Our 2019 NFL Preview transitions to the NFC West, where we kick things off with the Arizona Cardinals, who are looking to rebound after a particularly dreadful season which saw them riddled with injuries, flatlining to the worst record in the league at 3-13. However, they may be mistaken for another bird, or at least a fictional one, the phoenix, when you consider their inevitable rebirth; to the shock of many, Arizona made the unlikeliest of hires, reeling in Kliff Kingsbury as their new Head Coach, followed by selecting Heisman-winning Quarterback, Kyler Murray, with the No. One Overall Pick in the NFL Draft. All of a sudden, this team has gotten much more interesting. So how will Kingsbury adjust to the NFL, and will his prolific, wide-open passing attack even work at this level? Will Murray be able to make the startling plays that he routinely made in college? Have the Cardinals done enough to plug the myriad of holes that littered their roster? Let’s find out, shall we?
An Unlikely King
It’s rare that a Front Office pulls the plug on a Coaching Regime after just one year, but that should give you an idea as to just how disappointing the Cardinals were in 2018. Steve Wilks, whom they hired back in February of 2018, endured a hellish campaign in which he saw his Offensive Coordinator, Mike McCoy, fired one month into the season. Throughout the term he appeared to be in over his head, proving unable to properly develop the team’s First Round Pick, Josh Rosen, or much less inspire his charges on a weekly basis, which led to General Manager, Steve Keim, relieving him of his duties at the conclusion of the term. Arizona searched far and wide for his replacement, vetting a slew of candidates, before ultimately making the most unconventional hire of the Offseason, tabbing Kliff Kingsbury , who up at that point had agreed to serve as USC’s Offensive Coordinator after being fired from Texas Tech. Far from the most successful College Head Coach, Kingsbury went a mediocre 35-40 at his alma mater, but benefitted greatly due to the circumstances that were driving the majority of the coaching hires in the NFL. Young, bright offensive minds with a knack for tutoring Quarterbacks was the league-wide mandate, with this guy’s CV checking each of those boxes. At 39-Years Old, he’s plenty young for the job, and given how prolific his Offenses were at Texas Tech, one would think that he’d be far better suited for today’s NFL. However, the major selling point was the fact that he had played a rather large role in the maturity of two significant Quarterbacks: namely Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield. The former, whom he coached from 2014 to 2017, just set the league on fire en route to claiming MVP honors in just his second season as a pro, while the latter transferred from Texas Tech to win the 2017 Heisman, was selected No. One Overall in the ensuing NFL Draft, and is now a major component of the Cleveland Browns’ revival. Yes, it certainly feels as if Kingsbury took advantage of the circumstances, but who could really blame him? Either way, his future will be tied to whom the Cardinals selected with the first pick of this year’s Draft, and his name is…
The King’s Man
With the No. One Pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Arizona Cardinals selected Kyler Murray out of the University of Oklahoma, which was hardly the most surprising move that was made on that fateful night in April. From the moment he got the job, Kingsbury was not shy about proclaiming his affection for the Heisman Quarterback, which caused more than a bit of controversy given that the club had spent their 2017 First Round Pick on a Quarterback as well, with the aforementioned Rosen demanding a trade once he got wind of his job being in jeopardy. With Rosen now plying his trade with the Miami Dolphins, the job is Murray’s, and Murray’s alone. Now what can we expect from this kid as a Rookie? Well, despite standing just 5′-10″, Murray manages to stand tall in the Pocket, while possessing superb athleticism to escape his confines and make plays downfield via either the Pass or Run. In Oklahoma’s fast-break attack, the Signal-Caller completed 69.0% of his Attempts for 4,361 Yards, Forty-Two Touchdowns and just Seven Interceptions, while rushing for another 1,001 Yards and a dozen scores, averaging a stellar 7.2 Yards per Carry. There’s a real sense that he’s going to need to rely upon those legs more than ever this season for the simple fact that Arizona’s Offensive Line was an absolute mess a year ago, and looks suspect once again. Last season, the Cardinals earned the dubious distinction of ranking dead-last across the board, including Points (14.1), Total Offense (264.2), Passing Offense (180.3), Net Yards per Attempt (4.61), Rushing Offense (83.9), and Yards per Carry (3.8), with their Quarterbacks getting sacked a whopping Fifty-Two times, tied for fifth-most in the NFL. Furthermore, no team was worse on Third Down, converting on a miserable 29.1% of their opportunities. Good luck, kid, because you’re going to need it!
As bad as they were in 2018, and they were REALLY bad, the Cardinals aren’t without talented players that Kingsbury will be inheriting. On Defense, there’s perennial Pro Bowl and All-Pro Cornerback, Patrick Peterson (54 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FR, 2 INT, 5 PD), whom after being the subject of trade speculation throughout the Offseason, ultimately decided to remain with the only franchise that he’s known. His stellar play coupled with his strong leadership should prove to be vital to the locker room, particularly Second Round Pick, Byron Murphy, who should be starting opposite of him at Cornerback. Of course, he’ll have to serve a six-game suspension for violating the league’s rules on Performance-Enhancing Drugs, but hey, it’s not like anyone expects this team to be in contention, right? Another familiar face who eschewed a chance to leave is Larry Fitzgerald (69 REC, 734 YDS, 10.6 Y/R, 6 TD), who even at the age of Thirty-Five and shackled within the league’s worst Offense still managed to post some respectable numbers. The train of thought is that the eleven-time Pro-Bowl Receiver would have been essential in the development of Rosen, with that same notion now applying to Murray. If anything, he should benefit from the Rookie’s ability to keep plays alive with his legs, for at this stage of his career, Fitzgerald isn’t really going to be running away from Defensive Backs. Finally, the most significant return will be from David Johnson (258 CAR, 940 YDS, 3.6 Y/C, 7 TD), who after missing nearly all of the 2017 Campaign looked absolutely miserable in Arizona’s dismal, uncreative scheme. Even with all the problems under Center and along the Offensive Line, the former Pro-Bowl Tailback still managed to rush for nearly 1,000 Yards, while reeling in Fifty Receptions for 446 Yards and Three Touchdowns. It stands to reason that in Kingsbury’s system Johnson could very well surpass the Eighty Receptions and 879 Receiving Yards his posted back in 2016, when he led the NFL in Total Touches (373), Yards (2,718), and Touchdowns (20).
2019 Forecast: 5-11
To say that the Arizona Cardinals will be an improved team in 2019 is a bit rhetorical for the simple fact that it wouldn’t be difficult for them to improve on such a miserable campaign in the first place. As we detailed earlier, in this modern era of Offensive Football they were really THAT BAD. Kingsbury’s acumen alone on that side of the football should inject some energy into the attack, with the addition of Kyler Murray likely to get much more out of the likes of Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson. However, There are still serious questions regarding Kingsbury’s transition to the NFL, for there are a long line of more decorated coaches coming up from the college ranks crashing and burning. He’s going to have to prove that he can in fact adjust to the speed, athleticism, and physicality of the professional level, along with being able to manage the egos of highly-paid adults. Bringing former Broncos’ Head Coach, Vance Joseph, in as Defensive Coordinator was an inspired move which should handle the Defense nicely, but there are still lingering concerns along the Offensive Line, and with a Receiving Corps that apart from Fitzgerald is rather short on experience. Our opinion is that while they’ve certainly taken steps to move forward from last year’s disaster, this is still a team who is very much in the early stages of what could be a lengthy rebuilding project, but that process could be hastened with the accelerated maturation of Murray.