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Cardinals Wide Receiver Outlook: Christian Kirk should play in the slot, not out wide

With DeAndre Hopkins being the only reliable receiver and Larry Fitzgerald mulling retirement, wide receiver remains a position of need

NFL: SEP 13 Cardinals at 49ers Photo by MSA/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Almost a year ago, the Arizona Cardinals acquired star receiver DeAndre Hopkins in a blockbuster trade with the Houston Texans.

General Manager Steve Keim knew his team needed a No. 1 wide receiver. He went out and got arguably the best one in the NFL.

And to no one’s surprise, Hopkins did not disappoint. He finished the 2020 season with the third-most receiving yards (1,407) and tied for second in receptions (115), earning himself an All-Pro Second Team selection.

Despite the Cardinals certainty at the No. 1 spot, uncertainty remains with their other receivers.

Larry Fitzgerald is coming off his worst season in the NFL statistically. Playing primarily in the slot, he set career lows across the board with 54 receptions, 409 receiving yards, and one touchdown.

The 17-year veteran tested positive for COVID-19 on Thanksgiving and spent two weeks recovering from the virus. He was greatly missed in Weeks 13 (@ Patriots) and 14 (vs. Rams), both of which were losses. Fitzgerald missed Week 17 (@ Rams) with a groin injury.

Fitzgerald is on a decline and is not getting any younger, turning 38 in August. The Cardinals legendary receiver is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason and he is mulling retirement. There is currently no timeline for his retirement decision.

Whether he chooses to come back or not, this position still needs to be upgraded.

Christian Kirk, the Cardinals 2018 second-round pick, has failed to live up to expectations so far. He had 48 receptions, 621 receiving yards, and six touchdowns this past season while primarily playing out wide. He only has three 100-yard games in his career.

Arizona Cardinals v New York Giants Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The three-year veteran has struggled to be a dependable weapon for Kyler Murray and his underwhelming production could be the result of him playing out of position. One thing the Cardinals can do to get the most out of Kirk is by moving him to the slot, a position where he thrived at Texas A&M.

He is entering the final year of his rookie deal and he still has so much to prove. Like DJ Humphries and Haason Reddick before him, the Cardinals must stop playing their top draft picks out of their natural positions.

In 2019 when the Kliff Kingsbury era began, Steve Keim drafted three receivers to help him out. One (Hakeem Butler) is already off the team.

Former second-round pick Andy Isabella has flashed at times but has often not been on the same page with Murray. In his two seasons in the NFL, he only has 30 receptions, 413 receiving yards, and three touchdowns.

Detroit Lions v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Kingsbury experimented with the UMass product in the slot and there were some bright moments there. He is too small (5-9 188lbs) to be a No. 2 wide receiver but his best chance to succeed might be out wide. His drops and mental errors forced Kingsbury to make him a healthy scratch towards the end of the season. His role next season will be even more uncertain if the Cardinals add a top receiver in free agency or the draft.

With that said, I would not be surprised if the Cardinals traded him in the offseason. The Patriots were really interested in Isabella during the draft process.

The team released wide receivers coach David Raih and replaced him with Shawn Jefferson. This either signals the Cardinals continued faith in Isabella or are preparing for a fresh start with someone else.

KeeSean Johnson is a capable depth receiver as a former sixth-round pick. He has good size (6-1 201lbs) and might be the second best route runner on the team behind Hopkins. Trent Sherfield is the Cardinals special teams ace but when his number is called up on the offense, he normally delivers.

The other receivers signed to futures deals are Rico Gafford, Krishawn Hogan, A.J. Richardson, JoJo Ward, and Isaac Whitney.

Free agency is loaded with top receiver talent that includes Allen Robinson, Curtis Samuel, Kenny Golladay, and many more. Despite the Cardinals projected to have a little over $11 million in cap space, I do believe they will be able to sign one of the top free agents available. With Hopkins in place drawing the double coverage, the No. 2 will have many favorable one-on-one opportunities.

The 2021 NFL Draft also has plenty of talent with Ja’Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, and others. Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman could be a target for the Cardinals at pick No. 16 depending on what they do in free agency.

Will the Cardinals add a wide receiver via free agency or the draft?

Yes. I expect them to add a No. 2 wide receiver this offseason while moving Kirk to his natural position in the slot.