The Cardinals were the worst team in the NFL in 2018. Over the offseason, they made a significant change at quarterback and head coach, bringing in 2018 Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray, shipping out 2018 first-round pick Josh Rosen, and inking Kliff Kingsbury to the head coach role.
Kingsbury had his fair share of struggles in college, and Murray is shorter than the ideal NFL quarterback. Coming into 2019 with heavy criticism, the Cardinals are not expected to escape the cellar of the NFC West. Here is an analysis of some of the criticism:
#1: David Johnson is a fantasy bust. Don’t draft him.
While he did not live up to his role as a number one pick in many drafts, Johnson was far from a fantasy bust. Johnson finished as a top 10 running back. His position as a top 10 back means he was an RB1 in standard leagues: exactly what you look for in the first round. Even comparing him across positions, Johnson was the 20th best RB/WR, aligning to a second-round pick. If you are desperate to discredit Johnson, four tight ends and two quarterbacks outscored Johnson. At the very worst, Johnson had the value of a third-round draft pick. In terms of missing out on value, owners could have drafted Dalvin Cook or Leonard Fournette who were colossal fantasy busts: falling from RB1 status to outside the top 30 in terms of fantasy points at the position. While Cook or Fournette can be ragged on, the enigma of Le’Veon Bell is 2018’s biggest bust.
Moving into 2019, Johnson is once again in first-round pick territory. The 2018 Cardinals were inept in every way, and Johnson cracked the top 10 running backs due to volume. For 2019, the volume is once again the critical reason why Johnson might end up being a top 5 running back. Kingsbury has made it clear that he wants the Cardinals to set the NFL record for most plays run in a season. With even more plays than the anemic 2018 season, Johnson will have even more touches, leading to more yards and more touchdowns. In the worst-case scenario, Johnson maintains his paltry yards per carry average from 2018 (3.64) on increased volume. For those mathematicians in the audience, that means Johnson will record more yards in 2019. Barring injury, Johnson will be a top 10 running back in fantasy, and he has top-three upside if the offense works, and the Cardinals are better.
#2: The Kingsbury offense will fail in the NFL because he does not run the ball.
Moving away from fantasy land, there is a legitimate concern that Kingsbury’s offense will fail in the NFL. While the NFL continues to become more and more pass-happy, a pure air raid system has yet to work on a large-scale in the NFL. For all of the detractors of Kingsbury, very few have pointed out the serious lack of running back talent that Texas Tech had in his tenure in Lubbock. While Kingsbury has had too much talent at quarterback (Davis Webb, Baker Mayfield, and Patrick Mahomes), he has only had one reliable option out of the backfield: DeAndre Washington. In six years at Texas Tech, Kingsbury coached four players who registered a minimum of 10 rushes per game: Washington (twice), Mahomes (twice, sacks are included), Justin Stockton, and Tre King (both in 2017). While that is an alarming total of just three running backs in six seasons, it tells more about the quality of runner as opposed to Kingsbury not being willing to run the ball.
In the two seasons that Kingsbury had a fringe NFL player at running back, Kingsbury enabled him to rush more than 400 times and accumulate 2,500 yards. Moving into the NFL, Kingsbury has immense talent in running back with David Johnson. Beyond Johnson’s talent, the Cardinals also have a rookie quarterback, and Kingsbury has never coached in the NFL. Both of these factors should increase Johnson’s usage. If the offense fails, it will not be a result of the Cardinals not running the ball.
#3: The Cardinals are the worst team in the NFL.
Everything works against the Cardinals for this criticism. Not only do they have a rookie quarterback and rookie head coach at the helm, but they also inherit an offensive line which would make revolving doors jealous. To fix the offensive line, the Cardinals made the smart decision to focus on drafting plenty of offensive linemen in the draft. By plenty of offensive linemen, I mean that the Cardinals drafted a pair: one late in the sixth round and one in the seventh round. The Cardinals have low expectations, and they need a significant amount of individual things to go their way to escape the bottom of the NFL.
As a whole, the Cardinals don’t have hope for many wins in 2019. With Patrick Peterson suspended for six weeks, the defense will falter and the offense is by no means a sure thing. While Murray and Kingsbury could work, it is hard to fathom the Cardinals being a good team from the start.
Verdict: Four wins, top-five draft pick