Over the next six weeks or so, we’ll be preparing for the kickoff of the 2020 NFL season on September 10 by attempting to answer the most important question facing all 32 of the league’s franchises in order of finish from worst to first. Today’s team, the Cardinals.
No. 25: Arizona Cardinals
2019 Record: 5-10-1
Points For: 361 – Points Against: 442
Projected 2020 Over/Under Win Total: 7.5
The NFL’s last two MVPs, quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, both won the award following their second seasons in the league after rookie campaigns that saw them play sparingly (Jackson) or basically not at all (Mahomes).
Former Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2019 draft, is entering his sophomore season following a rookie year where he was thrust into the fire by the Cardinals and started all 16 of Arizona’s games under first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury.
Undersized for an NFL quarterback at 5’10, Murray had an up-and-down first season in the NFL, finishing with 3,722 passing yards and 20 passing touchdowns to go along with 544 rushing yards and an additional four scores on the ground. (Cam Newton is the only other quarterback in NFL history with 3,500-plus passing yards and 500-plus rushing yards in his rookie season.)
Though he clearly lacked pocket presence at times, his 349 completions in 2019 were the third-most by a rookie in league history (Carson Wentz had 379 in 2016 and Sam Bradford had 354 in 2010). The soon-to-be 23-year-old also tossed 12 interceptions, fumbled twice and was sacked 48 times as the Cardinals started their season with a tie before finishing at 5-10-1, an improvement on Arizona’s 3–13 record the previous year.
Despite the somewhat mediocre season, Murray was named the 2019 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, and expectations for him to improve by leaps and bounds in his second NFL season are very, very high.
Murray only played 17 games in college and is still learning what it takes to play quarterback at the highest level and decipher NFL defensive schemes. Thanks to a full offseason to study the playbook and more time for quarterback whisperer Kingsbury to work the magic that got him hired in the first place, Murray should be a more polished passer in year two, but still be able to fall back on the instincts, athleticism and improvisational ability that made him a playmaker as a rookie despite having limited weapons and a leaky offensive line.
“I expect a leap from Murray in 2020, maybe not to legitimate superstardom but to a place where we comfortably view him as one of the best young quarterbacks in the league,” CBS NFL analyst Chris Trapasso wrote in May.
Though there is some pessimism about Murray as well, the expectation that he will break out this season is also largely tied to the Cardinals landing All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins in a lopsided trade with the Houston Texans back in March. Hopkins, who has earned All-Pro honors the past three seasons and is a four-time Pro Bowler, made bums QBs like Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett and Brock Osweiler look decent when he was catching passes from them in Houston prior to Deshaun Watson’s arrival. While it will take some time for the 28-year-old wideout to develop chemistry with Murray, his mere presence in Arizona is an instant upgrade to the young QB’s chances of success.
“Kyler has an arm,” Hopkins said on a conference call earlier this week. “Obviously, I’m thankful to play with a quarterback like that who can make any throw, anywhere on the field and has confidence to do it. I think just from what I’ve seen, we’re going to have a good time playing football together, because obviously he’s confident in his arm. The guy is very talented, very smart, high football IQ. What I’ve seen so far is someone with a very strong arm.”
In addition to Murray and Hopkins, it’s worth remembering the Cardinals roster also includes studs like Budda Baker (safety), Larry Fitzgerald (wide receiver) and Chandler Jones (outside linebacker) — all of whom made the NFL’s Top 100 list — as well as high-upside players like Patrick Peterson (cornerback), Kenyan Drake (running back) and Christian Kirk (wide receiver).
As Murray showed off on social media earlier this month, he’s also spending his offseason beating Fitzgerald at chess:
Will all these promising signs matter once the season starts and the Cardinals have to start playing games in the NFL’s toughest division (49ers, Seahawks, Rams) as part of a schedule that also includes matchups with the Cowboys, Eagles, Bills and Patriots?
We will see, but the early returns on Murray coupled with the addition of Hopkins and continued influence of Kingsbury point toward him having a sensational sophomore season. Will he reach the heights Mahomes and Jackson did? Probably not. But if he can be even half as good, Cardinals fans have a lot to look forward to.