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With busy offseason, internal growth, Cardinals could make it a 4-way race

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The Rams may have more than two dangerous teams to deal with next season

Arizona Cardinals v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

In his NFL debut, Kyler Murray faced a 24-6 deficit to the Detroit Lions early in the fourth quarter. Murray, a quarterback who only threw 519 passes in college and exactly one year earlier was facing off against Chip Kelly’s awful UCLA defense, led the Arizona Cardinals to 18 unanswered, including a touchdown and two-point conversion in the final minute to force overtime.

On the second play of overtime, Murray launched a bomb to Larry Fitzgerald — the future Hall of Fame recipient of his game-tying touchdown — that was caught at the Arizona 32. Though Murray’s Cards stalled inside the 10 and kicked a field goal, a win by old standards, and the game ended in a tie, the number one overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft was looking the part immediately.

$36,042,682

$31,000,000

$26,600,000

$8,080,601

These are the 2020 salary cap hits, in order, for Jared Goff, Russell Wilson, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Murray. Already in the argument for being better than Goff and Garoppolo, Murray represents a cost difference of $27,962,081 to what the LA Rams are paying Goff and $18,519,399 to what the San Francisco 49ers are paying Garoppolo. There is also a $22,919,399 difference to what the Seattle Seahawks are paying Wilson, creating a lot of ground for all of these quarterbacks to make up if they want to give their teams better value than what the Cards are getting with Murray.

Welcome to how you have to do business in the modern NFL and the Cardinals could be very good now because of it.

Coming off of a 5-10-1 campaign with only one win or tie vs a team that had a winning record (27-13 win over the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 16), Arizona may not seem like they were on the cusp of greatness, but we must factor in their 2018 performance of going 2-14 and being the worst team in the league. Starting from zero, the Cardinals did avoid losing six of their 16 games, lost four games by six points or less, and finished 20th in DVOA, ahead of the LA Chargers, Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders, and others.

They may also be one of the most improved teams of the offseason and still hold the eighth overall pick in the draft, higher than any of their divisional opponents, especially the first round-less Rams.

(To their “credit,” the 49ers now hold two first round picks after trading DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts, but they do have to replace Buckner now.)

Despite Murray having an exceptional-for-a-rookie QBR ranking of 15th last season (ahead of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Teddy Bridgewater, Goff, Baker Mayfield, and so on), Arizona went into the offseason with a need for a really good receiver to help Kliff Kingsbury’s air raid offense really go the next time regular season games are played. They responded by trading David Johnson and a second round pick to the Houston Texans for DeAndre Hopkins*, one of the few players at his position in the league today who may retire in the same echelon as Fitzgerald.

The QB-to-WR options now for the Cardinals are Murray in the former role and Larry Fitzgerald, DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk, 2019 second rounder Andy Isabella, 2019 fourth rounder Hakeem Butler, and several others in the latter. The team likely eschews any usage of a tight end in the receiving game, but 2019 midseason acquisition Kenyan Drake caught 28 of 35 targets for 171 yards during his eight-game stint with the team and his role should increase as well.

Without Johnson around to sap his opportunities, Drake can also build on his 123-carry, 643-yard, 5.2 YPC performance on the ground. Three of his eight games resulted in over 100 rushing yards; Johnson’s third most-recent 100-yard rushing game came on October 23, 2016 against the Seahawks and that game also resulted in a tie meaning it took five quarters for him to get there.

Of course, remaining questions about the offensive line could still be key as to if any of this plan works or not. But they extended left tackle D.J. Humphries, paid guard Justin Pugh a lot of money in 2018, and may use that first pick on one of the four premier offensive linemen in this draft.

They could also choose to take a defensive player and that side of the ball — the side that needs the most improvement after finishing 23rd in DVOA — is already looking like its in better position for next season.

Though Chandler Jones registered 19 sacks (and eight forced fumbles), second on the team was Terrell Suggs at 5.5, then Rodney Gunter at three. The team let go of Suggs late last season and Gunter recently signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars, leaving Corey Peters as the player returning with the second-most sacks on the team at 2.5. In response, the team signed defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, who emerged from nowhere to post 9.5 sacks and 16 QB hits with the Buffalo Bills. They also signed outside linebacker Devon Kennard, who posted seven sacks in each of the last two seasons with the Lions and is expected to be in more pass rushing situations in Arizona.

They also signed inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, who has started most of the Atlanta Falcons games since being a fourth round pick in 2016. Campbell posted 129 tackles, two sacks, and three forced fumbles last season and he could replace first round disappointment Haason Reddick.

In the secondary, the Cards would like a full season of Patrick Peterson after he was suspended for six games of 2019. Cornerback Byron Murphy was fairly awful as a rookie but had a lot of potential as the 33rd overall pick last year and just turned 22. Starting safety Jalen Thompson doesn’t turn 22 until July and two-time Pro Bowler Budda Baker will only be 24.

Including in linebacker Jordan Hicks at 27, it is a young team for defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who still has a fairly short track record as a DC or head coach so maybe he can improve his track record; that being said, the Broncos were fifth in DVOA on defense in 2018 for Joseph and dropped to 13th in 2019 under Vic Fangio. Plus there are plenty of intriguing defensive options at pick eight, such as Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons, Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown, or Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah should any of them “fall” a tiny bit.

Why say all of this on a Rams website? Because in the NFL — in any sport — level of competition matters. It especially matters within your own division, as millions strive to point out when addressing Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s six Super Bowl championships coming out of the AFC East. Some divisions don’t require a good team to win, as we saw in the NFC West from about 2002 to 2011 and some divisions have 3+ really good teams as we’ve seen in the NFC West from 2012 to present.

Right now, the NFC West could have four playoff teams. Technically under the new playoff structure, we could see it too. (I don’t think we’ll see it, and the NFC South and NFC North also present tough divisions, as of March 29 at least.) So I find it important to continuously check on the competition and for the Rams, that doesn’t just mean the 49ers, who went to the Super Bowl. Or the Seahawks, who’ve managed seven playoff trips in eight years.

Now there’s also the Cardinals and I think at this point success no longer hinges on talent. With Murray, Hopkins, Fitzgerald, Drake, Jones, Baker, Peterson, and so on, they have talent. I think success now rests solely on the concept of whether or not Kingsbury is a good coach. We have no way of knowing that yet but at the moment there’s only one team in the division that has the advantage of a rookie contract QB and that’s the Arizona Cardinals.

Whether or not they can take advantage of that advantage will determine if the NFC West has the best fourth place team — and if that team is even the Cardinals.

*The teams also exchanged fourth rounders.