Now that the Arizona Cardinals are putting the finishing touches on their 53 man roster and 16 player practice squad (PS), here are some thoughts about how the Cardinals may attempt to employ their personnel this season.
The emphasis of training camp: PLAY FAST.
Whether the Cardinals line up in 10 (4 WRs, 1 RB), 11 (3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 RB) or 12 (2 WRs, 2 TEs, 1 RB) personnel, they are going to make a conscious effort to (a) run the football like they did down the stretch last year (mixture of carries among RBs, QB and WRs to an average of 5.2 yards per carry) and (b) to maximize the passing distribution to all five eligible receivers.
Another emphasis this training camp was involving the RBs in the passing game more aggressively and frequently.
A common formation that we are likely to see a good deal of is isolating WR DeAndre Hopkins to one side and stack or spread 3 receivers (‘trips”) opposite him.
Kyler Murray then will be able to read whether the opposing FS shades Hopkins’ side of the field---which (a) won’t necessarily preclude Murray from throwing to Hopkins, for there are a variety of routes and coverage shakes Hopkins can gain his separation on even with a FS playing over the top, like Hopkins’ patented fade pattern---but (b) will allow Murray the freedom to try to exploit the 3 receiver side of the field away from the FS, knowing too that he may be able to hit some deep passes every now and then when the FS is too far away from the deep third or middle of the field to be a factor---and (c) this is where Murray and Kingsbury can get creative in how they throw to the RBs when certain sides of the field are cleared out.
Hopefully the camp injuries to DeAndre Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald and Kenyan Drake are not nagging and/or restrictive because with the intention of playing fast, they have to have the stamina to do so. In light of all of the practices they have missed, one has to wonder whether they will be able to keep up with the intended speed of play. This may behoove Kingsbury to do something he was reluctant to do last year as in use his depth at WR, TE and RB.
The Cardinals are going to be creative in how they use their personnel on defense, particularly because of the addition of LB Isaiah Simmons. But before we get to Simmons’ versatility, the Cardinals defense begins with the additions they have made up front under the tenacious leadership of DLC Brentson Buckner.
The Beef in the Middle:
Corey Peters (6-3, 335, 10th season)
Jordan Phillips (6-6, 341, 6th season)
Leki Fotu (6-5, 330, 1st season)
Angelo Blackson (6-4, 319, 6th season)
Zach Allen (6-4, 281, 2nd season)
Michael Dogbe (6-3, 284, 2nd season)
Rashard Lawrence (6-2, 318, 1st season)
In the base 34, DC Vance Joseph will be able to load up the middle versus strong running teams like the 49ers. As we know from Brentson Buckner’s past stint with the Cardinals, he loves to shuffle his big men in and out to keep them stout, bouncy and fresh.
But, because the Cardinals have such formidable size up front, this may enable the coaches at times to switch over to 4 man fronts, with two of the bigs occupying 4 blockers in the middle.
The Simmons Factor:
The Cardinals have maintained that they have been training Isaiah Simmons at WILB. However, because the Cardinals have a strong veteran there in De’Vondre Campbell, it’s most likely that Simmons will spend more time at SAM OLB, either in the base 34 or a hybrid type 43. This would enable the Cardinals to have Simmons (SAM), Campbell (WILL) and Jordan Hicks (MIKE) on the field at the same time.
Simmons is a more versatile and athletic option at SAM in the base 34 than Devon Kennard and Haason Reddick---and he’s the best cover man of the three. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that Simmons could get the bulk of base 34 snaps at SAM and then Kennard and Reddick will be used on passing downs in the nickel and dime packages, interchanging between rush edge and interior rush/spy (Cassius Marsh’s role from last year). Kylie Fitts, coming off an impressive camp, should also get his fair share of edge rushes opposite of All-Pro Edge Chandler Jones (BANDIT).
In the nickel, Vance Jospeh can use Isaiah Simmons in straight man coverage on TEs, RBs or slot WRs, or he can employ Simmons as rover/spy/blitzer from the middle LB spot.
We might even see Simmons playing CB on occasion, both in man and zone coverage. His practicing with the CBs was not just a gimmick and it’s one of the reasons why the coaches elected to keep just 4 CBs on the 53 man roster.
What fans are apt to get ecstatic about is the inspired play from young safeties Budda Baker, Jalen Thompson and Deionte Thompson. They have quickly become the heart and soul tone-setters of the defense.
In coverage, the Cardinals have superb CB talent in Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick and a potential rising star in nickel CB Byron Murphy. All three are better man-to-man players than zone players, and the coaches likely know that the opponents will try to test the tackling willingness of Peterson and Kirkpatrick on the perimeter, where teams have exploited the Cardinals for years on end now. Much could depend on how improved the defense is this year at keeping contain and how quickly the Cardinals safeties blow up plays.
As previously outlined, the Cardinals, under the leadership of AHC/STC Jeff Rodgers have placed an added emphasis on special team this year, basically bring back every key ST player on their roster from the 13th best ST unit in the NFL (per Rick Gosselin’s 2019 rankings), from the specialists (Gonzalez, Lee and Brewer) to the top gunners (Sherfield and Washington) and to the leading tacklers (Gardeck, Turner and Banjo).
The Cardinals kickoff and punt coverage teams now have the ability to intimidate opponents.
Zane Gonzalez and Andy Lee are one of the most talented K/P tandems in the NFL.
The field goal/extra point defense just got a boost when the Cardinals acquired Angelo Blackson who has two blocked kicks to his credit.
The area the unit needs to improve most is kickoff and punt returns, where the Cardinals have been penalty prone and largely inconsistent. However, it looks as if rookie RB Eno Benjamin could be a possible answer as the kickoff returner and Christina Kirk and Andy Isabella could form a talented tandem as punt returners.
Special teams ace Dennis Gardeck may continue to warrant Pro Bowl attention this season, particularly if he keeps leading the team in ST tackles and punt blocks.
Tapping into the Texans
Two of the main moves the Cardinals made this weekend was to add two players the Texans had cut in DT Angelo Blackston (started 17 games at DT last season including 2 playoff games) and TE Jordan Thomas (6-5, 278, 3rd season).
The Cardinals are adding Blackson to the 53 man roster, pending his physical and his passing the covid tests. Many are wondering which player the Cardinals will release---and by adding TE Jordan Thomas to the practice squad, the logical choice could be TE Darrell Daniels, who is very unlikely to get claimed off waivers---and---because of this year’s 48 man active roster this year with PS players eligible, the Cardinals could re-sign Daniels to the PS and wouldn’t have to risk losing recent draft picks like T Joshua Miles (position of high need around the NFL) or DT Michael Dogbe (former favorite of Matt Rhule in Carolina).
In Jordan Thomas the Cardinals are getting a 3rd year playmaker with upside, particularly in the red zone, as evidenced by his 20 catch, 215 yard (10.8 ave.) and 4 TD rookie season.
Last season, Thomas battled a rib injury and had issues controlling his weight. But this year he returned to camp having shed close to 20 pounds. Listen to what his former QB Deshaun Watson recently said about Thomas (per TexansWire):
“He adds everything,” Watson said. “He can play outside, inside, blocking, short, intermediate routes, long. He has the size and the speed. He’s 6-6 and 255 pounds that can run a 4.5 or 4.6. He’s a guy that’s very talented and has so much potential.”
The Texans wanted to re-sign Thomas to their PS, but he chose to sign with the Cardinals instead. Perhaps Thomas has been paying attention to how well former Saints PS player Dan Arnold is playing in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense---and perhaps Thomas was recommended to the Cardinals by his former teammate, DeAndre Hopkins.
Butler Didn’t Ring the Bell
Now that the Cardinals have re-signed WRs Andre Patton, A.J. Richardson and JoJo Ward to their 16 player PS, it’s clear that Hakeem Butler either is doing what Jordan Thomas did by signing to another team’s PS or the Cardinals never even offered Butler a PS spot.
When the Cardinals realized Butler in their earliest cuts, what I wrote on Twitter was:
“A good way to look at the Cards releasing Hakeem Butler is that WR KeeSean Johnson is easily a 4th round talent. The same with S Deionte Thompson---and S Jalen Thompson, had he stayed at WSU, most likely would have been a Day 2 pick this year. Both Thompsons were 5th rounders.”
“More on Hakeem Butler---the addition of DeAndre Hopkins this year pushed HB farther down the depth chart. Plus---the Cardinals appear to have found the young, big target receiver they’ve been looking for in TE/Y Dan Arnold.”
I am convinced that had OA Jerry Sullivan been hired before the Cardinals’ 2019 draft, the Cardinals would have taken KeeSean Johnson is Round 4, not Hakeem Butler.
If KeeSean has the kind of season that some of us believe he will, he is going to look more and more each day like a 2nd or 3rd round pick. The key thing is---while the Cardinals may have missed on Butler, they appear to have hit a home run with Johnson.
Dream Weaver Still Alive:
When I learned that the Cardinals cut ILB Evan Weaver, I wrote on Twitter that with no pre-season games and a whole lot of tag being played in shells, there was little way for a baller like Weaver to stand out.
I was convinced that the 49ers would claim him and yet---they didn’t! At least for now, the Dream Weaver is still alive in AZ. Get this baller into some games and he may never see his name on the waiver wire again!