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“Infinite Hope” for Cardinals

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the spirit of Martin Luther King Day, today’s article about the Arizona Cardinals is a song of hope.

Instead of drudging up the recent or the petrified disappointments of the Cardinals’ past—-let’s take a hopeful look forward with regard to how the 49ers’ and Chiefs’ 2019 success can provide the Cardinals’ coaches, players and fans with a profound sense of optimism.

Martin Luther King wrote: “We must accept finite disappointments, but never lose infinite hope.”

Yes, today, of all days in the rolling year, is a day for “infinite hope.”

“The great ones always listen.” (Hubie Brown, long-time NBA coach and TV analyst)

Hubie Brown tells this story at his coaching clinics of what he learned when as a first year assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks, he was assigned to coach the Bucks’ big men, which included Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

“Jabbar didn’t know me from Adam,” Brown says. “Here I was a skinny 6’2” Jewish kid from the Bronx and I wouldn’t have blamed Kareem if he took one look at his new assistant coach and laughed. Except, he didn’t. When I started drilling the fundamentals of footwork in the post, Kareem was all ears. He immediately dove right in. He even thanked me afterward. And it was right then, right there that I learned that—-the great ones always listen.”

What can provide us Cardinals fans a genuine sense of hope is that we have a head coach in Kliff Kingsbury who is eager to listen to his assistant coaches and his players. A key turning point in Kingsbury’s inaugural season, one in which he was trying to install his version of the Air Raid offense, was listening to the coaches and the players’ frustration about not running the ball as often as they should have the first three weeks of the season.

Kingsbury heeded their concerns and adapted his offense to integrate a more dynamic focus on the running game—-which as it turned out, spawned a three game winning streak.

Where Kingsbury was once all in favor of starting games in 10 personnel (4 WR sets), he made a switch to 12 personnel (2 WRs and 2 TEs). At the same time, Kingsbury encouraged rookie QB Kyler Murray to run the ball more frequently.

Chase Edmonds, starting in place of an injured David Johnson rushed for 126 yards and 3 TDs in the Cardinals East Coast win over the Giants in the Meadowlands.

When Edmonds was injured, Kingsbury urged GM Steve Keim to trade for RB Kenyan Drake and as the full-time starter for the second half of the season Drake combined for over 800 yards (643 rushing + 171 receiving) and scored 8 TDs.

Kyler Murray became just the second rookie and sixth QB ever to pass for over 3,500 yards and rush for over 500 yards in a season.

The Cardinals’ 124.4 yards rushing per game was the 10th best average in the NFL.

Yesterday, we saw two offenses in the 49ers’ and Chiefs’ that Kliff Kingsbury, Kyler Murray and the Cardinals’ offense have the ability to replicate because of how multi-talented Kyler Murray is. The 49ers were 2nd in the NFL in rushing at 144.1 yards per game. 144 yards is a figure that the Cardinals can absolutely attain in 2020, if they rush for 20 more yards a game.

The Chiefs, on the other hand, only averaged 98 yards a game on the ground (23rd in NFL), but they averaged 281.1 yards per game passing (5th best in the NFL). When Patrick Mahomes isn’t beating defenses from the pocket, he’s making defenses pay when he flushes out of the pocket and delivers strong, accurate strikes into all three levels of the field.

One can just imagine how Kyler Murray watched Mahomes’ stellar performance yesterday versus the Titans and thought, “man, that’s well within my capabilities if I improve my throwing off the run in 2020.” Mahomes’ ability to buy time with his feet while keeping a laser focus downfield is special—-but what is so encouraging for the Cardinals is that Kyler Murray has quicker feet than and a comparably powerful and accurate arm to Mahomes’.

Mahomes currently has a deeper set of receivers and two All Pros in WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce—-but what’s encouraging for the Cardinals is that they use Larry Fitzgerald as a flex “Y” receiver (like a TE) and they added a promising young TE talent in Dan Arnold to compliment their stud blocker TE Maxx Williams (78.6 PFF).

The hope is that the young WRs Christian Kirk, And Isabella, Hakeem Butler and KeeSean Johnson will develop into consistent, highly productive gamers—-and it’s very likely that the Cardinals will add a deep threat like UFA Robby Anderson or one of the stud rookies such as Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy or Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb with the #8 pick.

Selecting a WR at #8 in the draft will depend on how well the Cardinals solidify their improving offensive line and how many key free agents they can add on defense. What’s encouraging for the Cardinals is that their pass blocking grades per PFF were 9th best in the NFL at 77.4, just one behind the Chiefs’ at 78.0.

For the 1st time in ages the Cardinals had 4 of their offensive linemen score overall grades in the 60s: LG Justin Pugh (66.8), LT D.J. Humphries (64.5), RT Justin Murray (64.2) and RG J.R. Sweezy (61.6). Three of those 4 are returning.

UFA D.J. Humphries might price himself out of the Cardinals’ comfort zone, in which case the Cardinals could look to sign another free agent, or they could turn their attention to the #8 pick where it would seem a certainty that one of the top 3 tackles (Andrew Thomas, Tristan Wirfs or Jedrick Wills) would be available.

The UFA offensive lineman who makes the most sense at center is Connor McGovern (71.9), who Sean Kugler helped to develop while he was with the Broncos.

What might be a fascinating new wrinkle to the Cardinals’ offense in 2020 is the potential addition of a fullback. When Kliff Kingsbury and Sean Kugler watched what the 49ers and Chiefs do with their two excellent FBs in Kyle Juszczyk and former Cardinal Anthony Sheman—-not just in the running game, but in the passing game—-this may whet their appetites for adding one of their own.

Anthony Sherman, now 31, is a 2020 UFA and is still putting up high grades (69.8 PFF). But, the UFA FB to keep an eye on may be the Broncos’ Andy Janovich (67.2 PFF) whom Sean Kugler is highly familiar with. Janovich is 27 and heading into his 5th season and the prime of his career. Other UFA options include the Saints’ Zach Line (30, 62.1 PFF grade) and the Vikings’ C.J. Ham (26, 63.7 PFF). In the draft, one of the most intriguing big backs is Boston College’s A.J. Dillon who is likely to be used as a FB and power RB.

In terms of RBs, Kliff Kingsbury already does what Kyle Shanahan does with the 49ers—-he rides the hot hand. From the second Kenyan Drake arrived and got hot, Kingsbury rode him almost exclusively. Drake appears to be a perfect fit for Kingsbury’s diverse offense. Chase Edmonds should make a strong push for more playing time in 2020. And if the Cardinals are unable to trade David Johnson, he will likely stay in the mix and who knows—-maybe he will get fed up and start running like the Humble Rumble of 2016.

Of course, the Cardinals have some major holes to fill on defense. What’s particularly encouraging is that the Cardinals already have a nucleus of talented starters in DT Corey Peters, DE Chandler Jones, ILB Jordan Hicks, CB Patrick Peterson, S Budda Baker and S Jalen Thompson. Imagine what an upgrade it would be to land one of the top UFA DL in Arik Amstead (49ers), Chris Jones (Chiefs), Javon Hargrave (Steelers), Leonard Williams (Giants), Michael Brockers (Rams) or Shelby Harris (Broncos). Bringing back Rodney Gunter and/or Zach Kerr for depth would help, as neither should command more than $3M a year. Plus, 34DE Zach Allen should be stronger, healthier and ready to start in 2020.

The next key starting spot is at WILB where Cory Littleton (Rams) or Joe Schobert (Browns) would be instant fits. And if you watched the Titans’ ILB Kamelei Correa’s outstanding play in the playoffs, signing him could be a godsend.

At SOLB the Cardinals have high hopes for Haason Reddick, who finally gets a chance to play at his natural position. Re-signing Cassius Marsh to a $2M deal and using one of the top 3 draft picks on an edge player would seem prudent. Plus, it would be interesting to see what Dennis Gardeck could do on the edge. And late addition OLB Kylie Fitts graded well (70.3 PFF grade) in his situational role the last few weeks.

The Cardinals have to figure out whether to trade CB Patrick Peterson or hope that the Pat P. who played the last three weeks of the season will show up in 2020. The Cardinals will have to make a decision of whether to keep CB Robert Alfred on the roster because if he is traded or released by March 17th the Cardinals would save $4.5M on the cap. Therefore, it is most likely the Cardinals will take that $4.5M and put it toward a younger UFA CB like Byron Jones (Cowboys), James Bradberry (Panthers), Brian Poole (Jets) or Troy Hill (Rams).

At safety the Cardinals are young, talented and deep with Budda Baker, Jalen Thomson, Deionta Thompson and Zeke Turner. Adding a veteran safety at a cap friendly salary is likely, although perhaps another talented safety could be added in the draft.

If the Cardinals strengthen the middle of the defense this off-season and add a talented WILB who can cover TEs and RB—-there will be strong hopes and very good reasons to believe the defense will be much improved in 2020.

On special teams, the Cardinals will sign K Zane Gonzalez who is a restricted free agent. Chance are strong that the Cardinals will sign him to multi-year deal. Then they have to figure whether to re-sign WR Pharoh Cooper as the return specialist and/or S Charles Washington as one of the team’s top gunners. Andy Isabella is a good candidate to take over for Cooper, but keeping the talented Washington to be the gunner opposite Trent Sherfield feels like a good idea.

Perhaps the highest cause for optimism and hope for the Cardinals is the fact that both Jimmy Garoppolo and Patrick Mahomes are starting in their first Super Bowl with less than two full seasons of starts at the QB position, with Garoppolo having started 26 regular season games and Mahomes starting 31. Plus, Lamar Jackson led the Ravens to the #1 seed in the AFC this season with just 21 regular season starts and Deshaun Watson has led the Texans to two AFC South titles and the #3 and #4 seeds the past two years in just 37 career regular season starts.

Furthermore, the fact that the 49ers went were 4-12 in 2018 (#2 pick in NFL Draft) to 15-3 and the NFC Champions in 2019 just goes to show how quickly a young team in the NFL can rise up the ranks.

Oh and let’s not forget that just a year ago the Chiefs and 49er had two of the worst ranked defenses in the NFL (24th and 28th respectively). But they made key additions and improvements in 2019.

The last time the 49ers won a Super Bowl was in 1994. 26 years ago.

The last time the Chiefs won a Super Bowl was in 1969. 51 years ago.

That’s a whole lotta years of “finite disappointments.”

Thus these scenarios should give the Cardinals warm rays of “infinite hope.”

As Emily Dickinson would say, “Hope is the thing with feathers.”