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State of the 2022 Arizona Cardinals: Kyler Murray, Kliff Kingsbury must take next step

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

It's important that we take a moment here to acknowledge the passing of Jeff Gladney. The former TCU standout, who had signed to play cornerback for Arizona this offseason, was killed in a car accident early on Memorial Day, with his death rocking not only the Cardinals organization, but many across the NFL.

The general football-related matters facing the team this offseason and going into 2022 seem minor in comparison. There is no good way to transition to a discussion of those issues. But before we examine where the organization stands otherwise, I would like to extend my deepest sympathies to those affected, and I hope they can find a way to heal.

2021 rewind

One high from last season: Trouncing the 49ers in Week 9. The Packers denied Arizona's bid for perfection in Week 8, but the Cards rebounded by soundly defeating the host 49ers, 31-17, in Week 9 and improving to 8-1. At that point, Arizona was looking like the team to beat in the NFC -- forgive the pun, but the Birds were flying. (Actually, don't forget the pun; I meant it.)

One low from last season: Pretty much everything after Week 13. The Cardinals defeated Chicago, 33-22, that week, and they headed into the stretch run with the best record in the NFL (10-2) -- then dropped five of their last six games, including an embarrassing, lackluster performance against the rival Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card Round. I mean, when I was writing this, I had to look up to see who they played against, their postseason appearance was that unremarkable. For the second consecutive year, the Cardinals started off hot, then melted like a spilled Fat Tuesday slushie on Mill Avenue in August.

2022 VIPs

Head coach: Kliff Kingsbury. I like Kliff. I really do. The Cardinals organization is in a better spot now than before he took over in 2019. But we can't continue to overlook the aforementioned fact that his teams have struggled in the second half in each of the last two seasons. The Cardinals missed the playoffs two years ago, then barely made it last season before being easily dismissed. This is a disturbing trend that has dated back to his time at Texas Tech.

The good news is, just one good run through the postseason would make everyone forget about all that. There are plenty of examples of head coaches who started off slowly in their NFL careers before really getting going. Like, Kingsbury's record so far (24-24-1) is already better than Jimmy Johnson's (19-29) through Year 3 with the Cowboys, and that dude is in the Hall of Fame.

Quarterback: Kyler Murray. It's gotten ugly at times between Murray and the Cardinals this offseason, as the first overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft angles for a contract extension. To me, the team and QB seem kind of like a couple you see at a wedding that bickers during the appetizers, then is slow-dancing to Taylor Swift's Lover by the end of the evening. (That song always gets me.) General manager Steve Keim has expressed confidence that the Cardinals and Murray (whose fifth-year option for 2023 was exercised by Arizona) will "get something done this summer." For his part, Murray was very enthusiastic about the draft-day trade for Hollywood Brown, about which I'll touch on in a moment. Murray even made an appearance at OTAs. This situation appears to be on the right track.

Projected 2022 MVP: Murray. We talked about some heat descending on our guy Kliff for the team's poor showing in the second half. Well, Kyler also received his fair share of criticism, too, with NFL Network's Mike Garafolo reporting in February that the team wants him "to take a step forward in a number of areas," including "maturity, body language on the sideline, having a bigger voice with his teammates, and leadership." It's worth noting, again, the multiple signals that Murray and the team are, as NFL Network's Jane Slater reported later in February, "on the same page." But I want to make sure to offer some perspective on Murray. While he is by no means perfect at this stage in his development, I wouldn't get too carried away with nitpicking his game and presence.

Because here's the thing: He is still a young quarterback, set to be 25 when the season starts. And he's one of just three players (joining Josh Allen and Russell Wilson) to top 10,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards over the past three campaigns combined. I'm old enough to remember Peyton Manning's early, egregious playoff losses. In other words, it might be a little too soon to write Murray off, considering I'd still put him among the top 10 QBs in this league.

And yes, I realize I've compared Kliff and Kyler, who are each three years into their NFL tenure together, to a Hall of Fame coach and quarterback, so I'll just move along now.

New face to know: Marquise Brown, wide receiver. A lot of big-name receivers were either on the move or expected to be on the move before and during the draft. And then there was Hollywood Brown. Wait, did that seem like shade? That wasn't what I was going for. I just meant that it was a surprise to see Brown dealt. Honestly, I was shocked. Lamar Jackson seemed shocked, too, even if Brown himself had an idea of what was coming.

Regardless, this is a great change for Brown, who will be reunited with his college teammate from Oklahoma. (Remember, Kyler pushed hard for Arizona to draft fellow former Sooner CeeDee Lamb, who went to the Cowboys instead in 2020.) Brown will provide relief during DeAndre Hopkins' six-game suspension (more on that in a moment), and he'll fit this offense way better than he fit Greg Roman's scheme, which loves to feed tight ends. Like Murray, Brown had his fifth-year option exercised for 2023, but he now has a chance to put up big numbers and lay the groundwork to eventually earn some of that coin wide receivers have been getting lately (thanks in no small part to former Cardinals receiver Christian Kirk).

2022 breakout star: Rondale Moore, wide receiver. I like Brown to have a huge year for the Cardinals (draft him in fantasy) -- but I also expect Moore to have a sizable role in this offense. The 2021 second-rounder finished his rookie year with some modest totals (54 catches, 435 yards, one receiving TD), though he did have a pretty great game against the Vikings in Week 2 (when he logged seven catches for 114 yards, including that one scoring grab). I'm not going to sit here and tell you that you need to go after him in fantasy and play him every week. But dude will have some pop plays and be a favorite of yours on the YouTube highlights.

2022 roadmap

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. Kansas City Chiefs. Getting out to a fast start with a win against Patrick Mahomes and Co. would sure help dispel some of that Kyler Murray chatter. And the Chiefs could be vulnerable this year without Tyreek Hill.
  • Week 7 vs. New Orleans Saints (Thursday night). The Cardinals and Saints are each in an interesting spot this year. Both should be competing for playoff berths. This game could have a huge impact down the stretch.
  • Week 14 vs. New England Patriots (Monday night). Look, the Cardinals have struggled down the stretch over the last couple of years. This game kicks off a brutal run, with Arizona facing the Patriots, Broncos and Bucs in consecutive weeks. It could end the Cardinals' season or get them battle-tested for the playoffs.

Will the Cardinals be able to ...

Function on offense while DeAndre Hopkins is out? I can like the acquisition of Brown. I can predict a breakout for Moore. I can even prop up the selection of a tight end in the second round (which I will be doing here in a second). But losing D-Hop to a six-game suspension for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy is going to have a big impact. Hopkins missed seven games last year, and the team averaged 9.2 fewer points per game during those contests than it did when he played, going 3-4. When you add Hopkins' absence from the playoff loss to his six-game suspension, he will have missed at least 11 consecutive games by the time he returns in 2022.

Replace Chandler Jones? J.J. Watt is the headliner up front. The five-time All-Pro and three-time Defensive Player of the Year is cool. People like him. But there is no getting around the fact that Jones, who provided nearly a third of Arizona's sack production by himself over the past six seasons (71.5 sacks out of 263, or 27.2 percent), is gone, having signed in Las Vegas. Arizona has to find a way to make up for the output. Markus Golden (11.0 sacks in 2021) figures to get the bulk of the pass-rushing work, with 2022 third-rounders Cameron Thomas and Myjai Sanders potentially in the mix to help pick up the slack, while former first-rounders Zaven Collins and Isaiah Simmons have an opportunity to seize leadership roles at linebacker.

One storyline ...

… people shouldn't overlook: The specialness of James Conner. I know, I know. I'm letting my part-time role as a fantasy analyst show a bit here. But I was rather bullish on Conner last year, and he went on to rush for 15 touchdowns. Not to brag or anything. And I'm not the only believer in Conner, judging by the way the Cardinals signed the back to a new three-year deal while letting Chase Edmonds walk. The other competitors for snaps are Darrel Williams, Eno Benjamin and sixth-round pick Keaontay Ingram, which should mean plenty of chances for Conner. As a fantasy dork, I like this kind of production. (In other words, draft him in your leagues.)

… people shouldn't overthink: Arizona drafting a TE in Round 2. I like this move. Yes, the Cardinals have 31-year-old Zach Ertz, the 2021 trade acquisition who performed so well he was extended this offseason for three additional years. It might have been a surprise to some to then see the Cardinals select Trey McBride in the second round of this year's draft. But -- and you might be shocked to know this -- the Cardinals were in the upper half of the NFL in terms of running "12" personnel (two tight ends), according to Next Gen Stats.

This just makes a lot of sense. McBride was Bucky Brooks' top-ranked tight end prospect ahead of the draft and was listed comfortably within the top 100 (at No. 62) among Daniel Jeremiah's top 150 prospects overall. McBride needs some developmental work, but he reminds me of Austin Hooper, who faded in Cleveland over the past two seasons but was quite productive early in his career with the Falcons.

For 2022 to be a success, the Cardinals MUST:

  • Win a playoff game. I'm not sure anybody is in danger of losing their jobs or anything like that. Keim and Kingsbury were recently extended through 2027, with the organization committing to their (good!) vision. But fans agonize when their teams don't win playoff games. And there is a growing cloud around the coach that I would like to see dissipate.

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