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Great expectations: Assessing the impact of the Cardinals’ 2019 draft class

The Arizona Cardinals’ 2019 draft class has earned mostly rave reviews. But it’s time for draft pundits to step aside. What can Cardinals fans expect from these players on the field in 2019—and beyond?

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Arizona Cardinals Introduce Kyler Murray
Heisman winner Kyler Murray is the Cardinals’ new starting QB. Expectations are already sky-high. Can he meet them?
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The 2019 NFL Draft was the most exciting draft in Arizona Cardinals history—yes, even more exciting than when we drafted Larry Fitzgerald. We had the #1 overall pick for the first time in franchise history, there were the trade rumors surrounding Josh Rosen, then the drama with N’Keal Harry at the end of the first round. (This close, Devils fans, this close.)

When the dust settled, we had a new starting QB, a drastically improved WR room, and a few reinforcements for the defense. The reviews? Pretty pretty pretty good.

But now that the mocks have been mocked (Clelin Ferrell at #4?!), Mr. Irrelevant has claimed his trophy, and the pundits have handed out their grades, it’s time to actually talk about the football players who joined the Redbirds over the weekend.

What can we expect from this latest crop of Cardinals rookies? I delved into the scouting reports and took at look at the revamped roster to find out. So, let’s discuss how these guys will contribute on the field on 2019 in reverse order of selection.

Undrafted Free Agents

Let’s be honest—most of these guys won’t even make the practice squad. Perhaps one of them turns out to be a hidden gem, but there’s no way to tell right now. After all, they went undrafted for a reason. We’ll find out more about these guys once training camp starts.

TE Caleb Wilson (Round 7, #254, UCLA)

Not only did the Redbirds have the #1 overall pick, but they had the very last pick of the draft as well, using it to select a target familiar to the departed Rosen. Like many Redbirds fans, I had hoped they would have addressed the TE position a bit earlier, but the draft board just didn’t unfold that way.

That said, Wilson is an intriguing prospect as a productive college player (60/965/4 TDs as a junior in 2018) with an eye-popping 40 time for a TE (4.56). However, Wilson came out a year early and probably could have used the extra year to refine his route-running and blocking techniques, as well as add more muscle. The scouting consensus is that he’s not quite ready to produce at the NFL level yet (hence why he was the last player drafted).

What does that mean for the Cardinals in 2019? For one, Wilson is far from assured a roster spot with both Charles Clay and Ricky Seals-Jones ahead of him on the depth chart (and now perhaps Maxx Williams as well). He seems a likely practice squad candidate, but he could stick on the roster if he works hard in the offseason and flashes in training camp and the preseason (and one of the guys ahead of him doesn’t make the team). Still, don’t expect much from Wilson on the field this season even if he does make the 53-man roster. Hopefully he’ll be ready to contribute in 2020, as both Clay and RSJ are on 1-year deals.

DE Michael Dogbe (Round 7, #249, Temple)

Dogbe had an anonymous college career until his 12.5 sacks as a senior in 2018 put him on the NFL Draft radar. That and his numbers in the weight room clearly caught the Cardinals’ attention, as they used one of their three 7th-round selections on him. So why did he last to the end of the draft? For such a big (6’3”, 284 lbs), strong guy, the consensus is that he struggles against the run, so he’ll need to be coached up to be anything but an end-of-rotation option on the line.

That said, the D-line is perhaps the thinnest position on the team right now, so Dogbe has an excellent chance to make the team out of training camp, especially with Robert Nkemdiche likely to begin the season on the PUP list. I could see Dogbe having a big preseason à la Cap Capi, but there probably won’t be a ton of regular-season snaps for him barring injury. But we needed D-line depth, and Dogbe is just that with a whiff of potential under the right coaching.

OT Joshua Miles (Round 7, #248, Morgan State)

Speaking of potential, Miles’s combine numbers are tantalizing. He seems to be the definition of ultra-athletic project, as his play recognition, instincts, and technique are all said to be quite unrefined. Sean Kugler will have his work cut out for him to develop this 6’5”, 314 lb hulk, but the rewards could be tremendous if he does so.

But Cardinals fans shouldn’t expect to hear much from Miles in 2019. Even though OT is another perilously thin position, Miles is probably too raw to rely on as a rookie. Hopefully we can stash him on the practice squad and let him develop for a year while Keim signs a veteran fill-in for depth. As for down the line, it’s too early to say—it’s entirely possible, even likely, that he never pans out. Most 7th rounders don’t. But even a hint of potential, which Miles definitely has, is worth it at #248 overall.

C Lamont Gaillard (Round 6, #179, Georgia)

Center wasn’t exactly a need for the Redbirds with 2nd-year player Mason Cole entrenched as the starter and former starter A.Q. Shipley coming back from injury, but evidently he rated highly on the team’s board, as they snatched him up in the 6th round. The consensus on Gaillard is that he’s a bit undersized but makes up for it with fieriness, toughness, and solid technique. Teammates and opposing coaches alike speak glowingly about him as well—all of which makes it easy to see why Keim was so enamored with him.

Still, it’s hard to envision Gaillard seeing the field much as a rookie (as always, barring injury). That’s not unexpected for a 6th-round pick, however. But would it surprise anyone to see him beat out Shipley for the backup center gig? (And remember that Shipley has no ties to this new coaching staff.) Another plus about Gaillard is that he played some guard in college (13 starts in 2016), so he could potentially figure into the backup plans behind Justin Pugh and J.R. Sweezy. Gaillard looks like a potential keeper for the Cardinals in the 6th round.

WR KeeSean Johnson (Round 6, #174, Fresno State)

Johnson was the third of three receivers the team selected over the weekend as the team clearly emphasized remaking the WR room. As the last of the three WRs drafted, Johnson has the highest hill to climb and is no lock to make the regular-season roster. But his competition isn’t too fierce (the likes of Kevin White, Damiere Byrd, Trent Sherfield, et al.), and Johnson was a productive, skilled college player.

His hands are his calling card and his path to a roster spot and playing time. His ceiling is somewhat limited given his lack of speed (4.6 40 time) and separation ability, and he’ll need a year or so to adjust to NFL defenses. He probably profiles best as a slot receiver given his speed and athletic deficiencies—a problem given that most of the guys ahead of him on the depth chart are also probably better in the slot. But Kliff Kingsbury’s new offense will feature plenty of 4 WR sets, so a guy like Johnson could carve out a nice niche role—just likely not in his rookie season.

S Deionte Thompson (Round 5, #139, Alabama)

Thompson was a first-team All-American last year for Nick Saban, and was a 1st-round pick in Mel Kiper’s first mock draft back in January. So how was he available in the 5th round for the Cardinals? Simple: health. There are worries he has a degenerative knee condition that could severely hamper his career. This doesn’t exactly sound like Ryan Swope 2.0, but any talk of expectations for Thompson have to start with his health.

If the concerns are genuine, then the Redbirds are out a 5th-rounder. Not ideal, but it’s not exactly going to set the franchise back much. But if the concerns are overblown? It’s possible that the team stole a future Pro Bowler for next to nothing. Maybe he’s more like Honey Badger 2.0.

But even assuming health, Cardinals fans should temper their expectations in 2019. Thompson has two bona fide starting NFL safeties ahead of him on the depth chart: Budda Baker and D.J. Swearinger. Neither should have anything to worry about from the rookie for the time being. But with the amount of sub packages teams are playing these days to counter the spread, Thompson should certainly see the field a bit as a rookie and hopefully showcase his big-play ability. But everything hinges on his health.

WR Hakeem Butler (Round 4, #103, Iowa State)

At 6’5”, Butler towers over his two WR draftmates—as well as every other WR on the Cardinals’ roster. The Cardinals have lacked a true downfield, 50-50 ball threat since Fitz moved to the slot and Michael Floyd drank his way out of town, and Butler seems like a good bet to fill that role admirably. He certainly looks the part, and his highlight reel is a whole lotta fun. This is a player to get excited about.

So, as seems to be the common refrain so far, why did he drop to the 4th round? Well, that’s just it—he dropped, just like dozens of passes over the course of his college career. The first thing every scouting report on him mentions is his size, but the second is the drops. I imagine he’ll struggle with that as a rookie, making him a poor bet to ascend too far up the depth chart right away, but he should add a few big plays to his highlight reel in Kingsbury’s offense this season. He’ll likely channel his inner J.J. Nelson at times as well, but if he puts it all together, he could be the team’s next WR1. His ceiling is that high (and it’d better be, given his height.)

DE Zach Allen (Round 3, #65, Boston College)

By going QB at the top of the draft, Keim passed up the chance to take a top-end front-seven talent like Nick Bosa or Quinnen Williams. In fact, he waited until Round 3 to address the front seven, but it looks like he got a good one in Allen, another—you guessed it—highly productive college player (61 tackles, 15 TFLs, 6.5 sacks, 7 PDs, 1 INT, and 2 blocked kicks as a senior in 2018).

Scouts agree that Allen lacks ideal size (6’4”, 281 lbs) and athleticism for a 3-4 DE, but he’ll make his living with above-average effort, motor, and IQ (see the batted passes and blocked kicks). Cardinals fans are sure to love watching him play on Sundays. He should start the season as the first rotational DE on the depth chart after starters Darius Philon and Rodney Gunter and will see plenty of snaps as a rookie. With Gunter on a 1-year deal, Allen could be starting as soon as next season if all goes well. But even if not, he should at least be a valuable depth piece for the duration of his rookie deal.

WR Andy Isabella (Round 2, #62, Massachusetts)

Once we drafted Kyler Murray at #1, it was only a matter of time before we traded Josh Rosen. So it’s only fitting that Keim was able to secure a dynamic new weapon for his dynamic new QB with the pick he got from Miami for the former Chosen One. The blazing Isabella (4.31 40 time) should have an instant impact as a de facto starter as the team’s WR3. He’s going to take more tops off (of defenses) than Mardi Gras beads in his Cardinals career, starting in 2019.

One question is where he fits into Kingsbury’s offense. He should be the WR3, but does that necessarily mean he’ll play in the slot? After all, Fitzgerald dominated the team’s slot snaps last season, and Christian Kirk played almost exclusively in the slot in college. I’d bet that Isabella’s speed will be put to use outside quite a bit, like T.Y. Hilton in Indy. But I also suspect that Kingsbury will move all his WRs around the formation, taking advantage of the matchups that present themselves. It will be fascinating to see how this offense comes together. But however it works, Isabella will be a big part of it in 2019 and beyond.

CB Byron Murphy (Round 2, #33, Washington)

Keim said on 98.7 the other day that Murphy was a top-10 player on their draft board. Not top-10 defensive player. Not top-10 Day 2 prospect. But top 10 overall player. That explains the decision to draft him over filling more obvious needs like O-line, D-line, or WR with the first pick of the 2nd round. And for what it’s worth, Pro Football Focus agreed, calling Murphy a top-10 prospect as well. Twitter actually had a field day razzing Keim for seemingly using PFF’s draft board as his own.

But back to Murphy. There are concerns about his size (5’11”, 190 lbs) and speed (4.55 40 time), but it’s clear the dude’s a baller with good quickness, instincts, and a knack for getting his hands on the ball (7 INTs and 20 PDs in his college career). He profiles are more of a slot corner, which means he only has to beat out Tramaine Brock to see the field a ton as a rookie. He should do just that and quickly become a mainstay in what is looking like a very good secondary in 2019. Welcome home, Byron!

QB Kyler Murray (Round 1, #1, Oklahoma)

They actually did it. I wasn’t sure they’d do it, but the Cardinals threw caution to the wind and took the most dynamic player in the draft, both on and off the field, with the #1 pick. Just like that, the present and future of the franchise were dramatically altered. Fans (although not all of them, it must be said), pundits, and the team alike are all buzzing with excitement about Murray’s potential.

He’s already the favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Fantasy gurus like Yahoo’s Brad Evans are salivating at the numbers he could put up in Kingsbury’s offense: “Murray is a player capable of compiling 3,800 pass yards, 700 rush yards and 25 combined TDs this fall.” There’s a palpable aura of hopefulness around the team that, it also must be said, just wouldn’t be there if Josh Rosen were still the team’s QB. It’s an exciting time to be a Cardinals fan.

I’m excited too. But let’s pump the brakes a bit. Yes, I’m an avowed Murray acolyte, but he’s also a rookie, and you might remember that my first-ever RotB column was a few words of caution about then-rookie Rosen. After taking a deep breath and counting to three… I could see OROY, but Evan’s numbers seem a bit far-fetched, don’t they?

Plus, the fact remains that this team is still a work in progress—the Redbirds currently have the second-worst odds to make the playoffs this season, behind only Josh Rosen’s new team, the Miami Dolphins. (Sorry about your luck, Josh! Really though.) Finally, the main knocks against Murray (size, relative lack of experience) are still reasons for concern. As is the Cardinals’ makeshift O-line.

All that said, and despite what Kingsbury is saying now, Murray will start right away. Kingsbury’s offense should be a perfect fit for his skills. And he’s got a talented (if largely unproven) stable of intriguing pass catchers to throw to. Murray is going to put up good numbers this season (as long as Nick Bosa doesn’t take his head off). Will he put up those Brad Evans numbers? Probably not. But his numbers will be a damn sight better than Rosen’s last season—even if he does frustrate at times, as all rookies do. And while no one is expecting him to lead us to the playoffs—or even a .500 record—in 2019, a 2-3 game improvement is a reasonable expectation.

In short, Murray has a lot of expectations on his shoulders in 2019 and beyond, but unlike Rosen’s unfortunate situation last year, he’ll actually be in a situation (organizational plan, coaching/scheme, surrounding talent) to meet—or even exceed—those expectations.

And I can’t wait to see him try.

Final Thoughts

Your turn, Redbirds fans. What are you expecting out of this year’s rookie class? Think any of the late-rounders make an impact? Which WR has the brightest future? And, most importantly, what are you looking for out of Murray this year? Fire away in the comments.