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Changing narratives about the 2023 Arizona Cardinals and 2024 NFL Draft

Sunday’s upset over the Cowboys turned some narratives about the Arizona Cardinals on their heads. Let’s take a look at the evolving expectations for this team in 2023 and possible implications on the 2024 draft.

Dallas Cowboys v Arizona Cardinals
GM Monti Ossenfort took some heat for bringing in Josh Dobbs, but that move looks like it is already paying off.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

I’ll admit it: I didn’t see the huge upset over the Cowboys coming. Almost no one saw it coming. Pretty much only Walter did. A tip of the cap, good sir.

Sure the Cardinals had looked frisky the first two weeks, but we were still 0-2. Meanwhile, the Cowboys had absolutely demolished their first two opponents from the Empire State—the Giants, whom had just beaten the Cardinals, and the Jets. I figured they’d handle us easily and send us closer to a high 2024 draft pick.

So much for that narrative. (And my survivor pool entry. I guess picking against the Cardinals every week wasn’t a sound survivor strategy.)

Narratives around this team are certainly changing. We’ve climbed from the very bottom of national power rankings to the lofty heights of… the mid-20s. We’ve also fallen from the top of the projected 2024 draft boards to the middle of the first round. It’s only three weeks into the season, but this definitely wasn’t the plan I talked about last week.

And I’m totally fine with it! This team is way much more fun to watch than I thought it’d be (especially without Kyler Murray), and it always feels good to beat the Cowboys. (Although I actually kind of like the Cowboys’ current roster, I’ll always dislike the franchise as long as Jerry Jones is in charge.) Allow me something of a mea culpa, if you will—I’ll happily jump onto the #TeamTryhard bandwagon this season.

With that in mind, I wanted to take a quick look at the interrelated narratives surrounding this team mentioned above. Just how good can the Cardinals be this season? And what can we expect out of the 2024 draft? Let’s dive in.

Fly High, Redbirds!

It’s obvious by now that the 2023 Arizona Cardinals aren’t going to be among the worst teams in the league like most projected (and like they were last season). New GM Monti Ossenfort turned over the roster and brought in a bunch of His Guys™ to replace some of the dregs of the final Keim/Kingsbury team. And new HC Jonathan Gannon obviously has the team buying into what he and Ossenfort are trying to build.

You can see it on the field, on the sidelines, in the post-game interviews: This is a different Cardinals team. Josh Dobbs has looked shockingly competent the past two weeks (we win that Commanders game if he had even one more week with the team), the resilient James Conner is leading a resurgent rushing attack, and DC Nick Rallis’s defense is flying around the field and taking down quarterbacks with abandon. This is a spunky, devil-may-care team with a chip on its shoulder. They’re actually fun to watch!

But how good can they be? I suspect that will come down to 1) how soon Kyler Murray can return, and 2) how quickly he can acclimate to the new system. I don’t expect Dobbs to turn into a pumpkin, necessarily, but our offensive personnel is still in the lower half of the league, talent-wise, and I expect opposing DCs to glom onto what he and OC Drew Petzing are doing sooner rather than later. But if Kyler comes back and plays well, this could easily be a .500 team—or better?

(And if you’re among those who don’t think the team will be better when Kyler returns, I don’t know what to tell you. He’s just a vastly superior player to Dobbs.)

That said, I’m still not quite convinced this defense is, to use the old cliché, “for real.” We mostly smothered the Commanders, sure, but they look like a verifiably bad football team with Sam Howell under center. (Other than the second half against the Broncos, anyway.) But we have given up 400+ yards the last two weeks, and I’m not sure whether the Cowboys only scoring 16 against us is more of a reflection of our defense than their own ineptness in the red zone. They somehow only scored one TD in five redzone possessions, plagued by unforced errors like penalties and turnovers. That’s not to discount the effort of our guys, but allowing 400+ yards and five redzone possessions every week (the Giants also had five) is not a recipe for success.

But the defense should get better the more they play together, and the schedule will get easier eventually. (Not for a few weeks, though.) Plus Budda Baker will return—his absence the last two weeks definitely had a hand in how easily the Giants and Cowboys moved the ball against us. But as long as Rallis can keep working magic with the pass rush (we have 11 sacks, the third-most in the league), our defense should cause problems for any offense.

Endangered Wildlife

The other narrative I wanted to talk about is next year’s draft. All offseason and through the first two weeks, the narrative of the Cardinals potentially taking Caleb Williams (or Drake Maye) and Marvin Harrison Jr. had been building and building. Many, including yours truly, thought that would be the prevailing narrative around the team this season.

Uh, guess not. The Cardinals certainly don’t look like they’re heading for a top-three pick, and while we also own the Texans’ 1st-rounder, they look like they’ve found Their Guy™ in C.J. Stroud and might not be picking in the top-five either. It’s obviously (very) early in the season, and the Cardinals will still have plenty of trade ammo if they wanted to move up, but the likelihood of Williams, Maye, Harrison, or any of the other top-flight prospects falling into our lap is diminishing every week.

Also, it looks like there are some really bad teams in the league this year. I don’t expect the 0-3 Vikings to be near the league’s cellar by the end of the year, but the 0-3 Broncos just got a SEVENTY-BURGER dropped on them by the Fins, the 1-2 Titans gained less than 100 yards against the Browns, and the 1-2 Jets are once again aboard the Zach Wilson Express straight to the bottom of the AFC.

But those aren’t the teams I’m referring to in the heading above. Rather, it’s the combined 0-6 Bears and Panthers that look like the worst teams in the league—with both of those picks going to the Bears due to the Panthers moving up to #1 last year to select Bryce Young. (It’s EARLY, but that’s already looking like a big YIKES.) The Bears now look like they’ll be living the exact same narrative many had imagined for the Cardinals—a team mired in a rebuild and already looking to replace a recent 1st-round pick QB with potentially two top-five picks to do so. It looks like it’s gonna be a looong year in Chicago, but at least there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

Final Thoughts

As for the Cardinals? The end of the tunnel looks like it’ll be here much sooner than expected, and we might not even need to worry about spending another high pick on a QB. As long as Kyler comes back healthy and motivated (and there’s nothing to think he won’t), this team looks like it’ll be way ahead of schedule and could compete for the playoffs as soon as next season.

So let’s let Monti keep making those moves, Gannon keep making those speeches, and this frisky team keep scaring the hell out of teams every week and springing the occasional upset. Strap in, Cardinals fans. This season just got interesting—and not in the way anyone thought it would.