He was brought in as an offensive mastermind. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury would single- handedly change the future of the Cardinals, was the general opinion. Despite winning just five of his 12 games at Texas Tech with Patrick Mahomes as quarterback, expectations were high.
The first season was difficult, although the first pick of the draft, Kyler Murray, showed potential. Five games were won and in the second year there was definitely progression. The Cardinals won eight games and only missed a ticket for the play-offs on the last day. However, with Arizona winning only two of its last seven games, the disappointment in Phoenix was great. This year, Kingsbury has to make progress again, or his career in Arizona could be over.
The Cardinals have done everything in free agency to give Kingsbury a better team. The biggest eye-catcher is JJ Watt. The star was allowed to leave the Houston Texans to play for the championship elsewhere. It was therefore a great surprise that the 32-year-old defensive end chose to stay in Phoenix.
Watt wasn’t the only Cardinals reinforcements. Through a trade, the team managed to get center Rodney Hudson from Las Vegas. A major upgrade on the offensive line that should help to better protect Murray.
The Cardinals also lost some players in free agency, but seem to have taken those blows fairly well. Malcolm Butler must make cornerback Patrick Peterson forget and James Conner replaces Kenyan Drake as runningback. Haason Reddick had a good year and if he continues down that line the loss could hurt, but if Watt replaces him and stays fit, everyone might just forget about Reddick.
Then there is another player whose return is a big question mark. He was and/or is the face of the Cardinals. Larry Fitzgerald has still not said whether he envisions an eighteenth year in the National Football League (NFL). If he is going to play, it is not certain that he will do so in Phoenix. In any case, the Cardinals have already brought in a replacement with AJ Green, the former Bengal.
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The Cardinals chose linebacker Zaven Collins in the first round; a safe choice. Collins was the best defender in college football last season, making a valuable addition to Kingsbury. It was just not the position where the need for Arizona was greatest. The team could also have gone for a receiver or a cornerback. In a make-or-break season, this may be a missed opportunity.
In the second round of the draft, the Cardinals went for a receiver, Rondale Moore from Purdue. A bold choice as Moore has only played eight games in the past two years due to injuries. In addition, the rookie is not very tall and is very similar to receivers like Andy Isabella and Christian Kirk, who are already under contract with the Cardinals. Moore’s potential appears to be higher, so he may have a part to play in Kingsbury’s attack over the course of the season.
In the later rounds, the Cardinals chose two more cornerbacks. Due to the lack of quality in that position, these players have the best chance of earning playing time next season. Marco Wilson, the fourth-round pick, has shown good things for Florida in the strong SEC last year. That bolsters hopes in Phoenix that he can quickly adapt to the level of the NFL. The other cornerback chosen is Tay Gowan in the sixth round. This was lower than expected. A player with a lot of potential who, if well trained, can provide extra depth to the position during the season.
The Cardinals will go as far as Murray can take them. In his first year he was Offensive Rookie of the Year. In his second year, he made it to the Pro Bowl with an obvious shoulder injury. It could be a good explanation for why the Cardinals failed to make the playoffs last year despite a 6-3 start. If Murray continues his progression, a play-off appearance seems inevitable.
At least Murray has the weapons to be successful. DeAndre Hopkins remains the biggest eye-catcher and showed last season that it was right that the Houston Texans fired Bill O’Brien for giving away their receiver to the Cardinals. The receiver group is broad with Green, Moore, Isabella and Kirk, among others. Fitzgerald may be added to that.
Arizona has also strengthened its running back by signing Conner to replace Drake. Here, only the Cardinals’ potency in the tight end position remains a question mark. It is a position where the team continues to look for reinforcements just before the start of the season. Furthermore, the Cardinals seem to have done everything necessary to make Kingsbury successful. The offensive line has been given a major upgrade, with Hudson also becoming the real leader of the attack given his experience.
The strength of the defense lies mainly with the front seven. Haason Reddick was the man with the most sacks last season, but took 7.5 in a three-game phase at the end of the season. This already seemed impossible to copy and with Watt the team gets an experienced star in return. He’s not the only defensive reinforcement. Chandler Jones missed all of last year due to injury and rookie Collins should also be able to get there straight away.
It makes the pass rush arguably the NFL’s most dangerous, with the squad now having not only the stars, but the depth it takes to rotate. This keeps the players fresh towards the end of the season. The last two years have shown that this is not an unnecessary luxury. The Cardinals then kept collapsing after a good start.
There are still some questions for Arizona in the secondary. The team decided not to renew cornerback Peterson’s contract and let him leave in free agency. Butler needs to fill the void left by Peterson, but based on past seasons, the squad doesn’t seem to be getting any stronger here. That could change if Robert Alford can stay fit. Two injuries caused him to miss two years, but he now seems to be fit again. With the two rookie cornerbacks and All-Pro safety Budda Baker there is the potential to be play-off worthy here too, but these players have yet to show it.
All eyes are on coach Kingsbury. His appointment was already surprising due to the lack of success in college, and he hasn’t made a lasting impression in the NFL either. It is therefore expected that it will be his last chance. Given all the reinforcements, that’s only logical. The Cardinals may be in the strongest division, they still play eleven games against teams from the lesser divisions. They should be able to win at least eight of these. At least, if Murray stays intact and continues his progression. Then two wins in the division are enough to make it to the play-offs. That should be doable, so there really are no more excuses for Kingsbury if it doesn’t work out again this year.