Ethan Hewett | January 11th, 2020
The 2019 season was, for the most part, disappointing for Arizona Cardinals fans as the team found themselves tied with the Detroit Lions in week one leading to a 3-7-1 record going into their week 12 bye. The defense couldn’t seem to slow anybody down, and poor offensive line play left top overall draft pick, Kyler Murray, running for his life. However, not all hope was lost after their bye week as the Cardinals would finish 2-3 in their final five games including an impressive 27-13 win over their divisional rival Seattle Seahawks. Kliff Kingsbury’s offense started to settle in and the team finished the year at a positive 5-10-1 record.
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What Went Right
In a season full of downs, there were, in fact, a few massive positives for this Cardinals team. Murray looked impressive especially considering the help he had in front of him. Murray was able to put together a solid rookie season throwing a 64% completion percentage, 3,722 yards and 20 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. Interception numbers will always be high for rookies but he only had six going into December where he started to take more risks.
Murray also found himself second in rushing yards on the team behind midseason trade piece Kenyan Drake. Murray would end up with just over 500 rushing yards paired with four rushing touchdowns and became the second rookie quarterback ever to have both 3,500 passing yards and 500 rushing yards.
Outside of the explosive rookie, a few new additions paid off including free-agent linebacker Jordan Hicks who led the team in tackles with 150 while rookie defensive backs Byron Murphy and Jalen Thompson showed potential. Chandler Jones continued his dominance and had 19 sacks coming off the edge. Jones notched his second All-Pro and finished second in the National Football League in sacks behind only Shaquil Barrett (19.5).
At the halfway point General manager Steve Keim was able to pry running back Drake away from the Miami Dolphins for just a fifth-round pick and it ended up paying dividends as Drake exploded in the Arizona offense running for 643 yards in eight games with an impressive 166-yard performance in the teams win over the Seahawks.
What Went Wrong
The biggest and most glaring issue for the Cardinals in 2019 was the offensive line. The team allowed 50 sacks which tied them for 26th in the NFL. This can partly be attributed to the Cardinals playing with several starting lineups with Marcus Gilbert, Jordan Mills, William Sweet, and Rees Odhiambo finding themselves on the injured reserve. In a season full of injuries and tackling their quarterback, the Cardinals offensive line will probably want to forget last season. Even with Murray’s mobility outside the pocket, inside the tackles was dangerous territory.
Outside the offensive line woes, a big issue throughout the early and mid parts of the 2019 season was the Cardinals defense or lack thereof. Arizona’s defense averaged 402 total yards allowed a game this season putting them dead last in the NFL, while also sitting 31st in passing yards allowed per game. When looking at success rates of opposing offenses, via Sharp Football Stats, when defending the pass weeks 1-11 Arizona once again found themselves sitting in last again, allowing a 53% success rate. The NFL average, 45%.
Outlook for the Offseason
The Cardinals will be heading into the offseason with a very comfortable cap number sitting with about $67 million in cap space. This should allow Keim and Kingsbury to hold on to a few key assets along with possibly making a couple of splash open market signings.
Right now the biggest question is how heavily this front office will invest in the offensive line. Although 50 sacks is a lot, they might rely on Murray’s mobility and continued progression to shave that number down in 2020. Either way, I expect this team will attempt to make some moves in the trenches as well as at the skill positions.
The Team’s Free Agents
The Cardinals have a few big decisions to make in house. Drake became a big part of this Cardinals offense in the second half of the season playing in front of benched David Johnson. Drake is set to be a free agent for 2020. If the Cardinals decide to go with Drake, who could be on the cheaper side, Johnson’s $14 million cap hit is a little too big for a second string running back for me, and I would expect they move on from him via trade.
Now the big question. Who stays on the offensive line? Tackles D.J. Humphries and Gilbert could find themselves looking for jobs this offseason with Humphries being the more sure one out the door. Gilbert dealt with injuries this campaign after being traded to the Cardinals this past offseason. Justin Murray has done an admirable job filling in for the injured Gilbert, but he will most likely serve as depth next season. Also, center A.Q. Shipley will most likely be let go for understudy Mason Cole.
The looming question, however, is whether or not the future hall of fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald is going to call it a career this offseason. The receiver hasn’t tipped either way thus far, but whatever happens with the all-pro, the Cardinals lacked production outside if Fitzgerald who led the team in both receptions (75) and receiving yards (804). Kingsbury saw some potential out of Christian Kirk along with Pharoh Cooper, who they will most likely re-sign this offseason, but they should look to bring in another weapon for Murray.
Open Market Free Agents
Football is a game of inches and those inches are often won and lost in the trenches. The Cardinals should be targeting both sides of the ball this offseason. Offensively the Cards can go big with players like Jack Conklin, Bryan Bulaga at tackle, if they aren’t locked up by the open market or they, could pursue Brandon Scherff or Andrus Peat for an interior boost.
Defensively names like Chris Jones would be a big and expensive move for the Cardinals if the Kansas City Chiefs don’t lock him up. Shelby Harris would be another solid pick up who would be more cost-effective. Other players such as Leonard Williams, Derek Wolfe, or Arik Armstead would also be splash names if they manage to slip into the open market as well.
Finding a player to play opposite Jones should be another priority for the Cardinals defense. Especially given that the only player outside of Jones with more than three sacks was cut midseason (Terrell Suggs). Yannick Ngakoue and Jadeveon Clowney should both be names that the Cards would be willing to throw some big money at as both would fit well in the teams 3-4 scheme.
Outside of the trenches, skill players like Amari Cooper should be pretty high on the Cardinals free agency list. Finding a receiver to pair with Kirk should be a priority and whether they decide to go with Cooper long-term, a more veteran guy in Emmanuel Sanders, who could also be on the cheaper side and short-term, or go after one in the draft is up to them. Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper should also be on the Cardinals radar.
Projecting the NFL Draft
The Cardinals have been slotted at the eighth overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft, but don’t have a huge amount of top 100 draft capital for a team that is still trying to get over the hump. They find themselves in the top 10 for the third year straight, but this time will turn their attention away from the quarterback, and look to instead assist Murray on offense.
Round 1, Pick 8: Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama
While Jeudy is valued higher than this position, the value of quarterbacks will push him down the board, and I think the Cardinals will be smart enough to not let him slide any further. Outside of Fitzgerald, the Cardinals don’t have a big playmaker, and Jeudy could serve as a key role in the high powered, big-play offense that Kingsbury wants to run. If Jeudy is already taken, CeeDee Lamb out of Oklahoma would be another option here.
Round 2, Pick 40: Prince Tega Wahanogho, OT, Auburn
The Cardinals will need to use both free agency and the draft to address the offensive line and Tega Wahanogho is a physical specimen out of Auburn and has had some success against some of the better pass rushers that the SEC has to offer. While he is a big and strong tackle who has the length to make it in the NFL, his use of these traits is somewhat inconsistent. However, with a lot of work, he could be one of the better left tackles in the NFL two or three years down the road. He is worth the investment here in the second round for the Cardinals and would be an upgrade at left tackle.
Round 3, Pick 72: Rashard Lawrence, DL, LSU
Lawrence is a strong and powerful defensive lineman who is well built and has great get off on the line of scrimmage. He has the athleticism and upper body strength to stay strong when working horizontally against the run and can disrupt the backfield on occasion. Although the Tigers have used him at EDGE, Lawrence is best when he is at the 1 shade or 3 tech position on the interior, and the Cardinals could use that interior disruption.
Year two of the Kingsbury and Murray pairing should show a lot of growth. Especially if the Cardinals can land a couple of big free agents as well as drafting smart. While the future looks bright, the defensive cohesion needs to continue to grow if the Cardinals want to see success. Unfortunately, the Cardinals play in an extremely competitive NFC West division making the idea of a playoff run in 2020 unlikely. However, the team should see an increase in wins next season. I expect them to pull in around 8-8 most likely finishing third or fourth in their division. If they accomplish these things, Cardinals fans should be happy with where the team is at in 2020.
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