The 2019 Arizona Cardinals were summed up by one main feature:
A young team trying to find itself amidst a LOT of turnover and new faces.
After the roster turned over from 2018 from everything from head coach to QB to O-Line, the 2020 Cardinals were a fresh new look along with some 11+ draft picks or players acquired via draft picks. A lot of rookies led to a 5-10-1 season and veterans spent time either on the bench or were benched to let the younger rookies take over.
So who are the names that need to step up in their second season, and in what order?
#10. Zach Allen
Allen was looking like a promising rotational player on the defensive line who could give the Cardinals some pass-rush and run-stopping help. He ended up missing the majority of the season with a neck injury and already was losing his spot to a guy like Jonathan Bullard. The team signing a lineman like Jordan Phillips hurts but the team has need for a young impact guy.
Arizona needs a young defensive lineman given the overall age of DL on their roster.
#9. Hakeem Butler
In a normal situation, Butler might rank much much higher on this list given the Cardinals’ lack of an outside wide receiver threat last year and struggles in the redzone.
Of course, a trade for DeAndre Hopkins will alter that...
Butler had demonstrated some inability to separate in camp and fell down the depth chart only to be put on IR for the whole season. He’s planning on bouncing back with a vengeance and if he can help Arizona as a WR5 and make an impact such as 20 catches for 400ish yards down the field, it’ll help a lot given the team’s issues throwing to the boundary in 2019. No other player on the Cardinals has Butler’s skillset as they are mostly slot guys at this point in their career. Minus Hopkins of course
#8. Jalen Thompson
Thompson was a surprise late addition to the team after they spent a 2020 5th on him in the supplemental draft.
He ended up being a starter by the end of the season and even had an interception to his name and allowed Budda Baker to roam more and make plays. If he can step up and become a solid starting strong safety and not lose his gig, he’ll be invaluable with the addition to play the deep middle, walk down to the slot, and add to the team’s versatility
#7. Byron Murphy
The Cardinals saw Byron Murphy as, well, essentially their #1 corner for the first 6 games of the year and then as their 2nd CB after Patrick Peterson returned.
He’s going to fall into hopefully a CB3 role covering the slot and being able to make plays and develop into a solid pass defender.
#6. Dan Arnold
This one might be the toughest one to place. I had considered putting him and Maxx Williams together due to the blocking and catching but...I don’t think that Williams’ impact might be as close to what Arnold’s could be at his best.
(And that’s tough as Maxx was one of their most reliable players)
But as a receiver, Williams was in 3 games for the Cards and caught a touchdown, averaged 15 yards per catch and had 4 catches for 75 yards against the Rams...maybe the best individual game a Cardinals tight end has had in years as a receiver up the seam.
He might fit the Jace Amaro/Grant Calcaterra role for Kliff and Kyler by being able to be a mismatch down the field even if he isn’t able to be a great blocker as a tight end. If he can develop into a threat up the seam and in the red zone, his impact might be something to behold.
#5. Andy Isabella
Again, like Hakeem Butler, Isabella would be higher on this list but the starting trio of DeAndre Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk is more than enough for 2020.
That said, unlike Butler, Isabella has shifty low 4.3 speed and after the departure of Damiere Byrd to the Patriots, he’s the only 4.3 receiver on their roster. That means as far as a deep separating threat it’s just down to him.
The Cardinals spent the 2nd they got in the Josh Rosen deal on him with the expectation that he would become invaluable out of the slot and a much bigger piece of the offense than he ended up being. If he can make the leap and become a viable deep threat....their offense might be impossible to stop
#4. Marcus Gilbert/Justin Murray
If rookie Josh Jones has to start, the hope is it’s because he earned the role, rather than fell into it due to injury or poor management (like last year with Justin Murray after Korey Cunningham failed to live up to expectations).
Gilbert hasn’t been healthy for a number of years it seems, and is still likely their best lineman but “when healthy” is the question. Murray also shored up and proved to be a fine addition...but seems to be best as a swing tackle. One of them needs to seize the job to ensure that the Cardinals aren’t back to a rookie having to take on a larger-than-expected role.
#3. Kenyan Drake
Surprised he’s not #2? Kenyan Drake was essentially the most important addition to the Cardinals’ offense last year after Kyler Murray, averaging almost 100 yards from scrimmage a game and a TD per game. He gave them a solid option in the running and receiving game and the question will be if he can keep up those lofty stats.
If he goes down, Arizona doesn’t have a back w/ his size and strength and they’re paying him in the top 10 of running backs this year across the NFL (even on a 1 year deal) to be that guy. Him stepping up and continuing to carry the rock would be an awesome step forward for the Cardinals offense.
#2. Robert Alford
Robert Alford missed all last season...and the team felt it. 31st in coverage and with a difficult season for Patrick Peterson after his suspension there was only rookies or young players.
The team didn’t sign a corner in free agency nor did they draft one highly. The team’s counting on the 30 year old in a BIG way. Patrick Peterson’s expected to take on the top receiver each week, but the #2 guy will belong to Alford
There’s a huge need for the team to improve upon their pass defense and Alford is a big part of that. If Peterson doesn’t return to being the #1 lockdown corner then...here’s hoping Alford can step up.
#1. Kyler Murray
Do I need to put anything more on this?
Murray’s obviously the quarterback and sophomore player that has it all resting on his shoulders. It’s so obvious that you could probably make this a list saying “who are the guys BESIDES their quarterback?” and it’d make sense.
Still, time will tell if the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year will be able to lift the team to new heights in their next season.