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State of the Franchise: Can talented Cardinals roster mesh on the field?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? 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.

Members of the Arizona Cardinals organization, Cards fans around the world and those of you who are extremely jealous of Kliff Kingsbury's house:

The Cardinals made some bold moves prior to last season, giving up on Steve Wilks and Josh Rosen after only one year and bringing in Kingsbury and Kyler Murray. It was an exciting offseason for the franchise. The Cardinals improved to 5-10-1 in 2019, which might not seem like anything to celebrate, but it was a positive development for a team coming off a brutal 3-13 campaign. So, yeah, the change needed to happen after '18. It's like when The Office totally revamped Michael Scott's character after one season when they got rid of the ill-fitting shirts and slicked back hair. That's basically what the Cardinals did last offseason.

How the Cardinals got here

Let's take a quick look back at the ups and downs of the 2019 season:

The highs:

  • Kyler Murray's debut. I said last year that his first game was going to be so lit, and it was. The Cardinals fell behind by 18 points to the Detroit Lions, but Murray erased that deficit in the fourth quarter to send the game into overtime.
  • Trading for Kenyan Drake. It seemed a little weird to me at first. I'm going to be honest about that. Drake hadn't really broken out in three-plus seasons with Miami, so it seemed like a stretch to think he was going to be good in Arizona. But it actually worked out quite well, especially in his first game with the Cardinals. Drake had 162 total yards and a touchdown against the 49ers, who had the league's top-ranked defense, on Thursday Night Football. And sure, the Cardinals lost that game, but it was a pretty cool night.
  • Chandler Jones had 19 sacks. And a league-high eight forced fumbles, to boot. That kind of production is how you earn first-team All-Pro honors.
  • Beating the Seahawks in Week 16. And they did it with Brett Hundley at QB for most of the second half after Murray left with an injury. When you're in the middle of a five-win season, a victory like this is massive.
  • Rosen faltering in Miami. I know this might be a weird thing to include in this category, but Josh Rosen didn't exactly kill it with the Dolphins last season. You're not rooting against him, but it would have been just the Cardinals' luck if he had gone to Miami and turned into Dan Marino. (Google that name, kids. Marino was good.)

The lows:

  • Tying the Lions in Murray's debut. It was awesome that Murray rallied the Cardinals late in his career debut. Would have been better had they won the game.
  • Losing streaks. You might not remember this but the Cardinals were winless in their first four games of the season, going 0-3-1. Then they won three consecutive games against the Bengals, Falcons and Giants. But they finished the season with just two wins over their final nine. That was kind of a bummer.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Kliff Kingsbury. Many were skeptical of Kingsbury, and I'm sure some of you even delighted in the fact that the Cardinals finished 21st in total offense. So much for the whiz kid from Lubbock. But you need to dig a little bit deeper to see the improvements the Cardinals made on offense. The Cardinals scored 22.6 points per game, which is 8.5 points higher than their 2018 average. They scored at least 25 points in nine games, after having only one such game the previous season. They also set a club record with seven games without a giveaway. The team was clearly moving in the right direction. I would even say it was a good first season when you consider how tough the division is. Sure, Kingsbury did make some mistakes. There were times when he might have been too eager to show the world how clever he was, but the team showed just enough promise to have me believing. And for real, look at this house.

Quarterback: Kyler Murray. The Cardinals made a bold choice to draft Murray first overall a year after selecting Josh Rosen 10th overall, and I applauded them for it. Mostly because I'm an Angels fan and I'm glad he's not playing for the A's. But it was a good football move, too. Murray became the sixth player in NFL history to post 3,500 passing yards and 500 rushing yards in a season, joining Cam Newton as the only rookies to do it. Murray, the 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year, set the franchise rookie record for passing yards and touchdowns. Maybe the most important thing, though, is that Murray set the NFL rookie record with 211 consecutive pass attempts without an interception. That is impressive. He's one of the most exciting players in the league and sometimes makes football look like parkour. But he's not blindly out there heaving the ball into desperate situations and turning the ball over. That might be the most impressive thing he did last year. Well, that and these plays right here.

But still, the lack of interceptions (just 12 on 500-plus attempts) is amazing.

Projected 2020 MVP: Larry Fitzgerald, wide receiver. I know I should say Murray or even DeAndre Hopkins. But this team still belongs to Larry Fitz. He's totaled 144 receptions over the last two seasons. And really, he should end up ceding some targets to Hopkins. So, yeah. Let me try this again.

Projected 2020 MVP (for real): Murray. It all comes down to him. Sure, the Cardinals beat Seattle late last season with Murray sidelined for most of the second half (they built a double-digit lead when Murray was in the game, mind you). But if Arizona is going to be the IT team this season (more on that in a moment), it all comes down to Murray's development. And the precedent has been set. Lamar Jackson just won the MVP in his second season. Patrick Mahomes won the MVP in his second season and the Super Bowl in his third year. Murray is going to need to be the MVP, win a Super Bowl and move into a house like Kingsbury to top that.

2020 breakout star: Byron Murphy, cornerback. All right. I had Christian Kirk here last season, and I kind of believe he could improve playing with Larry Fitz and Nuk. But I don't want to be accused of being some dumb fantasy dork, so let me expand my horizons a little bit and talk about Murph, who, like Kirk, played high school ball in Arizona (Saguaro High in Scottsdale). He's also another local guy who didn't play at ASU like he should have, but we won't get into that. The Cardinals drafted him with the first pick in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He was pressed into action with Robert Alford suffering a leg injury in training camp and Patrick Peterson serving a six-game suspension to open the season. He started every game and played well in stretches. Look, he was a rookie. But he's talented. He had 10 passes defensed last year and this could be a huge season for him.

New face to know: DeAndre Hopkins, wide receiver. Even with all of the main-event-status receivers who have been traded in recent years, the DeAndre Hopkins deal was an absolute stunner -- not only for the compensation it took to acquire Hopkins. Well, yeah. Maybe it was just the shockingly low price for his services. How are you going to acquire Hopkins for anything less than a first-rounder? Anyway, Hopkins is coming off back-to-back seasons with 100-plus receptions (he underachieved with just 96 in 2017), and he never drops the football. Plus, he is entering his age-28 season, meaning he's still well within his prime. I know that I've made quite a few references to Kliff Kingsbury's house. But this was the Kliff Kingsbury's house of deals for the Cardinals.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: GETTING THERE. I know that everybody wants to talk about Arizona's great offseason and make claims that this team could have a 49ers-like turnaround. And I'm here for it. But before we really jump into that, there is one thing I really want to address and I will do that after we discuss ...

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 at 49ers. The Cardinals were the winners in the offseason, but how will that translate on the gridiron? Arizona could make a huge opening-week statement if it goes up north and defeats the defending NFC champions.
  • Week 7 vs. Seahawks. The Cardinals have a tough stretch in October with three consecutive roadies at the Panthers, Jets and Cowboys. Then they play host to the Seahawks before their bye week.
  • Week 17 at Rams. For Cardinals fans, all you are hoping for at this point is that this game means something for the playoffs. (For Arizona.)

Will the Cardinals be able to ...

Avoid being the Browns of 2020? Stop me if you've heard this one before ... A team surrounds its second-year, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Oklahoma with an all-world receiver and is expected to compete at a very high level. Well, that plot didn't work out very well for the Cleveland Browns, who suffered another humiliating season in 2019. So the Cardinals will want to make sure that they are doing everything possible to avoid a similar fate. At least Arizona seems to possess better leadership at the top. But one of the big reasons the Browns failed last year is that they couldn't block. They allowed 50 sacks for the third consecutive season. This offseason, the Cardinals locked up tackle D.J. Humphries on a new three-year contract and added OT Josh Jones in the third round of the draft (which appears to be an amazing value). So it looks like the Cardinals have adequately addressed the position. You add that to finds like Justin Murray, who became a starter last year, and the Cardinals should be able to pull this off up front.

Stop people from throwing the football? The Cardinals had Chandler Jones and his 19 sacks. They also had Patrick Peterson (granted, he missed six games) and Budda Baker in the secondary. So you would think that would be a pretty good pass defense. And yet, Arizona ranked 31st in the league in pass defense last year. That just doesn't quite add up. It's kind of like when you have a great ensemble TV cast and it just doesn't work. Like the remake of V. You had Morena Baccarin. Morris Chestnut. Alan Tudyk. You had Steve the Pirate on a network TV show. How does that fail? Whatever. The Cardinals need to fix that, though. I love that they picked up Isaiah Simmons in the draft. I thought that he was the best non-quarterback in this class. If you ever watched a Clemson game, you know Simmons plays all over the field. He's the kind of player I expect to make an immediate impact. The Cardinals also had some nice signings with Devon Kennard and De'Vondre Campbell, who will join Jordan Hicks at linebacker and make the defense pretty solid.

Find a role for Dan Arnold? Not getting a lot of production from the tight end position is an Arizona tradition, much like hitting Portillo's every time I'm in town for spring training. Arnold flashed a little bit last year. All right, he caught six passes and two of them went for touchdowns. One of them was against Cleveland in Week 15. I made a joke about him with a Weezer reference in our "That Helps No One" segment on NFL Fantasy Live. I know Maxx Williams is the incumbent starter and got a two-year extension late last season, but Arnold has the size (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) and definitely looks the part. And having another tight end option in this offense could be huge. And fine, I'm worried I won't get George Kittle on my fantasy team.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: The real genius of the DeAndre Hopkins trade. Obviously, anytime you get a player like Hopkins, that's awesome. Even better, he didn't cost a first-round pick like the one Buffalo spent on Stefon Diggs (worth it). The Cardinals did part with David Johnson in the deal, and that was a good thing. Mostly because Johnson's contract was going to swamp the Cardinals for a long time to come -- like the way Todd Gurley had become a burden for the Rams. The thing is, the Rams got nothing for Gurley, who was released. The Cardinals got one of the best receivers in the world in their deal with Houston. For that alone, it was a great move for the Cardinals. The other part is there was some troubling tape on Johnson last year, especially with plays like this:

I can't unsee that. I hope DJ can rebound in Houston. But this was such a great move for the Birds.

... people are overthinking: Can Kenyan Drake really do it again? I do get this question in my mentions a lot, and I understand. Drake had high expectations in Miami and never really lived up to them. But you could say that for a lot of dudes who played for the Dolphins. Just look at Ryan Tannehill and Minkah Fitzpatrick and what they've done since moving to new teams. And if you look at the numbers, Drake was a huge improvement over Johnson in terms of yards per attempt (4.8 to 3.7), yards after contact (2.69 to 2.05) and forced missed tackles (17 percent to 6.4 percent). Now, Arizona still has backup RB Chase Edmonds, who had some nice flashes, and rookie Eno Benjamin has been added to the mix, but Drake has the sixth-highest base salary on the team this season. He's going to be featured.

For the 2020 season to be successful, the Cardinals MUST:

  • Close out some games. The Cards lost five games by seven points or less, and that doesn't include the Week 1 tie. Even though it was awesome to rally from that deficit, they still had opportunities to win that season opener. Win some of those close ones and this team can be a playoff contender.
  • Continue to develop Murray. Again, this goes back to not wanting to be the Browns of 2020. If the Cardinals finished 8-8 and Murray looked like an MVP candidate, that's a lot easier to stomach than scuffling to eight wins and wondering if your quarterback is going in the right direction.
  • Be competitive in the NFC West. This looks like the best division in football. The Cardinals showed they could compete with the big boys at times last year, but that needs to be a weekly occurrence now.

In closing

Once again, I'm excited about this squad. The Cardinals are poised to be one of the most interesting teams to watch. I'm trying not to let what happened to the Browns last season cloud my judgement. Or dampen my enthusiasm. There is a lot of reason for optimism. Besides, Season 2 was the best season of The Office. So they have that going for them.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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