the 10 or so most talented players in the NFL. Wait, what?
Hopkins is a remarkable player. There are four players to get first-team All-Pro each of the last three years: Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner, Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce, Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Hopkins. If you want to argue that Michael Thomas, Julio Jones, Davante Adams or whoever else is the best receiver in the NFL, that’s fine but Hopkins is undeniably on a very short list of candidates. So just imagine the reaction the first time Johnson-for-Hopkins was brought up. Oh, the Cardinals had to send a second-round pick to Houston, but they got a fourth-round pick back and who cares anyway? It’s one of the most amazing trades in sports history, the rare deal where you can’t find anyone reputable to stick up for the Texans’ side of it.
Even before the trade, the Cardinals were shaping up to be a fun team to watch in 2020.
The Cardinals made some unconventional moves in 2019. They hired Kliff Kingsbury as their head coach, even though Kingsbury couldn’t win in the Big 12, was fired by his alma mater of Texas Tech and had quickly settled for the offensive coordinator job at USC. It was a hire that was almost unprecedented in the NFL; if teams hire college coaches, they almost always come with winning resumes. Then the Cardinals drafted quarterback Kyler Murray first overall, even though they had just taken Josh Rosen 10th overall a year before. Murray wasn’t just the shortest quarterback to be drafted first overall, he was just the second quarterback 5-foot-10 or shorter to start a game in the Super Bowl era. The Cardinals didn’t have a banner year, but they were competitive and the offense looked pretty good. Murray won NFL offensive rookie of the year. It seems like both gambles worked.
The Cardinals still have a long way to go. The offensive line is a work in progress. The defense could still be one of the worst in the league. The Cardinals were the NFL’s worst team in 2018 and a rebuild takes time. But the Hopkins move helps. The Cardinals haven’t exactly been a lucky franchise, but the gift of a great player while also dumping an untenable contract had to feel like a gift out of the blue. It took the excitement to another level.
“We have everything that you need,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said, via Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic. “If you’re trying to build a championship-caliber football team, we have the players and I believe this is that type of roster.”
That might be too optimistic, but it says a lot about how far the Cardinals have come in a year. Maybe things are finally turning for a franchise that has the longest championship drought in major American professional sports.
Let’s remove the DeAndre Hopkins trade just for a moment. The rest of the Cardinals’ offseason was pretty good. Their draft earned one of the few “A” grades from Yahoo’s Eric Edholm. Linebacker Isaiah Simmons seems like a great fit with the eighth pick. The Cardinals were very lucky that offensive tackle Josh Jones, a borderline first-round talent, fell to them in the third round. Jones fills a big need. The Cardinals weren’t too active in free agency. They probably overpaid defensive lineman Jordan Phillips, who turned an outlier 9.5-sack season with the Buffalo Bills into a three-year, $30 million contract. Edge rusher Devon Kennard got $20 million over three years after the Detroit Lions cut him (Kennard didn’t fit in Matt Patricia’s “only former Patriots players” roster-building approach), and that’s a solid addition. If we’re grading on those moves alone, it was above average. Then add in Hopkins, perhaps the best receiver in the NFL, in one of the most miraculous trades we’ve seen.
Kyler Murray had a good rookie season. He wasn’t perfect — he had a mini-slump late in the season, took too many sacks, wasn’t great from the pocket — but you can see why the Cardinals didn’t pass on him in last year’s draft. The most important thing might be the marriage between him and Kliff Kingsbury. Kingsbury was confident that Murray would fit with his offense and that lockstep should grow even stronger.
“You see that it took Baltimore a year to kind of figure that out: What does Lamar [Jackson] do the best, and what type of pieces do we bring in?” Kingsbury said. “We’re going to build this thing around Kyler, [what] fits him the best and can maximize his talents as a quarterback.”
There are a few candidates, including edge rusher Chandler Jones and cornerback Patrick Peterson. However, for the purposes of the Cardinals’ rebuild, linebacker Isaiah Simmons might be the most important piece on the defense considering Jones and Peterson are entering their age-30 seasons. Simmons was a phenomenal talent at Clemson, lining up practically everywhere. I have questions about the Cardinals’ insistence that Simmons will be static at inside linebacker. That seems to eliminate the very reason he was a top-10 pick. But maybe they don’t want to overload the rookie or give away their plans. We’ll see. But if Simmons can replicate his do-everything playmaking in the pros, or at very least help the Cardinals improve their dreadful numbers against opposing tight ends, he’ll be a foundation of the defense for years.
I’d be happy to take the over of 6.5 wins at BetMGM, though laying -164 on the over (bet $164 to win $100) makes it less palatable. How about a longer shot: Cardinals at +275 to make the playoffs. There’s a lot to like about the offense. The defense has holes but if it can improve a little bit, it’s not entirely crazy to think the Cardinals could be in wild-card contention.
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Seeing DeAndre Hopkins available in the second round of fantasy drafts might sound amazing, but I’m going to wait a year. I’m generally leery of wideouts when they head to a new set of surroundings, and the 2020 preseason presents unique challenges. And consider that Arizona’s offensive philosophy is different than Houston’s; while the Texans would often pepper Hopkins with targets the moment he stepped off the team bus, Arizona's way of thinking is to focus on good matchups, spread the ball around. Hopkins is too talented to fail, but he could easily be a mild fantasy disappointment this fall.”
Since joining the Arizona Cardinals in 2016, Chandler Jones leads the NFL with 60 sacks. Aaron Donald is second with 52.5 and no other player has more than 50. Jones has been first-team All-Pro twice in four seasons. He has not missed a game. Last season, he had 19 sacks, breaking his own franchise record. He became the third player ever, and the first since Reggie White in 1986, to post two four-sack games in one season. The Cardinals got Jones from the Patriots for guard Jonathan Cooper and a second-round pick, and it has worked out spectacularly for Arizona.
Can Kenyan Drake do it again?
At the time, the Cardinals trading for Drake didn’t make much sense. In the middle of a losing season, Arizona sent a fifth-round pick it acquired in the Josh Rosen trade back to the Miami Dolphins for Drake, who was in the final year of his contract. But the trade looked pretty smart when the Cardinals did what Miami never figured out: Try Drake as a featured back.
In eight Cardinals games, Drake had 643 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. He also caught 28 passes for 171 yards. He ranked fourth among all running backs with 100 snaps in the second half of the season in Pro Football Focus’ grades. The Cardinals gave Drake the transition tag, and the trade of David Johnson’s bloated contract made it easier for them to pick up the one-year, $8.5 million tender. Given that Drake played well without any time to adjust to the offense or his teammates, it doesn’t seem outlandish to believe he could repeat what he did, but over a full season. Miami never even really tried Drake as a true lead back even though he was always efficient with his chances, and he might finally have a career year with Arizona.
Everyone has made this comparison by now: In 2018, second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes won MVP, in 2019 second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson won MVP, so can Kyler Murray make it three in a row? That seems crazy, but it’s not like Mahomes and Jackson were expected to be in MVP contention. The Cardinals love to spread the field and let Murray throw. The opportunities will be there, and Murray also adds value with his legs. If Murray does take a huge leap, the Cardinals could make the playoffs. At very least, this should be an exciting team to watch.
It’s possible we’re a little too excited about the Cardinals. They were 5-10-1 last season after all. It’s not like Kliff Kingsbury has proven without a doubt he can succeed in the NFL. And while Kyler Murray was good for a rookie, it wasn’t a transcendent rookie season like 2011 Cam Newton or 2016 Dak Prescott. We like to believe in linear improvement for young players but that’s not always how it works. If the Cardinals defense falters — it allowed an NFL-worst 109.9 passer rating last season — and there’s too much pressure on Murray to carry the offense, maybe a step back happens and the Cardinals have some doubts about their foundation.
I have a few too many questions about the Cardinals to jump them way up the rankings. Their defense still has a long way to go, I wonder about receiver depth behind DeAndre Hopkins if Larry Fitzgerald finally hits the wall, the offensive line is not good and Kliff Kingsbury has four straight losing seasons between Texas Tech and the NFL. Still, I like the direction of this team and a surprise season isn’t out of the question. I can see the Cardinals improving by a few wins, finishing .500 or close and then they’re primed to be a popular breakout pick in 2021.
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