The 2021 Arizona Cardinals, following a 6-3 start to a team that missed the playoffs, have a lot to live up to.
Fan expectations are raised after the team signed a multitude of veterans and drafted some exciting young additions. Training camp offers a solid look at the team as it pulls together from 90 men to 53 gridiron warriors, survivors, mercenaries or even “guys who get paid to play a game.”
What takeaways did Day 2 have for the fans who attended? Let’s take a look:
For the “Back Together Saturday” at the end of practice, the entire team turned out and waved at the fans who came to see them.
While it might be a new pattern or perhaps was a one-off, the fact remains that the NFL is still technically a 12-man game, with that final man being each and every individual who creates the atmosphere, buys the jerseys and ultimately makes the choice to identify and support their specific team. So a touch to fans who were not able to come to games last year was a solid gesture, in my opinion. Now, let’s get to the meat & potatoes of Day 2:
#1. Rondale Moore continues to impress
Moore was already getting rave reviews after a solid first day but today seemed like a “breakout” practice.
With Andy Isabella and KeeSean Johnson on the Covid list, he had a chance to shine and...he took advantage of it with a few deep catches (one in traffic between two defenders) and another for an open deep touchdown out of the slot from Kyler Murray.
I’m not saying that Andy is going to be Wally Pipp’d, but it IS interesting as in the Purdue offense he played in in college, Moore wasn’t a “downfield” specialist like Andy Isabella was coming out of college. He wasn’t used much on downfield throws, but man was he productive againt big competition in the Big 10 as a true freshman.
He’s small (so small that 5’9 Chase Edmonds dwarfed him in mass) but had seemingly no issues with getting open and getting free off the line. That’s something Isabella hasn’t been able to do as well.
2. Jordan Phillips was missing
The defense saw a few backups (I didn’t see Rashard Lawrence out there but did see Leki Fotu) though more were on the offensive line, with more on that in a minute.
But Jordan Phillips was brought in as a 10+ sack guy from the interior a year ago and battled injuries and missed time. While he and J.J. Watt have been brought in to create a whole new Arizona pass rush, the fact neither has been practicing might cause a few eyeballs to glance Steve Keim’s way.
Still, I’m not as concerned at this point but Watt has produced at a high level this past decade. Phillips’ one good year will look like a standout if he can’t get back to that 2019 form.
3. AJ Green looked like 2015 A.J. Green and...could a backup for him be on the roster?
Man, Green has been maybe, for some, the biggest surprise of camp given that he has been an afterthought for the last two years in Cincinatti. He’s looked similar to the outside big WR that made pro bowls and while Hopkins still looks like the superior athlete out there, Green’s showcased some outside separation and solid route running. If he and Hopkins and Kirk/Moore make up the team’s 11 personnel and he stays healthy...injury might be the only thing that can derail that offense.
Speaking of Kirk, he moved inside and there was a lot more intermediate/over the middle and it might be that Kyler’s weakness in the middle of the field last year (outside of targeting Dan Arnold) might be boosted in that regard.
Before I move on, though, Kirk moving inside creates a problem given how Rondale Moore has been responding.
If Hopkins is an outside guy along with Green and Kirk is in the slot...if either Hop or Green goes down, Kirk can move outside. But where does that leave room for Isabella? Moore is reportedly taking more special teams reps on punt and kickoff return, after all.
And #33, Antoine Wesley, looks to be a HUGE player on the outside at 6’5, 210. Lengthy and with the solid hands he showed today, it’ll be interesting if he can (surprisingly) land a spot on the active roster. He’s bounced around the league from Baltimore and has been on a few practice squads, but he’s back in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense.
As a Texas Tech player he had some 1,000+ yards and close to 10 TD’s but didn’t seem to be embraced by the NFL. He might be limited in that regard to comebacks, contested catches (he didn’t get much separation over the top but had a nice snag) and straight go-routes. He was second-team already and showed nice rapport with both Murray and McCoy.
Well....that’s what Kliff’s offense IS for outside guys. If Wesley can prove himself to be a backup on the outside, it might leave little room for a guy like Andy Isabella if Rondale Moore keeps making spectacular catches as he has been.
Food for thought.
4. Kliff’s offensive structure looks...unchanged from 2020.
Many thought Kingsbury would be shifting more of his pieces around this year and moving guys like Green or Hopkins into the slot.
Instead we’re kind of seeing a lot of similarities to what the Cardinals ran last year.
Outside, lot of comeback routes or deep balls, with a few back-shoulder. Inside, some crossing/mesh routes in or downfield.
Some deep throws out of the slot and a few short throws to RB’s or Tight Ends, with the occasional post or drag over the middle.
The offense itself, however, might have some of the right talent personnel-wise now, Moore/Kirk inside and Hopkins/Green outside look like 10 personnel in the making with Maxx Williams as the lone TE. Darrell Daniels was TE2 and while a few other receivers were involved, you get the feeling that the offense is going to prove whether Kingsbury’s approach simply needed to upgrade from the 3-13 2018 Cardinals or if his Air Raid needs more than the concepts that he’s tossing at it.
Based on camp, we will see this season but things are off to a solid start even with no Dan Arnold or a certain #11 out there.
5. The 10 personnel means OL is important and...it wasn’t the best up the front today
With Lamont Galliard traded and Justin Pugh/Pro Bowl C Rodney Hudson out, Max Garcia was the guy snapping to the first team’s quarterback Kyler Murray, and Kyler...seemed to be under pressure more often than not on some plays.
The Cardinals’ blitzes were more exotic than maybe it should be in a practice but the highlight was how they seemed to generate pressure with 5 would have counted for a few sacks.
Of note, Isaiah Simmons was an edge rusher at times, with Jordan Hicks on the field next to Zaven Collins
6. Zaven didn’t seem like the job was too big for him
He had a pass breakup and filled the holes nicely from what I saw, no gaping mental errors (but of course, maybe there were and being an outsider I simply do not know without the firsthand ability to glance at a playbook and know assignments for individual plays).
But I think that it’s easy to see that he’s a natural MIKE and didn’t look uncomfortable at all as several rookies the Cardinals have drafted over the years have. Good to keep him in the position he played in college.
7. Murphy Moving Outside?
Byron Murphy was the starting corner opposite Malcolm Butler. I don’t know if this was simply the design or if he shifts into the slot/mirrors the team’s top WR but he certainly seemed to be the guy on the depth chart. A big year for him as he’s entering Year 3 of his rookie 4 year deal and the Cardinals would love for him to become a top-flight cornerback this season...and pay him in kind.
For the other corners, Alford played some with the first team that I saw but Jace Whittaker had a few nice plays and it really feels like Marco Wilson and Tay Gowan are ahead of the guys they brought in off the street. The depth of the Cardinals’ secondary isn’t great so the hopes are that Murphy and Butler are able to lock guys down.
8. James Connor’s “big back” replacement and the speedster that time forgot
Two guys who weren’t even on the Cardinals last year got a lot more snaps with the one’s than many thought would. Both also are similarly named to an extend in Jonathan Ward and JoJo Ward. The former, wearing Chase Edmonds’ old 29, took a few handoffs in the #3 and 4 role, rotating with Eno Benjamin.
Given that Chase and Eno are smaller backs and Conner participated in walkthroughs and installs (my guess at the end) but not practice, I wonder if there was some sort of ankle or head issue that kept him out of it. In any case, JoJo Ward also made a few nice snags and looks to be a guy who knows how to use his hands and get open close. He wasn’t utilized deep but adds to the plethora of slot receivers that Arizona has.
9. Questions on Kickoff:
The plan seems to be Matt Prater kicking off and Andy Lee punting.
However, perhaps a wrench in this equation might be the fact that Prater didn’t kickoff for the last few years. And during the aptly named “kickoff” drills, P Tyler Newsome mimicked a leg sweep for the jug machine which then launched a ball into the endzone for the likes of Ward and others to run back.
It might be due to Newsome, who has a booming leg, and the more accurate but older Prater being guys who can compliment each other’s current skill sets while still letting Andy Lee remain the punter.
However, that’s probably a poor use of a roster spot for a kickoff specialist, and Kingsbury’s said that the plan is still Prater as the kickoff man. We will see if that changes, as I don’t think Lee’s spot is in jeopardy at all.
10. Maxx effort this season
Maxx Williams looked to be moving better than I’ve seen in a long time, making a nice deep catch or two on the day. The Cards seem to still need help at the tight end position and frankly, it might be that they shift away from them being primary pass-catchers altogether with Hopkins/Green/Kirk/Moore being the talents there.
But Williams still has a vital role to play as he was one of, if not the best, run-blockers on the team in 2019, and even when he did play in 2020. The Cardinals offense went from “bleh” to functional against the Niners in Week 1 after he came back on the field, and it took some time to adjust to life without him being fully capable.
Arizona at one point had the #1 rushing attack in the league last year and ADDED Rodney Hudson to it. If Williams can get back to form, then he’s in great shape.