The Arizona Cardinals are the most logical team to preview first when discussing the upcoming NFL season, and not just because they come first alphabetically. The Cardinals have been the most interesting team this offseason but not in a good way.
The 2021 Arizona team had an impressive season, at the start, before floundering a bit at the end. They finished 11-6 and earned a wildcard berth but we all remember what happened in that game (spoiler alert: it was not good).
At this point last year, quarterback Kyler Murray was a sleeper MVP pick after demonstrating his unique skillset at the position. At this point this year, Murray is more likely to be associated with the MLB instead of the MVP.
Quarterbacks always define a team and its offseason, but Murray and the Cardinals have taken that concept to the extreme these past few months. The supposed star quarterback has recently signed a massive contract extension so now the pressure is on to perform up to that level.
The Cardinals are certainly gearing up to give Murray a fair shot of proving his worth in 2022. They traded away their first-round pick for wide receiver Marquise Brown from Baltimore. That move was definitely made to appease Murray, who played with Brown in college at Oklahoma, as well as make up for the loss of wide receiver Christian Kirk.
The Arizona offense will need the added ammunition since they will be without stud wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for six games due to his PED-related suspension. The Cardinals also resigned wide receiver A.J. Green, tight end Zach Ertz (whom they acquired during the season last year), and drafted tight end Trey McBride in the second round.
Ertz could potentially be a big piece for the Cardinals this season, as he showed a good connection with Murray last year. Despite playing in just 11 games, the veteran tight end finished second on the team in receptions with 56, third in yards with 574, and grabbed three touchdowns. Ertz will be able to provide a level of consistency to the offense while mentoring McBride and helping him develop into a key contributor.
The biggest move the Cardinals made in free agency was bringing back running back James Conner. He put together a stellar year, scoring 15 touchdowns on the ground and rushing for 752 yards. Signing Conner to a three-year deal shows that the team is committed to him being the lead back going forward, as does letting running beck Chase Edmonds leave in free agency after sharing the workload with Conner last year.
The offense should be very solid this year for Arizona. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury is considered one of the most innovative offensive minds and his offense has produced well. The Cardinals were 10th in both passing and rushing yards last season, all while being one of the best teams at limiting turnovers. If Murray can remain consistent and emerge as a leader on the team, then the Arizona offense should have no issue operating as a top unit again.
The defense also performed well in 2021 but may have trouble replicating its success. Losing linebacker Chandler Jones is one of the toughest blows that any team suffered this offseason. He had been one of the best pass rushers in the league during his time in Arizona, and there is no one on the roster that can adequately replace what he brought to the defense.
Arizona and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph are hoping that some of that lost production can be replaced by J.J. Watt. The legendary defensive end was a huge get for the Cardinals last offseason but unfortunately, he underwhelmed on the field, playing in just seven games and recording one sack. If the three-time Defensive Player of the Year can regain even a sliver of his prior form it will go a long way toward mitigating the loss of Jones.
There are some younger candidates to replace Jones’s production as well. Defensive end Zach Allen finished tied for third on the team last year with four sacks and could be finally ready to take on an expanded role in his age-25 season.
The other option is rookie linebacker Myjai Sanders out of Cincinnati. He was drafted in the third round by Arizona and brings in a pedigree of excellent play in college. He had 13.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss as Bearcat and he could potentially play a big role in the defense in his first season.
The one area that should be guaranteed to be solid is the secondary. The Cardinals have a ton of talent on the back end, led by Pro-Bowler Budda Baker. He has done a little bit of everything for the Cardinals in his career and has emerged as one of the leaders on the defense. He has also played a role in developing fellow safety Jalen Thompson, who experienced a breakout season in 2021.
Thompson led Arizona in tackles while also grabbing three interceptions and recording seven passes defended. He will be entering his fourth season but it will be his first where he comes into training camp with a starting spot. Baker and Thompson have the potential to form a very formidable safety duo and really solidify the back half of the Cardinals’ defense.
Cornerback Byron Murphy also had an emergence last season and is looking to solidify himself as a lead corner this year. He may not see a ton of targets (not just because he had four interceptions last season) because his running mate on the opposite side may be targeted a lot.
Cornerback Marco Wilson made a majority of the starts opposite Murphy last season as a rookie and appears to be in line to do so once again. He expectedly had a bit of a rough time defending NFL receivers last season but that doesn’t mean he can’t make a leap in 2022. If Wilson doesn’t grab the second starting corner spot then expect Josh Jackson or Antonio Hamilton to likely earn the spot.
The area of the defense that Arizona fans should be paying attention to early on in the season is the linebacking group, specifically on the inside. That spot had been occupied by linebacker Jordan Hicks for the past three years but he is no longer on the team.
That creates a huge opportunity for some young linebackers to take advantage of. The first of which is Isaiah Simmons, who probably should already be a star given his skillset and draft pick (eighth overall in 2020). Simmons started alongside Hicks for all 17 games last season but will now likely have to take over as the leader of the defense.
He was regarded as a generational freak athlete coming into the draft and has yet to deliver on that promise. There is no reason that Simmons cannot be to the Cardinals what fellow linebacker Micah Parsons is to the Cowboys. This should be the season that the former Clemson linebacker finally proves why everyone was so high on him in the 2020 draft.
Linebacker Zaven Collins should be considered the favorite to fill the open spot next to Simmons. He didn’t do much in his rookie year but hopefully, Arizona’s willingness to let Hicks leave was in part due to having Collins already in place as a replacement.
If Collins doesn’t emerge as at least a serviceable starter then the Cardinals will look like fools for taking linebackers in the first round in back-to-back drafts (which they arguably already are regardless of how well the two players play). Collins may not feel that pressure directly, but there is certainly a ton on him to be a quality starter in year two.
I don’t really see a way that this team repeats its 11-win season from last year. Kingsbury has almost proven at this point across college and the pros to be a coach that leads his team to great starts of seasons without finishing well. I think the NFL is going to catch on to that this season, especially with Arizona’s opening three games coming against Kansas City, Las Vegas, and the Lons Angeles Rams.
Also taking into consideration that this is a team that lost valuable contributors from last year such as Jones, Hicks, Kirk, and Edmonds as well as being without Hopkins for the first six games means that there is almost no way we see this team reach double-digit wins in 2022.
I still see this team being competitive and grabbing a handful of wins, namely against the likes of Seattle, Carolina, and Atlanta. But if they want to make it back to the playoffs, they are going to have to win some tough games where they are underdogs.
Like every year with the Cardinals, the second half of the season is going to be crucial. Last year they lost four out of their last five, including one to Detroit. This year they will close out with New England, Denver, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and San Francisco. Those games are going to be must-wins if they want any shot at playing in the postseason.
I predict the Cardinals will fall short of returning to the playoffs as well as fall just short of finishing above .500. With an easier schedule I could see them getting to nine or 10 wins but given the apparent strength of their opponents this seems like an 8-9 team to me, especially with all the uncertainly surrounding Murray at the most important position.