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Preseason déjà vu: What to watch for in the Cardinals/Chargers game

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Cardinals football is back! Here are five things to watch as the team begins a new era against the Chargers (again).

NFL: Arizona Cardinals-Training Camp
#1 pick Kyler Murray won’t see much game action in his first preseason game, but there is still a palpable buzz about his debut.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Just like last year, a new era of Arizona Cardinals football begins with a preseason opener at home against the Los Angeles Chargers. Optimism is in the air once again. Last year, the Steve Wilks/Josh Rosen era began with a win over the Chargers in this game… but unfortunately for Cardinals fans, that was arguably the high point of a 3-13 season. That sense of optimism dissipated very quickly.

Almost all the names mentioned in the above-linked article are gone: Wilks, Rosen, Mike McCoy, Sam Bradford, Robert Nkemdiche, Jamar Taylor, Bene Benwikere, etc. They are not missed.

In their place are the guys we hope will be the leaders of yet another new era of Cardinals football: Kliff Kingsbury, Kyler Murray, Andy Isabella, Byron Murphy, etc. With them come a renewed sense of optimism, the kind that comes with so many new faces.

We’ll get our first real looks at many of them tonight. (Some more than others.) So Cardinals fans will have a lot to keep an eye on in tonight’s game. With that in mind, I’ve narrowed the list down to the top five players/positions to watch as we find ourselves yet again at the dawn of a new Cardinals era. Let’s start with the obvious.

Kliff and Kyler

For the second year in a row, we’ll witness the debut of a new Cardinals coach and QB. Like last year, we probably won’t learn much about our new coach, Kliff Kingsbury, from this game. Week 1 of the preseason is a glorified scrimmage, with a heavy emphasis on installing the basic schemes on both sides of the ball, as well as fundamentals, technique, and conditioning. No one should expect any headlines about Kingsbury or the offense on Friday morning.

But what’s different this year is that our rookie QB won’t see much action in this first preseason game. Last year, Josh Rosen entered the preseason as the backup and played most of the first half of the Chargers game after Sam Bradford’s one series. This year, Murray is the unquestioned starter and probably won’t see much action after the first series. Cardinals fans will have to wait until Weeks 2 and 3 for an extended look at the future of the franchise. In the meantime, expect to see a lot of Brett Hundley, Charles Kanoff, and Drew Anderson.

The Wide Receiver Room

While the offense won’t be kicking it into high gear and our QB won’t be seeing the field much, there’s still plenty to monitor. The position that has been in the news the most lately is wide receiver. After investing three draft picks at the position in April, wide receiver was expected to be a strength in 2019. Not so fast.

Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk are set as the #1 and #2 options, but things are hazy behind them. Second-round pick Andy Isabella has been dinged up. Fourth-rounder Hakeem Butler hasn’t seemed to capitalize on his draft-day buzz. They have both seemingly been passed on the depth chart by sixth-rounder KeeSean Johnson. Elsewhere, “starter” Kevin White is doing Kevin White things, and Damiere Byrd and Pharoh Cooper are perhaps battling for one roster spot. It all culminated in the team sniffing around the likes of Michael Crabtree. While we dodged that bullet, the position is still far from settled.

That won’t change after tonight’s game, but the guys behind Fitz and Kirk can help their individual stock if they play well. Isabella (if he plays) and Butler need to look like they belong on an NFL field and make a few plays against the Chargers’ backup DBs. If Johnson can snag 3-4 balls, he’ll have the inside track on the starting slot WR gig. Byrd or Cooper can help their case more on special teams, but a big play in the passing game would give them a boost. If Kevin White plays and gets through the game with all his limbs attached, consider that a win for him. Guys like Trent Sherfield, Chad Williams (ugh), and A.J. Richardson are still kicking around the bottom of the depth chart and should get some run in the second half. Can any of them make a splash play? Plenty to watch with this group for sure.

The Offensive Line

Perhaps even more important than how the receivers play is what we get out of our offensive line. Unsurprisingly given the injury history of both our returning and new linemen, this position is even more unsettled than the WR room. With Justin Pugh on the mend, last year’s starting center, Mason Cole, is moving to guard against the Bolts. New starting RT Marcus Gilbert is also nursing an injury.

And that’s just the starters. Desmond Harrison was unceremoniously released. Max Garcia is on the PUP list. Guys like Korey Cunningham and Lamont Gaillard have seen first-team reps of late. While both have potential, they aren’t guys the team wants to rely on this year. Further down the depth chart are JAGs, JAGs, and more JAGs. The team is in the unenviable position of lacking top-end O-line talent and being perilously thin at the position. If there’s anything that could cast a shadow on the optimism surrounding this team right now, it’s the O-line. (A familiar refrain to be sure.)

If the line can just hold its own against the Chargers, who boast one of the better defenses in the league, that would be huge. Keep the QBs mostly upright, open a few lanes for the RBs, and keep the penalties to a minimum. Can the starters show some signs of jelling—and get through the game unscathed? Can someone like Gaillard, Cunningham, Rees Odhiambo, or William Sweet turn some heads? Things didn’t go well for our second-string O-line last year, so any improvement on that would be a good sign.

Backup Inside Linebackers

Big-ticket free agent signing Jordan Hicks and third-year man Haason Reddick will be the starters in Vance Josephs new-old 3-4 defense. But Hicks probably won’t play much tonight, and Reddick won’t play at all as he recovers from a knee procedure. That opens the door for several backups and special teamers to move up the depth chart or make a play for a roster spot.

Special teams aces Dennis Gardeck and Zeke Turner would seem to get the first crack at playing time. Both have flashed before and should do so again tonight; expect them to play well. Behind them are solid special teamers Tanner Vallejo and Joe Walker, both of whom have starting experience. They seem to be on the roster bubble at this point, so they’ll be ready to prove themselves to Joseph and the Redbirds faithful. Dante Booker and Hayes Pullard are at the bottom of the depth chart and will probably play a bit as well. Finally, Pete Robertson has also played ILB in his career and could also see some time here.

I feel a little better about our linebacker depth than I do our O-line depth, but these are all still largely unproven players. Given that Hicks has a fairly extensive injury history and Reddick hasn’t really distinguished himself at the NFL level in his first two seasons, we’ll likely need one or two of these guys to step up this season. We’ll get our first glimpse of them in action tonight.

Cornerbacks Behind Patrick Peterson

When the Redbirds take the field against Matthew Stafford and the Lions in their regular season opener, their CB corps will be almost entirely new faces due to Patrick Peterson’s suspension. The resumed top three are two free agents (Robert Alford and Tramaine Brock) and a rookie (Byron Murphy), while the rest of the depth chart is made up of UDFAs on the roster bubble (second-year players Chris Jones and Deatrick Nichols, and rookie Nate Brooks). It’s possible free agent signing Josh Shaw also sees some time at corner. Of this group, only Jones and Nichols have seen game action for the Cardinals. They have one total tackle between them to show for it.

(Note: The much-maligned Brandon Williams is also on the PUP list, but he almost assuredly won’t make the final 53 anyway.)

Peterson doesn’t figure to play much tonight, and he won’t play at all against the Lions, so this game will serve as a good proving ground for our CB depth. Alford probably won’t play a ton—and he’s reportedly played well in training camp, so he doesn’t have much to prove. Brock and Murphy will likely get a bit more run, especially the rookie. Cardinals fans should be excited to see what he can do, especially in the slot, where he’ll seemingly play a ton this season.

Jones, Nichols, and Brooks might be fighting for one roster spot between them, depending on how Shaw figures into the equation and how many safeties we go with. Jones seems to have a leg up on the other two so far, but all three should see a lot of time in the second half, so there are opportunities available for all.

Final Thoughts

I’ll be honest: I wish we weren’t debuting a new coach and QB for the second year in a row. I wish Wilks and Rosen worked out, I really do. But there were questions about both from the start. More than questions—doubts.

I’m not saying there aren’t questions about Kingsbury and Murray—there absolutely are—but I don’t sense the same doubts about them that were there for Wilks and Rosen. Instead, I mostly sense optimism and excitement (tempered, of course, by the O-line concerns, which are more than valid). And while I did feel a little optimism about Wilks and Rosen, I’d be lying if I said I really felt any excitement.

So, even though we won’t see much from Kingsbury and Murray tonight, I’m excited to watch the game and finally see them in action. If we learn a bit about the WR room, our O-line depth, and some of the defensive backups too, even better.

I’m just happy to have Cardinals football back in my life again. Even more—I’m happy to be excited about Cardinals football again.

Let’s just hope tonight is the beginning of something lasting this time.