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Kyler Murray’s Future in Arizona Could Be Determined in the Next Nine Weeks

Riding out the 2023 regular season with the quarterback is a much cleaner way to get to his eventual departure from the Cardinals. Plus, answers to your questions on Kenny Pickett, Vance Joseph, Josh McDaniels, Frank Reich and more in Albert Breer’s mailbag.

As usual, you all brought a lot of quarterback questions this week! Here’s how I answered them …

By Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): What’s the benefit in starting Kyler Murray at this point? Arizona is going nowhere and if Kyler gets re-injured, the team can’t unload him in a trade. Thoughts?

Matt, yes, there’s injury risk, and that could put the team in a bad spot.

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray will start Sunday in Week 10 against the Cardinals, his first action in 11 months since tearing his ACL.

The Cardinals need to see Murray play this year to determine their future at quarterback.

But I do think there’s a benefit in gathering more information. For example:

  • Let’s say, for argument’s sake, Arizona finishes 4–13—whether Kyler Murray plays—and that puts the Cardinals fourth in the NFL draft order.
  • Let’s also say USC’s Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye are likely picked Nos. 1–2 by the two teams atop the draft, and the Cardinals are on the fence about selecting one with the fourth pick.

If the Cardinals chose to sit Murray for the rest of the year, they wouldn’t get to see him operate their offense and assess whether he’s a part of their future.

So, yeah, there is risk in putting him on the field. But it’s tricky sitting an injured player, for a variety of reasons, and if you add keeping things above board to the two points above, riding it out with him is just a much cleaner way to get to Murray’s eventual departure from Arizona.

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By Yinzer (@Yiinzer1): How would you evaluate Kenny Pickett at this point in his career? What do you make of him looking like an elite QB in the fourth quarter but less than average in the first three quarters?

Yinzer, I’d be a little concerned at this point. And it’s not that Pickett can’t play—he’s plenty serviceable as an NFL quarterback.

But he’s 25 years old, has played a lot of football and lacks the high-end traits that most first-round guys have playing in the NFL. And he’s thrown for 1,490 yards, six touchdowns, four picks and an 81.6 passer rating through eight games, numbers that aren’t markedly different from 2022. He’s got good (not great) talent around him on offense, so it’s fair to say that what you see is what you get.

And, again, that’s not bad. But it does leave you in a spot where you could find yourself constantly on the lookout for the next guy. It also means that making a decision on his fifth-year option in the spring of 2025 will be challenging, and might leave the Steelers in a position where the clock is ticking on Pickett.

Now, Pickett could improve, and I think one way or the other, he’ll play a long time in the NFL—whether it’s as the Steelers’ long-term starter, a guy who evolves into a backup or something in between. But it was interesting watching last week, and seeing Pickett and Mac Jones going head-to-head against Will Levis and Sam Howell, quarterbacks not selected in the first round but who had a physical edge on them.

By Sean O’Gathain (@storyhiii): Arthur Smith surely cannot continue to waste all this offensive talent?

Sean, it’s a weird thing because I do think Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot’s main principle in handling the quarterback position is correct. They’ve more or less decided it’s foolish to go all in at quarterback, with a high draft pick, a high-end contract or both, until they find one they’re all the way in on. They took a swing at Deshaun Watson. They declined to do so with Lamar Jackson. And they’ve let three drafts pass without taking a quarterback any higher than 74th (Desmond Ridder in 2022).

That, to me, makes all the sense in the world. I wrote extensively about how that idea related to not just the Falcons’ plan but also the strategy used by the Commanders and Buccaneers during the offseason—and how you really don’t want to be like the NBA team who just gave the max contract to a B-level star.

Which is all great, until you’ve gone three years, and you still don’t have an answer at the most important position in sports. And if you haven’t made the playoffs during that time, you’re going to have to answer for that with your owner.

Now, I really hope Smith and Fontenot get to see the plan through, because what they’ve created is fantastic infrastructure for whomever ends up as the long-term quarterback. Plus, you could drop that person into an offense with a highly paid line (anchored by Jake Matthews, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary), Bijan Robinson to take the pressure off and be an outlet in the run game, and Drake London and Kyle Pitts to throw to, not to mention a defense that has a really solid core.

The problem now becomes finding a quarterback this coming offseason. And without a high draft pick, or control over which veteran options are out there, nothing is really assured.

Broncos defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has been under fire most of the 2023 NFL regular season. But Joseph's defense has taken a big step forward over the past five weeks.

Where the Broncos’ defense was Oct. 1 is not the same as where the unit is now under Joseph.

By swaggy_SWG (@gurney_wade): How is Vance Joseph still employed?

Certainly, Swaggy, there were some fair questions to be asked about Vance Joseph after the Dolphins’ offense treated his unit in the way Alabama would treat Samford the week before playing in the Iron Bowl. But where the Broncos’ defense was Oct. 1 is not the same as where they were Nov. 1. And here’s some pretty definitive proof …

• The Broncos gave up 70 points to the Dolphins. Since, they’ve allowed 28, 31, 19, 17 and nine.

• Denver yielded a ghastly 726 yards to Miami. Since, they’ve allowed 471, 407, 389, 331 and 274 yards, improving every week.

• And if you want to look at critical factors, the Dolphins went 5-of-9 on third down against Denver in Week 3, and didn’t even face one until their third touchdown drive; the Chiefs, meanwhile, were 3-of-10 on third down in Denver, and, well, didn’t have a touchdown drive.

The whole thing is a good example of why it’s important to have patience early on with a new coaching staff. And Joseph did a really good job in Arizona—Kliff Kingsbury, I can tell you, loved him—and has a very solid reputation in the profession. So it really shouldn’t surprise anyone that he figured it out, or that Sean Payton’s decision to stick with him is paying off.

By Brett Rubel (@BrettRubel): Why is there no more fullback or three-TE set?

Brett, you do see some of that stuff. And some of the NFL’s best offenses do, in fact, employ a fullback. The Dolphins have Alec Ingold. The Niners have Kyle Juszczyk. The Ravens have Pat Ricard. Those teams rank first, fourth and sixth in total offense. And all three of those guys play close to half their teams’ offensive snaps.

So how is it that the NFL’s most advanced offenses are using the fullback? Kyle Shanahan gave me a great explanation of it a few years back—which lays bare how most people look at offensive football the wrong way. Here’s that explanation, which was part of a larger conversation we were having on the direction the league was going in on that side of the ball, coming out of the 2018 explosion in scoring.

“We have a fullback in there, not just because that’s our offense, it’s because I believe that’s an advantage,” Shanahan said. “People don’t play base defense very much, because the majority of the league doesn’t have a fullback. And so you get people on the field they’re not as used to practicing with. You know their menu’s smaller, and it’s, All right, I know I’m attacking these five things instead of these 25 things. And you can see it better as a play-caller, as a quarterback. But, also, it can be an advantage for the defense. If there’s only two receivers out, that’s a lot easier to defend than having to deal with a slot receiver.

“That’s why it’s important to me to have a fullback like Juice where you can do two-back, but you also can be in one-back and do one-back-type stuff.”

Essentially, what Shanahan’s saying is the advantage here is in forcing the defense to account for a fullback, and put a player on the field who can’t cover to do so. And if the defense doesn’t react with a substitution, well, then you have Juszczyk blocking a defensive back into the third row.

It explains why Chip Kelly used to scoff at the idea that anything he or anyone else was doing was revolutionary. As he saw it, in this giant cat-and-mouse game, to change the math on defenses and generate matchups, everything was more just, well, evolutionary.

By Moose Block (@moose_block): At one point, you mentioned you might have a new podcast debut. Any updates on that front?

Moose, I’m actually really excited about a few things on this front—I do have more coming and, as for right now, Conor and I are having a blast doing the MMQB podcast.

Raiders interim coach Antonio Pierce

Interim coach Antonio Pierce led the Raiders to a win over the Giants on Sunday.

By Ozzy Smith (@Ozzysmith1): New era in Vegas, so how far do the Raiders go this season? And, where does Josh McDaniels land next?

Ozzy, I think the Raiders have a good-not-great roster, so getting over .500 for the year would be a realistic target. What I’d be interested to see, if the Raiders make it there, is whether they’d wind up hiring Antonio Pierce. Because there are folks who were there in 2021 who feel like Mark Davis should have hired Rich Bisaccia, and that he’s regretted not doing so since.

What Davis perhaps undervalued was Bisaccia’s ability to galvanize the team in an adverse situation. Which it seems is what Pierce is doing right now—and we’ll see whether that lasts.

As for McDaniels’s future, I could see him taking some time off. I do think it’s unfair to tie every piece of success he’s had to Tom Brady (I’ve seen some folks doing that). He’s still a really good offensive coach, with a great track record at quarterback, having developed Matt Cassel, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett in New England, all of whom wound up outplaying their draft position. McDaniels also got the best year to date out of Mac Jones. So I’d think, when the dust settles, there’ll be coaching opportunities out there for McDaniels.

(If I were him, I’d go somewhere other than New England next, but these decisions can sometimes be about more than football.)

From Miguel Benzan Patriots Cap Space is 2,258,849 (@patscap): What are you hearing the 2024 league cap will be?

Miguel, thanks for checking in! I asked around, and the projections I’ve heard teams are working off at this point sit between $235 million and $240 million. Owners and team executives will get a more formal projection from the league office at the winter meeting in Dallas in December, and then the actual cap figure around the combine in late February or early March.

Jets quarterback Zach Wilson

Wilson gave the team jolts at the end of wins over the Broncos and Giants, and that might be more than any quarterback available could do right now.

From Jake (@jscooter724): Are the Jets viewing Trevor Siemian as a viable starting option?

From Doodle Zach #2 (@NS101689): When does Zach Wilson finally get benched?

Jake and Zach, I don’t think Zach Wilson gets benched, and the reason why does tie to what’s right there on the depth chart. Tim Boyle is actually the team’s backup right now, not Trevor Siemian. That, of course, is because Siemian has been around for about 10 minutes. But while Siemian would be the more battle-tested option—he has 30 NFL starts—his most recent game action—with the Saints and Bears—wouldn’t indicate he’d be able to give the team a spark. Plus, it’s been six years since he was a team’s regular starter.

Honestly, this is where the Jets are at. Wilson gave the team jolts at the end of wins over the Broncos and Giants, and that might be more than anyone available could do right now.

The reality is if the Jets are going anywhere, they’ll have to ride a really good, and maybe great, defense, and manage an offense with problems extending from quarterback to an injury-ravaged offensive line. They’ll also have to hope that when No. 8 is ready to come out of the phone booth, they’ll still have something for him to play for.

From Curtis Allen (@curtis93969): Geno Smith will not reach his salary escalators this year with his performance dipping so much from 2022 (yes, with some OL issues to be sure). Do you see the Seahawks either keeping him next year, cutting him or renegotiating his contract to get some cap relief?

Curtis, I see Geno Smith being a Seahawk in 2024, no question. He’s played well on balance. He’s a great locker-room guy. And even if you do wind up drafting a quarterback for the future in April, the team is in position to win right now, so having Smith as your starter while a rookie acclimates would make a ton of sense, too.

From Teppers Fake Brass Balls (@TheSportzNutt): How hot is Frank Reich’s seat. And could he be axed after one season?

Tepper, I would’ve said zero chance a month ago. I still don’t think it happens, even with the Panthers now playing out the string. But I also know how intense things have gotten in that place the past few years under the leadership of owner David Tepper. So I do think Frank Reich and his staff have to show the owner a little something between now and the end of the season—the continued development of Bryce Young—for me to say the coaches there are completely safe.