Evolution or Revolution is a series that analyzes whether a team needs a few tweaks or a fundamental reboot.
It didn’t take long for the Arizona Cardinals to make their first big offseason splash.
For the second year running, the Cardinals took advantage of the dysfunction enveloping the Houston Texans to land a star player whom they hope will push them towards the playoffs.
J.J. Watt has linked up with former Texans teammate DeAndre Hopkins and signed a two-year deal in hopes of providing a significant boost to the Cardinals’ defense.
While Watt figures to improve the odds of stopping opposing attacks, Arizona will need to take a leap in Year 3 of the Kliff Kingsbury-Kyler Murray experience to have a chance of emerging from a hyper-competitive NFC West.
The Cardinals looked to have a way to go after dropping five of their last seven games en route to an 8-8 finish that left them out of the expanded playoffs. So we’ll look at what was learned from that campaign and what the team must do to ensure a winning record and postseason berth next season.
The Arizona offense ranked sixth in the NFL with 384.6 yards per game, but the lack of progression from the passing game, even after the addition of Hopkins, held it back from being one of the league’s elite.
The Cardinals struggled across the board down the stretch. After putting up 425.4 total yards (168.9 rushing, 256.6 passing) during a 6-3 start, they averaged 332.0 yards (102.4 on the ground, 229.6 passing) during their 2-5 finish.
Overall, Murray improved on his rookie numbers. His completion percentage jumped from 64.4 in 2019 to 67.2, his passing yardage improved from 3,722 to 3,971, he threw 26 touchdowns compared to 20 a year earlier and his passer rating went from 87.4 to 94.3.
Yet his 7.12 yards per attempt were still only good enough for 22nd in the NFL, while his 2.2 interception percentage was the eighth highest among quarterbacks who played at least 14 games.
Murray, however, continued to show why he’s one of the most exciting dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL. He ran for 819 yards – second only to Lamar Jackson’s 1,005 – and 11 touchdowns – second only to Cam Newton’s 12.
Hopkins enjoyed a monster first season in Arizona – his 1,407 receiving yards were the third-most in the NFL – but the numbers suggest he could use more help. Deep threat Christian Kirk had six touchdowns but esteemed veteran Larry Fitzgerald’s yards per catch average of 7.6 was the lowest of his remarkable career.
Fitzgerald is a free agent and there have been rumors that he could retire. As a result, the Cardinals took a chance that long-time Cincinnati Bengals star wideout A.J. Green still has something left in the tank.
The team made a big move up front by bringing back Kelvin Beachum on a two-year contract. Beachum led all right tackles with a 5.9 run disruption-allowed percentage last year (NFL average: 9.1) and ranks 16th in our 2021 projected offensive lineman rankings at 6.73% better than the league average lineman.
Watt joins a defense that ranked 13th in the NFL in total defense, allowing 351.9 yards per game. The Cardinals were particularly strong against the pass at 10th with 226.4 yards allowed), but had more difficulty against the run at 22nd with 125.5 yards allowed.
They held their own despite losing star edge rusher Chandler Jones to a torn bicep. The three-time Pro Bowler was denied the chance to maintain his streak of having double-digit sacks in every season of his Cardinals career.
Stepping up in Jones’ absence was Haason Reddick, who posted a career-high 12.5 sacks – including five in one game against the New York Giants. He also finished with 15 tackles for loss, forced six fumbles and broke up four passes.
His contributions down the stretch helped the Cardinals produce 109 negative plays for a total of minus-477 yards – the fourth-best mark in the league. Reddick, though, has signed a one-year deal worth $8 million with the Carolina Panthers.
The club added former Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler with veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson, who gave up team highs of 590 burn yards and six burns for touchdowns, leaving for Minnesota in free agency.
The addition of Watt, the return of Markus Golden on a two-year deal, and the signing of A.J. Green signal Arizona’s commitment to finding a way to break through now.
The draft is the likely avenue on which the Cardinals will focus most of their attention as they attempt to further supplement a roster that fell just shy of the postseason.
With the 16th overall pick in the first round, Arizona will be in a decent spot to find its No. 1 cornerback of the future. Stronger depth at receiver and more dynamism at tight end should also be on the team’s wish list.
If they can check off those items and put a support system around Murray that allows him to have a breakout Year 3, the Cardinals will be in a good spot to celebrate a first playoff berth since the 2015 season. Should they fail, Kingsbury and general manager Steve Keim’s jobs may come under severe scrutiny.
Taylor Bechtold contributed. Design by Matt Sisneros.