A.J. Green is the Last Piece of Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid Puzzle in Arizona

A.J. Green is the Last Piece of Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid Puzzle in Arizona

by March 17, 2021 2 comments

Adding A.J. Green alongside DeAndre Hopkins doesn’t mean the Arizona Cardinals have already won free agency. Nor does it guarantee Kliff Kingsbury‘s team will be more viable in the NFC West in 2021. The Cards still need a credible running game and some fresh legs in the secondary.

What pairing Green with Hopkins and Christian Kirk should do is provide the missing piece in Kingsbury’s Air Raid puzzle. Kingsbury got the head coaching job in the desert largely based on the success of his wide-open passing attack at Texas Tech. So far, he’s struggled to translate that success to the pro level, despite drafting Kyler Murray and trading for Hopkins.

The Cardinals’ offense cratered after a bright start last season. Murray, Hopkins, and Co. were held under 20 points in three of their last six games, all defeats. Those losses were enough to condemn Arizona to a .500 finish and missing out on a playoff berth.

Kingsbury’s offense finished 13th in points, a middling return, given the talent available. It’s why general manager Steve Keim has paid an expensive, one-year premium to bet Green still has enough left in the tank. There’s every reason to believe this will prove a smart investment.

Sure, Green is 32, but age is just a number. That’s especially true for a franchise that has already added veteran pass-rusher JJ Watt to the fold earlier this offseason. Watt’s 31 and is being counted on to add some interior oomph to the pressure provided by 30-something edge-rushers Chandler Jones and Markus Golden.

There’s has been no shortage of veteran savvy on the offense in recent seasons, thanks to Larry Fitzgerald prolonging his career. The best receiver of his generation is now 37 and seemingly weighing his next move. Could that be retirement? Maybe. Could Fitz find a new home in free agency? Perhaps Green’s arrival encourages 11 to give it one more go with the Cardinals. Hope so.

It’s more likely the deal for Green has little to no impact on what Fitzgerald does next. Green’s greater impact will be on Kingsbury’s playbook. And for Hopkins’ role in what figures to be a more versatile air attack in 2021. Hopkins spent most of his first season in Arizona playing the ‘X’ receiver role. He was the outside threat, split end numero uno. While he had his share of success, 115 catches for 1407 yards worth of it to be exact, the role didn’t entirely suit Hopkins.

He’s better when he’s moved around the formation more often, sent in motion, and allowed to play from the slot. Those things didn’t happen enough in 2020 when Hopkins made 102 of his catches without any motion. He played just 70 snaps from the slot, a far cry from his final season with the Houston Texans in 2019 when “Hopkins was targeted 57 times for a 27 percent target rate” from 211 slot snaps.

Having Green on the field will allow Hopkins to mix up his alignments more in the new season. Green made his bones with the Cincinnati Bengals as an outside burner who loved to take the top off of defenses. The Bengals were never shy about exploiting this skill:

Green still has enough tread left on his tires to stretch the field. His presence will open a few more underneath routes for Hopkins. It should also encourage Kingsbury to get more creative with his cadre of talented pass-catchers.

Kirk is another playmaker who thrives in intermediate areas. His receptions were down by 20 last season, but Kirk will find more joy if Hopkins joins him inside more often and takes coverage away. Bunching both in the slot would be a coverage killer against most, if not all, defenses. Alternatively, Kingsbury could stack Green and Hopkins together on the same side of the field and run some deadly hi-lo concepts out of the look. If Fitzgerald returns, the possibilities will only increase and become more exciting.

Signing Green was worth a one-season flier for the Cardinals. It arms one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL with a pair of legitimate No. 1 receivers. The move also makes the roles of each receiver more clearly defined while simultaneously expanding the playbook. That’s value even at $6 million up front.

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