Before you can do anything else in this league, you have to have the right guy at QB. As such, this past season was only about one thing for the Arizona Cardinals: the development of Kyler Murray and making sure he is The Guy to build the team around.
I think it’s safe to say that we’ve got our guy.
Since we have the most important position in the game taken care of, the game changes: now, it’s all about surrounding Kyler with as much talent as possible while he’s still on his rookie deal (which runs through the 2022 season).
That’s the task facing Steve Keim, Michael Bidwill, and the rest of the Cardinals’ leadership this offseason. With free agency about a month away and the draft about a month after that, Keim and Co. are well into their offseason planning process (as have been many writers and commenters here on RotB).
What might that plan look like? Here’s a quick checklist of the big-picture needs and questions to answer as the team heads into Year 2 of the Kliff and Kyler show.
1. Solidify the Offensive Line
This has to be item #1 on the list—you’ve gotta protect your franchise QB. Surprisingly, the O-line played fairly well in 2019 despite a dearth of top-end talent, mostly holding up in the passing game and clearing space for a rushing attack that was much better than expected. So there’s a case to be made for bringing the whole gang back. But expecting a repeat performance is probably a fool’s errand, given the age and injury concerns of most of the key players—not to mention that 3/5 of the line are free agents. What to do?
I’ll start with the obvious, and probably the easiest position to address: it’s time to move on from A.Q. Shipley and upgrade at center. (Mason Cole doesn’t seem to be the answer—if he was ready to start, he’d have beaten out Shipley.) We should be able to grab a starting center in free agency—Connor McGovern, anyone? I think we’re good at both guard spots in 2020 with Justin Pugh and J.R. Sweezy. Not great, but good will suffice.
That leaves a big conundrum at both tackle spots, which is the biggest issue Keim has to address this offseason. I’d lean toward letting D.J. Humphries walk if he’s going to command franchise LT money. We already know he’s not a franchise LT—but the fear of the unknown is very real, too. Fortunately, there are several good options available in free agency or with our #8 pick in the draft. We should try to lure one of the marquee LTs to the desert, but if that fails, we should take the best tackle available at #8. That likely means bringing Justin Murray back at RT, which I’m good with for the reasons Walter explained.
Adding a new starting LT and C should stabilize the O-line and allow Kyler and the rushing attack to do their thing in 2020. So what’s next on the list?
2. Rebuild the Defensive Line
The O-line already has some decent pieces in place. You can’t really say the same for the D-line, which was routinely pushed around in the running game and generated almost no pass rush. In fact, I think Keim should tear the whole thing down and completely rebuild the line.
That would start with cutting the 32-year-old Corey Peters on the last year of his deal, which would create nearly $3M in cap space that could be needed to make a monster offer to a new starting NT like (probably wishful thinking) Chris Jones. Peters has been solid as a Cardinal, but his best days are behind him and he’s not a player you can build a line around—as we’ve seen for a couple years running now.
I also don’t think we should be in a rush to bring back any of the rotational D-linemen we had around him last season. Instead, Keim should target at least a couple other mid-tier 3-4 D-linemen that are out there in free agency (the D.J. Readers of the world) or target the position aggressively in the middle rounds of the draft (or even at #8 if we don’t wind up needing to draft an O-lineman). We’d also have a (hopefully) healthy and motivated Zach Allen as a rotational piece. This probably sounds like the kind of thing you can only do in Madden—rebuild an entire position group in one offseason—but this unit needs it badly.
So after taking care of both lines with aggressive free agent signings and early draft picks, what else does Keim need to address this offseason?
3. Find Partners for Chandler Jones and Jordan Hicks
Keim should focus on finishing the front seven before he does anything else, and that means getting a competent pass rusher to line up opposite Chandler Jones and another ILB to play next to Jordan Hicks. Both positions were mostly black holes in 2019—Terrell Suggs had one good game and was a late-season cut (just in time to win a Super Bowl ring), and Haason Reddick has always been miscast as an ILB.
But could he perhaps be an option at OLB opposite Jones? I don’t have much faith in him, but it’s at least a thought the front office should entertain. (Just don’t try him at ILB again, please.) He’s not the solution though. There seems to be several budget-friendly(ish) free agent options here as well (guys in the Dante Fowler Jr. tier). Keim just has to get out of the “Keim Time” mindset and stop targeting aging players on one-year deals. Adding an ILB to pair with Hicks should be an easier get—whether in free agency (a guy like Nick Kwiatkoski?) or the middle rounds of the draft. Either of these positions could also be in play at #8 if Keim is somehow able fortify the trenches in free agency. We don’t need elite, Pro Bowl–type players here, just competent starters.
If Keim can strengthen the O-line and overhaul the front seven, he can then turn his attention back toward the offense.
4. Upgrade the Wide Receiver Room
There are a ton of fans and observers out there who would put this much higher on the checklist—maybe even all the way up at #1. But I don’t think this is actually that big of a need. That’s not to say that we should stand pat at WR. I just think that a Kyler Murray with a year under his belt and playing behind a stronger O-line will be able to elevate the skill position players around him, rather than the other way around.
Besides, we already have several young WRs that could be poised to make a leap next year—Christian Kirk, Andy Isabella, and Hakeem Butler. If you want to argue that Kirk will never be more than a WR2, I won’t argue, and if you’re ready to call the latter two busts, that’s fine. But all three have talent, and the team shouldn’t give up on them so easily.
That said, if the opportunity to get a guy like Amari Cooper or A.J. Green presents itself, Keim should definitely consider it—as long as it doesn’t impact our ability to spend money on the offensive and defensive lines. As far as drafting a WR at #8 goes, I hate the idea. We have too many other needs and this is purportedly one of the deepest WR drafts in years. Just doesn’t seem like the smartest use of resources.
That leaves only one big question left for Keim to address…
5. Resolve the RB Situation
Truthfully, I’m not really concerned about who we have playing RB in 2020. Last season, Kliff Kingsbury was able to create a top-shelf running game with bottom-shelf ingredients: a plodding former Pro Bowler with a bloated contract (David Johnson), a little-used mid-round pick (Chase Edmonds), and a castoff from one of the worst teams in the league (Kenyan Drake). I’m confident that he can do it again with whoever Keim gives him next year (especially with an improved O-line and more development from Kyler).
The one concern I have is that Keim will try to re-sign Drake and be unable to trade (or otherwise move on from) DJ. That would just create a salary cap logjam at a largely fungible position that would make it incredibly difficult to make needed upgrades elsewhere. His first move should be to try to trade DJ—but that seems highly unlikely given his contract. But if he can, resigning Drake to a reasonable 2-3 year deal (at $6-7M annually) would be the play.
But if he can’t trade DJ, he should just let Drake walk and go into 2020 with DJ and Edmonds as the top two options while spending a Day 3 pick on a young runner in what is also supposed to be a deep draft at RB. Many Cardinals fans wouldn’t be happy, but DJ was still incredibly effective as a receiver last season, and Edmonds showed he could thrive in a feature role as well. Add a rookie in a supporting role—and who could ideally take over in 2021 when we can finally move on from DJ—and I think the backfield would be in good shape.
There are a few other lingering questions/needs Keim will need to address (what to do with Patrick Peterson—although trade talks have died down, resigning Zane Gonzalez, the eternal search for cornerbacks, etc.), but this approach—building from the trenches out—should result in a better team in 2020 and a stronger foundation moving forward in Kyler’s career.
What do we think of this plan, RotBers? What would your offseason checklist look like?