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Arizona Cardinals 2021 Season Preview

The Arizona Cardinals hope to continue improving in the NFL’s best division.

Believing the offseason narrative throughout the NFL means accepting the notion that no head coaching seat is hotter than Kliff Kingsbury.

Of course, all Kingsbury has done is take over a 3-13 team with the first overall choice in the draft, guide it to a 5-10-1 record with rookie quarterback Kyler Murray at the helm and then improve to 8-8 in 2020.

However, the critics pounced when, needing one win in the final two games against division rivals San Francisco and the Los Angeles Rams to advance to the playoffs, the Cardinals scored a combined 19 points while Murray spent most of the finale on the bench with a leg injury.

General manager Steve Keim’s offseason task was to add physicality to the offensive line, help for wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and leadership to the defense. He accomplished that with a trio of 30-something players.

The result was trading for Raiders center Rodney Hudson (32), signing former Bengals standout pass-catcher A.J. Green (33) and, most notably, adding the presence of end J.J. Watt (32) to the defense.

There remains a steep hill to climb in the NFL’s best division with the reality that improvement can be offset when trying to leap-frog the Seahawks, Rams and 49ers.

Offense

It all begins with Murray, who enters his third season after being voted Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2019 and elected to the Pro Bowl last season. Leadership is where more growth is needed, but enjoying better protection from the middle of the line along with a more productive ground game would help.

Murray hopes not to run as much as last season, which was the case after he injured his shoulder in Week 11 against Seattle. The Cardinals lost that game and four of the next six with four of the five to division rivals. It rendered their 6-3 record after the “Hail Murray” miracle to Hopkins a distant memory despite it winning an ESPY for best play.

The locker room is missing the massive presence of wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, hence the arrival of Watt. However, the receiver corps has been bolstered by the addition of Green and second-round pick Rondale Moore, who is a 5-foot-7 ball of energy that will be dangerous with the ball in space and potentially on punt returns.

The offensive line is strong if not great, but the unit is led by Hudson in the middle although the right guard remains unknown. It could be Brian Winters, who was also signed for his physical attributes, Justin Murray, who started seven games there last season, or Josh Jones, drafted in the third round in 2020 as a tackle, but who started in the preseason with Winters and Murray sidelined by minor injuries. On the team's radio affiliate ArizonaSports 98.7 Tuesday, Kingsbury said Jones would open the season as the starter.

The contrasting styles of Chase Edmonds (5-9, 205) and James Conner (6-1, 233) will complement each other at running back as Kingsbury admitted Conner was a better pass-catcher than anticipated. Tight end is virtually an after-thought in Kingsbury’s passing offense, although Maxx Williams and Darrell Daniels are good blockers.

Defense

Like Fitzgerald on offense, the decade-long presence of cornerback Patrick Peterson has left the room. The Cardinals thought they were in a solid spot after signing former Patriots and Titans corner Malcolm Butler. However, the 31-year-old abruptly retired as rosters were being slashed to 53, leaving the Cardinals with a lack of depth for the time being.

Third-year man Byron Murphy Jr. is suddenly the steadiest in the group, but Robert Alford could be if he stays healthy and emerges from the COVID-19 list in good shape after missing the last two seasons with injuries. Rookie fourth-round pick Marco Wilson will be forced to grow up in a hurry with only sixth-round pick Tay Gowan and Luc Barcoo behind him. Standout Budda Baker is the leader of the safety room.

Outside linebacker Chandler Jones needs a bounce-back year after playing only five games in 2020 as he enters the final season of his contract, albeit with a $15.5 million salary. There is depth at edge rusher (Markus Golden, Devon Kennard, Dennis Gardeck, rookie Victor Dimukeje) in coordinator Vance Joseph’s 3-4 defense, with the intriguing option of 2020 first-round pick Isaiah Simmons playing outside and inside.

When he’s inside, it will be next to 2020 first-round pick Zaven Collins, who was handed the play-calling duties as soon as he was drafted, relegating Jordan Hicks to a backup role. However, there will be times when those three are on the field together.

Watt is the alpha male on the line, but so is nose tackle Corey Peters, who was re-signed with training camp underway after recovering from a knee injury suffered last season in Week 9. That duo is tasked with mentoring a promising young group of linemen that includes Rashard Lawrence, Zach Allen and Leki Fotu. Jordan Phillips is the wild card.

A free-agent addition last year, Phillips played only nine games and then missed time this year in training camp with an undisclosed injury to go with a 12-day stay on reserve/COVID-19. He was placed on reserve/injured Sept. 2 and will be out at least three games.

Predicted Record: 9-8

That might not produce a playoff spot, but much will depend on being better than the 2-4 division record last season. Non-division games will be crucial against the NFC North, AFC South, Cleveland, Dallas and Carolina.

Expected depth chart

QB: Kyler Murray, Colt McCoy, Chris Streveler

WR: DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, Rondale Moore, Andy Isabella, Antoine Wesley

RB: Chase Edmonds, James Conner, Eno Benjamin, Jonathan Ward

TE: Maxx Williams, Darrell Daniels, Demetrius Harris

OL: LT D.J. Humphries, LG Justin Pugh, C Rodney Hudson, RG Josh Jones, RT Kelvin Beachum, G/T Justin Murray, G Brian Winters, C/G Max Garcia, T Josh Miles

DL: DE J.J. Watt, NT Rashard Lawrence, DT Leki Fotu, DE Zach Allen, NT Corey Peters, DE Michael Dogbe, *DT Jordan Phillips

OLB: Chandler Jones, Markus Golden, Devon Kennard, Dennis Gardeck, Victor Dimukeje

ILB: Zaven Collins, Isaiah Simmons, Jordan Hicks, Tanner Vallejo, Ezekiel Turner

CB: Byron Murphy Jr., Robert Alford, Marco Wilson, Tay Gowan, Luq Barcoo

S: Budda Baker, Jalen Thompson, Deionte Thompson, Charles Washington

K: Matt Prater

P: Andy Lee

LS: Aaron Brewer

*Phillips starts the season on reserve/injured.