The Arizona Cardinals enter the 2021 season at a crossroads. The rebuild is definitively over, but they showed last year that they were not quite ready to contend. That changes this year: a playoff berth is the expectation for this retooled roster.
Anything short of the postseason will be a disappointment… and heads will roll.
So that’s what’s at stake for the team as a whole this season. But what about the individual members of the team? Everyone is obviously playing for something, but I think the stakes can be broken down into three general categories: reputation, a contract, and their job. (Of course, these are all different names for the same thing at the end of the day: money.)
Which key Cardinals fit into which category? Let’s find out today. Note: This list doesn’t consider rookies or recent free agent signings. Only veteran Cardinals who we already know what makes them tick.
No one in this group is an impending free agent, and all are likely to return to the team in 2022 regardless of what happens in 2021. But they all have something to prove on the field to define or change the narratives of their careers.
QB Kyler Murray
By most measures, Kyler Murray has lived up to his status as the #1 overall pick in the NFL draft. He won the Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2019, then made the Pro Bowl last year, when he flirted with a 4,000/1,000 season with 37 total TDs. Yet the league-wide perception seems to be that he hasn’t yet reached elite status—he only ranked #17 in PFF’s recent rankings. (CBS had him higher, at #10.) This season, can Kyler play like the MVP candidate he looked to be in the first half of the season? If he can put together a full season of that kind of play, those rankings will look laughable in 2022.
LB Isaiah Simmons
Whatever the reason—virtual offseason, not earning the trust of the coaches, rookie jitters—last year’s 1st-round pick stumbled a bit out of the gate. He didn’t earn regular playing time until the second half of the season, and even then rarely played more than half the snaps. Things should be much different this year, as he will enter the season as the team’s top ILB. If he lives up to the challenge and plays well as expected, he’ll justify the hype surrounding his selection last year. But if he struggles again, comparisons to other tweener-type players the Cardinals have selected in the past will arise.
CB Byron Murphy
Murphy has had a decent start to his NFL career. He played admirably (if not particularly well with a 48.3 PFF grade) after being thrust into a larger-than-expected role as a rookie, then followed it up with a solid second season (64.7 PFF grade). At this point in his young career, he’s neither a shutdown corner nor a ballhawk (only 1 career INT). He’s been… serviceable. If he’s ever going to be anything more than that, now is the time to show it. Can he outplay free agent Malcolm Butler and become the Redbirds’ #1 CB? He’d better, or else CB will be even more of a glaring weakness than it looks now.
This category is simple: these guys are all UFAs after this season. They’ll be playing for their next contract—either with the Redbirds or another team.
EDGE Chandler Jones
Jones’s situation is an interesting one. He put up 15 sacks per season from 2016 to 2019, looking like one of the best defensive players in the league, capped off by finishing second in DPOY voting in 2019. He looked primed to sign a massive extension. But then last season happened. He struggled with just 1 sack in the first 4 games of the season before injuring his bicep in Week 5, ending his season. Now, he’s 31 years old and coming off a major injury (albeit not something as devastating as an ACL or Achilles’ heel). He should be an impact player again, but what if he only puts up, say, 7 or 8 sacks? What would his next contract look like? Or what if he puts up another 15? Would the Cardinals be willing to pay up for a 32-year-old? It’s a fascinating situation with no easy answers at this point.
RB Chase Edmonds
The Cardinals will enter 2021 with their third starting Week 1 RB in three seasons. We had David Johnson in 2019, then Kenyan Drake last year. This year, the new #1 RB is a guy who has been here the whole time: Edmonds. He’s not an every-down back, and he’ll be sharing duties with the productive yet injury-prone James Conner, but with a productive campaign he could get a Kenyan Drake–type contract (2 years/$14.5M) from someone next offseason. It might not be the Cardinals if they continue to look for cheaper options in the wake of the David Johnson extension, but someone would certainly pay up for a 26-year-old playmaker like Edmonds.
WR Christian Kirk
It’s hard to label Kirk as anything but a disappointment as he enters his fourth season. His career highs of 68 receptions and 709 yards came back in 2019 (both second on the team behind Larry Fitzgerald). The addition of DeAndre Hopkins last season was supposed to free things up for Kirk, but that never materialized, as he put up a shrug-worthy 48/621 line (the career-high 6 TDs were nice, though). This season, he has to fend off new acquisitions A.J. Green and Rondale Moore for snaps (as well as possibly Larry Fitzgerald). If he can somehow fend everyone off and play like a true WR2, he could be in line for a massive payday. But another shrug-worthy season and he’d likely have to take a prove-it deal next offseason.
Finally, we have the guys playing for their jobs. If things go right, they’ll be back in the desert with no questions asked in 2022. But if things go wrong? These guys will likely be shown the door at season’s end.
WR Andy Isabella
I’ll admit that including Isabella on a list of “key Cardinals” is probably a stretch—he looks no higher than the #5 WR right now. But he’s a recent 2nd-round pick and receiver depth has been a big issue in recent years. There are question marks around all the other WRs on the depth chart besides Hopkins: Green’s age/injury history, Kirk’s consistency, Moore’s inexperience, and even whether or not Fitz is coming back. All I’m saying is that there’s still room for Isabella to make an impact, even if it’s just the occasional splash play. But if he can’t even do that, will he even be on the roster next season? Or, hell, this season?
DL Jordan Phillips
Phillips, coming off a massively disappointing first year of the 3-year/$30M contract he signed last offseason, is technically under contract for another 2 seasons. But Phillips isn’t owed any guaranteed base salary in 2022—just a pair for $2M signing bonuses (one in 2022, one in 2023). So the Cardinals can get out of the contract very easily next offseason if they so choose. Phillips has a $12M cap hit next year—he’ll have to do a whole lot better than 11 tackles and 2 sacks in 9 games this season to justify a roster spot. Perhaps the addition of J.J. Watt and the return of a healthy Chandler Jones will let Phillips thrive—but he’ll have to stave off a pair of youngsters in Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence. I’m not holding my breath for another season like Phillips’s 9.5-sack 2019 in Miami, a season that is looking more and more like a complete outlier.
HC Kliff Kingsbury
This season is playoffs or bust for the Cardinals, and that includes the men on the sidelines and in the front office. As such, Kliff enters the 2021 season very much on the hot seat. His seat would have been much cooler if the team had been able to beat one of two backup QBs they played in Weeks 16 and 17 last season to punch a playoff ticket, but the team fell short in both games. Some of the blame goes on the players, yes, but Kliff was badly outcoached in both games—not to mention that coaching blunders directly contributed to multiple losses earlier in the season. If this team comes up short in the postseason race again in 2021, Kliff will rightfully be fired. Simple as that. What I’m worried about is the team finishing something like 9-8 and sneaking into the playoffs and losing in the wild card round. Would that be enough “progress” to earn Kliff another season? I’m on record as saying that Kliff isn’t the right man for this job, so I’d sure hope not. But if this team can contend in the NFC West and win a playoff game or two, I’ll happily walk back those words.
GM Steve Keim
That leaves us with the man in charge of it all. Like Kliff, I believe Keim will lose his job if this team doesn’t make the playoffs this season. Failing to build a playoff team around a dynamic QB on a rookie contract like Kyler should be a fireable offense. What I’m less certain about is whether Kliff’s and Keim’s fates are intertwined. They *should* be. But Michael Bidwill has a clear affinity for Keim—he survived both the DUI fiasco and the 2018 disaster. If we do wind up missing the playoffs, would Bidwill really let Keim hire another coach after the previous two were busts? If this franchise is still floundering near .500 territory (because you can’t actually be .500 anymore with this stupid 17-game season), it *should* be time for a complete front office overhaul. I say that word again—*should*—because this front office has needed overhauling before and it hasn’t happened. Of course, this could all be a moot point—this team looks ready to not only get to the postseason, but also make some noise once they get there. Keim has a lot riding on this team doing just that.
Okay, that got a little pessimistic toward the end. What can I say? Pessimism is part of being an Arizona sports fan. Just look at what happened to the Suns this week. They emerged as the favorite in the Western Conference, then *bam!* Chris Paul gets COVID. It’s easy to imagine another snake-bitten season for the Cardinals in 2021.
But let’s not dwell on that right now. The offseason is a time for hope. These Cardinals have the look of a playoff team. So let’s hope they follow through on that promise. Let’s hope for high fives and handshakes, not rolling heads.