In the Arizona Cardinals season opener against the Tennessee Titans, the usual suspects showed up.
Chandler Jones dominated, Kyler Murray was elusive and DeAndre Hopkins was commanding. In the midst of that was Christian Kirk, hoping to add his name to those usual suspects this season.
In the 38-13 beatdown of the Titans, Kirk was perfect in his connections with Murray. His five receptions on five targets netted him 70 yards and two touchdowns. As the second best receiver of the day for Arizona, it was a hopeful sign of what's to come for Kirk.
The fourth-year wide receiver enters this season in the final year of his rookie contract. A second-round draft pick, Kirk has never surpassed 800 yards or played a full season. Despite this, Kirk is primed for a breakout season.
“I know the opportunity at hand and I don't really think about it or talk about it too much,” Kirk said at the start of training camp. “I know I've put the work in and I’m going to let itself play out and like I said, put my best foot forward and be the best version of myself."
For the most part, Kirk's time in the NFL hasn’t translated to success although there have been flashes. Kirk will emerge one game and then seem to disappear in the next.
After scoring five touchdowns and earning 246 yards in a three-game span last season, Kirk followed the next seven weeks with no touchdowns and 221 yards.
“I put that on me for not getting him the ball enough because he is a dynamic playmaker,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “I think having A.J. [Green] here has allowed him to play more in the slot where I think he can really accentuate his strengths and do what he does best.”
Acknowledgement from the head coach is a promising start to a better season. Putting Kirk in plays where he will succeed is even better.
Despite the absence of Larry Fitzgerald, Kirk played in only 57% of Sunday's snaps, the lowest percentage of his career. Better play-calling and more creative offensive schemes may limit Kirk's time on the field, but he can be a home-run hitter when on the turf.
However, his snap count Sunday was affected by game circumstances. With a 24-6 lead at halftime, the Cardinals ran the ball at a higher rate in the second half. In the first two quarters, the Cardinals ran 37 plays, of which 23 were called passes including one sack. Running backs Chase Edmonds and James Conner combined for 10 rushing attempts and Murray had four.
In the second half, playing with a big lead, there were a total of 30 plays with Edmonds and Conner having 18 runs and there being only 11 pass plays.
In the fourth quarter, beginning with one play at the end of the third quarter, the Cardinals passed once and ran 13 times, including one by Murray for one yard on the team's final offensive play of the game. That limited Kirk's snaps in the final two quarters.
Fitzgerald may be gone but new faces like A.J. Green and Rondale Moore provide other weapons opposing defenses must acknowledge, allowing Kirk to break free like he did against the Titans.
“I believe wholeheartedly . . . we got guys that can win one-on-one any day, any play with D-Hop, A.J. [Green], Kirk, and Rondale,“ running back Chase Edmonds said. “A lot of teams don’t have four defensive backs that guard guys like that.”
A former Texas A&M Aggie, Kirk and Kyler Murray have had a strong chemistry. Kirk caught Murray's first pass and touchdown. That chemistry shined through on Sunday during one of Kingsbury's favorite plays of the day.
Murray, taking several steps back from the snap, lofted a ball right into the hands of Kirk who bent his entire upper body behind his legs to see the ball heading into the end zone. Trust from Murray will be crucial for Kirk to sustain a role in a competitive receiver room.
“We had a similar play. Same thing in practice, it was blitz zero and it was the same throw, same catch in practice this week, and so right when Kyler got blitz zero, he made a check and I kind of knew it was going to be the same thing,” Kirk said. “So, once I saw it coming behind my head, I just knew that I had to adjust and look up into the air and know with him, and his talent and his ability to place the ball, I just knew I had to run right underneath it."
Kirk is 24-years-old, but has been with the Cardinals longer than any of the other other wide receivers. The players and coaches around him during that time haven’t always been advantageous for a young receiver. But with an offense that is clicking, it could all come together for Kirk this season.
“I’ve never had a problem with searching for things for motivation,” Kirk said. “That comes internal and I know whether I have my back against the wall or I’m being counted out. It definitely puts that chip on your shoulder a little heavier.”