Desert Destroyers: Arizona Cardinals Deep Dive
For years, the Crimson Birds of the Desert have been irrelevant in the NFL landscape. Over the last 20 years the Cardinals have only managed 5 winning seasons. In that same span, many would consider only one man to have been tagged a fantasy stud: Larry Fitzgerald. Going into last off-season, the team's outlook was as bleak as ever. Coming off of a 3 win season in 2018, the team had just fired their HC, their 1st round QB was severely underwhelming, and their franchise wide receiver was inching closer to retirement. Taking stock just 6 months later, the team had an entirely new look to it. In that span: they added the young-gun in Kliff Kingsbury at HC, had shipped off their second year QB Josh Rosen for the highly controversial Heisman winner Kyler Murray, and completely ignored their defensive ineptitude in free agency. No one truly knew what to expect from the team and their new air raid offense. What we all got was a glimpse at a machine, that if well oiled and fine tuned, could wreak havoc on NFL defenses for years to come.
Fast forward a year to the 2020 off-season, and quality maintenance is EXACTLY what the Cardinals roster received. Kyler, coming off of a Offensive ROY campaign, was rewarded with a monster target on the outside in Deandre Hopkins. The team also replaced the aging David Johnson with the dynamic Kenyan Drake. What was once a forgettable team from a fantasy standpoint, the Cardinals have now become one of the most intriguing offenses in football entering this season. Still flying under the radar for most, this team is a Top-5 fantasy offense to me, and I'm going to show just how far these birds can carry your roster in 2020.
When looking back at the Cardinals' winning seasons over the last 20 years, exactly zero of those five were produced by a quarterback drafted to the team. Although, after 2019 that trend continues, this time around indeed has a different feel to it.
From a pure numbers standpoint nothing truly jumps off the page when it comes to Kyler's passing stats in 2019. He ranked 15th in passing yards and QBR, 18th in pass attempts and pass completions, 21st in passing TD's, and 20th in INT's. His season was a tale of two halves, much like most of the Cardinals' fantasy pieces. In the first 8 games of the season, Kyler's pass volume was massive. He averaged 36 attempts a game as opposed to his back half 8-game average of 31 attempts a game. His completion percentage on said volume was very consistent all season long, with his front half 64% and back half of 66% being relatively close. The TD efficiency that Kyler experienced last year was what truly stood out as staggering. He was able to nearly double his front half total of 7TD's in the last 8 games with 13TD's. This kind of uptick can be attributed to personal growth, continued acclimation to Kingsbury's system, as well as personnel changes to the team throughout the season.
Where Kyler stood apart from his competition, was in his rushing stats. He ranked no lower than 4th in nearly every rushing category from the QB position including: carries, red-zone attempts, yards, and TD's. Over the last 4 years, the average season long rushing output from a QB1 in fantasy has been 273yards on the ground. Kyler's output from 2019 was 544yards. Meaning that even if you halved his rushing production from last year, he would have been 2 yards shy of the AVERAGE of the Top-12 QB's over the last 4 years. That kind of rushing floor is essential when considering who the top flight QB's truly are. It is that floor that lifts up a mediocre year passing, such as Kyler's was in 2019.
The Eye Test
Looking at the player from a non numbers based mindset, there was a lot to like about Kyler's rookie year. He came into the league with the stigma of being a small bodied, scrambling passer, with an above average arm, and unshakable mindset. He proved the hype was well deserved, and the small man jabs were ill placed. Being of a smaller frame, the biggest concern for Murray was his ability to stay healthy and absorb the hits he would take at the QB position. Kyler ended the season as the 3rd most sacked QB in the league, absorbing 48 sacks, and missing zero offensive snaps. At no point was he taken out or slowed down from a production standpoint due to injury. That includes the time he was leveled by his own offensive lineman in Week 1. You can peep that below.
Using just the eye test when it comes to arm talent, Kyler proved to be all that and more. His passes were crisp all year long, and at times were fired with pop that would rival even the likes of Mahomes. His ability to put the ball back shoulder, throw under duress, and lead his receivers open, all impressed me greatly. With as shoddy as his pass protection was, Murray's ability to get the ball out quick, was precisely why the QB went #1 overall. The play below from Week 8's match up against the Saints is the kind of pinpoint accuracy and quick decision making that will allow Kyler to produce for years to come.
Kyler's most appealing trait since his time at Oklahoma has been his legs. Not only is his ability to create yards on the ground impressive, it is vital for opening up his receivers on the numerous play action concepts Kingsbury uses in his system. Kyler, just like other rushers in the league such as Jackson, and Watson, have the ability to move an entire defense just by taking a few steps outside of the pocket. In the play below focus on the defensive side of the ball. Kyler's movement on the play action forces three 49ers players out of position, including the covering corner on the play. The bite on the initial play action completely opens up his receiver, allowing for an easy TD against the leagues top defense. Something not easily done.
Kyler's upside in fantasy is huge. Young, talented, and surrounded by play makers, he has the opportunity to be the next big thing at QB. An uptick in overall pass volume as a team is something easily predicted, now that the team has an understanding of just what Kyler is capable of in the system. Following in the footsteps of Mahomes and Jackson; however, is predicated on his ability to stay on track with his development. He must not be struck by the dreaded sophomore slump that has claimed the early careers of recent draft picks such as Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold. Another year in the system, and another year to fully put his stamp on the team, should allow Kyler to come into his own. Pending injury or any Covid shenanigans, Murray has all of the tools to become a top 5 QB this year. Another reason to have optimism for Murray's progression is the fact that the team was able to retain the next man on this breakdown for 2020, Kenyan Drake.
Current ADP: QB5
2020 Outlook: QB5
Although no long-term commitment has been made to Drake, the efficiency, he will give to the RB position, and the mobility of his QB, will allow him to feast in this wide open offensive scheme for the 2020 season.
Drake was traded to the Cardinals 3 days prior to their Week 9 contest last year. He broke onto the scene with one of the most impressive debut performances in recent memory, racking up 162 yards from scrimmage and a TD, on 19 touches. That outing saw Drake start an 8 game run with the desert birds where he would go on to total his most touches in an 8 game span over his entire career. Prior to his 8 games in Arizona, Drake compiled 16+ touches in a game a total of 8 times across 56 games. Once in Arizona, Drake met that mark in 5 of 8 games, while falling 1 touch short, twice. In those 13 games of 16+ touches, he has combined for 1385 scrimmage yards and 9TDs, averaging out to about 106 yards a game and a TD in 3 out of every 4 games.
Drake, like many backs in the league, is dependent on volume to remain a consistent fantasy contributor. But unlike most, he has shown elite upside when given said volume. His 16+ touch games, when extrapolated to a full 16 game season, put him in the ball park of 1700 yards from scrimmage and 12TD's. Those numbers alone would easily give him RB1 consideration, without even taking into account his reception totals. Drake has hit 50 receptions in two consecutive years now, and that is a trend expected to continue. Arizona backs saw over 100 targets on the season last year with Kyler Murray under center.
The Eye Test
Watching Drake on the field has been a thing of beauty ever since he came into the NFL as a rookie. Boasting elite speed in the 40, and prototypical size, Drake came into the NFL as a rotational player, confusing many who had seen him succeed at Alabama. Seeing most of his work come in the special teams game early on, Drake occasionally broke through as a starter based on the injuries of those around him. His career arc has tracked very closely to that of his predecessor in Miami, Lamar Miller. Never being trusted fully to hold up with a bevy of touches, Drake spent his time on the Dolphins patiently waiting for his opportunities, and taking full advantage of them when they presented themselves.
The attributes that shine through the most when watching Drake play are his elite break away speed, his Shady-esque shiftiness, and his nose for the end-zone. In Drake's last 16 starts, he has accumulated 4 games of 2+ touchdowns. His "see the hole, hit the hole" mentality, and elite vision in between the tackles, allows him to make the correct cut more times than not. This when paired with his offensive-line's above average run blocking, makes Drake's TD upside one to chase. Peep his diving TD versus the 49ers in his Cardinals debut below.
When looking at Drake's shiftiness, it's quite possibly his easiest trait to fall in love with. For lack of a better cliche', his ability to "cut on a dime" is better than most running backs in the NFL. He is decisive, and technical between the tackles. Drake is not the type of back to waste his movements with the ball in his hand. Every dip of the shoulder, or hard plant of the foot, has a purpose to it. Whether it is freezing a linebacker in the hole, or shooting past a DB on a route, the moves Drake chooses to make on any given run are what give him the advantage more often than not over the defender. This quick twitch skill when paired with the QB option the Cardinals possess in Kyler, puts fear in the hearts of defenders that have to face this offense. One of the best examples of this trait is from a run Drake had during his stint in Miami. Be warned, it's nasty.
The anchor in Drake's relay of traits, is the oldest and most tried and tested of them all, SPEED. The man has wheels. Clocked at a 4.45 on combine day, Drake plays even faster on tape. There's the old adage that speed kills, and boy is it a thing. Drake can be seen ripping off long runs throughout the season over and over due solely to the fact that he can break angles. Just when a DB thinks they have him, he's gone. No play epitomizes this more than his run against the Seahawks. 80 yards untouched and right into the end-zone.
The opportunity is there. The touches vacated by David Johnson are massive and the offense is poised for an uptick in rushing volume. The Cards ranked 19th in rush attempts and rushing TD's 2019. Having a full off-season to learn protections and the playbook will allow Drake to take the next step. No true competition was brought in this off-season to compete with him, so the possibility of a full 3-down role is extremely realistic. Having a rushing quarterback such as Kyler also aids tremendously in opening up rushing lanes for RB's from a schematic standpoint. All of this when paired with Drake's talents, gives him a back-end RB1 floor, with room to grow.
Current ADP: RB13
2020 Outlook: RB8
Arizona has found themselves their new target man. Smack dab in the middle of his prime, Nuk is making the transition from one budding young QB to another. Only this time, the team has the surrounding cast to help the star wide receiver eat.
Some will argue that Hopkins is on the decline, but it couldn't be further from the truth. Hopkins across his entire career has only missed 2 of the possible 112 games. In that same span he has only received under 127 targets once, his rookie year where he still totaled 91. In his entire seven year career, Hopkins has only had a yardage total below 1165 yards twice and one was again during his rookie year. Although he did have his lowest yards per reception total of his career in 2019 at 11.2, he also had his second highest catch percentage of his career at 69%. With 2 of the last 3 years sitting at 100+ receptions, Hopkins has been the definition of a target hog during his time spent in Houston.
When delving into the passing stats of his past and current teams, the similarities are truly staggering for the 2019 season. Houston's pass attempts were 534 compared to Arizona's 554. They shared identical completion stats of 355 caught passes. The largest discrepancies came in the passing yardage and passing TD stats, where Hopkins' former team out passed the Cardinals by 254 yards and 7 TD's. When it comes to target share of each teams #1 target, Houston once again trounced Arizona with their #1 receiving a 27% share of the pie, while the Cardinals were down at 20%. If a direct transfer of these percentages were to be done with Hopkins, his production in the Cardinals offense last year would have been somewhere close to: 850 yards receiving. Having that mindset would be faulty however as Murray and the Cards never had a true #1 receiver last year. Both Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk received just over 100 targets a piece. When taking into consideration the 104 targets that went to RB's for Arizona last year, the remaining 213 targets were spread out among the remaining irrelevant receiving corps. That's 213 targets, a large share of which, should transfer over to Hopkins without diminishing the roles of Fitzgerald or Kirk.
The Eye Test
I could go into details about why Hopkins is a bonafide #1 outside of the stats, but if you don't believe that at this point, then I can't help you. Instead, here are some baller plays our guy has made over the years for the Texans.
2. (terrible quality but I love me a good Marcus Allen roast)
Nuk is a man among boys. He's a generational talent that is on the same level if not better than nearly every receiver going above him in ADP at the moment. He is my smash pick in the second round of drafts this year and I will gladly ride on the insecurities of other owners on my way to stealing him at a value. It's ok to question what the Arizona offense will look like as a whole this year, but you shouldn't question Nuk's role in it.
Current ADP: WR5
2020 Outlook: WR3
Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald
Although now destined to play second and third fiddle to Hopkins, Kirk and Fitzgerald have more than enough talent to play a relevant fantasy role for owners this season. I see similar production in the Cards for these two (pun intended) , with both holding a specific role in the offense.
These two were the bread and butter of the Cardinals passing attack last year. Both receivers cracked 100 targets and 65 receptions. Kirk posted a receiving line of 68 receptions for 709 yards on 108 targets, while Fitzgerald posted 75 receptions for 804 yards on 109 targets. The two receivers combined for 40% of the cardinals target share at roughly 20% a piece. The two receivers were also in lockstep on the TD end with 3 for Kirk and 4 for Fitzgerald. Both averaged over 10 yards per reception and although Kirk averaged around 5 yards more per game receiving than Fitzgerald, it was the savvy vet that dominated in YAC racking up nearly 400 yards on the season.
With the introduction of a true number one target, one would assume that the totals for these two receivers would plummet; however, I do not foresee this being the case. As talked about in Nuk's section, I believe there to be plenty of targets to go around for the Cardinals. It is reasonable to assume that both maintain their respective target shares in the offense. If the passing efficiency increased even by 3% across the board, you are looking at a potential uptick for both of these receivers. I think the largest of which being their TD totals. 20 Passing TD's from Kyler is solid for a rookie, but if he is able to increase it by 5 (25 passing TD's was the league average in 2019) all receivers in this offense will see a boost to their weekly play-ability.
The two WR's have had both varying ADP's as well as varying season end finishes over the last two years. Fitzgerald has finished the last two seasons as the WR28, and WR42 chronologically. Christian Kirk on the other hand has finished as the WR57, and WR 46 in those same years. Currently Kirk is going as the WR40 in August ADP, while Fitzgerald is going as the WR71. This type of ADP vs production variability, is what smart fantasy players can thrive on while working to outsmart other owners. The age disparity is a huge factor between these players but Murray showed an affinity for targeting the players equally last year. So until Kirk proves he can outperform old man Fitz, there's no logical reason to be drafting Kirk 30 spots higher on 2020 rosters.
The Eye Test
Watching these two on the field, it's easy to see why Kirk was thought to be the incumbent replacement for Fitzgerald in this offense. Both possess uncanny route running abilities, are excellent with the ball in their hands, and have above average speed. Fitzgerald obviously has slowed with age; however, his thousands of reps in Cardinals red, along with his larger frame has allowed him to transition smoothly into a big bodied slot receiver who uses hands and body control to out maneuver and out catch DB's. This role change has been very similar to how Anquan Boldin transitioned later in his career. Kirk still has much to learn in this aspect, but his raw athleticism is something Larry has been lacking in recent years when it comes to separating from defenders.
The air raid system Kingsbury brought to the Cardinals, has worked to revitalize Fitzgerald's career a bit after a few down years with middling QB play. The system allows Fitz to work pretty loosely in the framework of route concepts. Working with Murray to understand coverage breakdowns is what Fitzgerald has been able to capitalize on since the pair started practicing last off-season. Fitzgerald's understanding of the weak spots in every type of coverage puts him in the upper echelon of wideouts in the game. His route running prowess can be seen in the clip below from last year where he uses a double move to find the soft spot in the zone, as well as his YAC ability, to produce a big gain against the Ravens.
Kirk, while also a savvy route runner, has scored most of is fantasy points over his career with his big play ability. His athleticism is up there with the best of wide receivers, so he can often be seen blowing past coverage on the outside. Such a play can be seen below as he takes a simple go-route and completely torches his man for a touchdown in a game against the Bucs last year.
Both of these WR's can be a nightmare for opposing defenses. Their ability to win both inside at the slot, and outside at the X, makes them versatile chess pieces for Kingsbury to move around the field in his system. Air Raid offenses are predicated on their ability to find the open man, so having good route runners, and players that understand coverages ,is KEY to making the Arizona offense hum. Kirk has a lot to learn in the long run to become a fantasy star, like Fitz was for most of his career. Luckily there is no one better to take tutelage under than Fitz himself, to make that happen. Both men can be key rotational pieces for your fantasy rosters in the flex position this year, but I wouldn't be paying up for either of them. but based on their current ADP’s i don’t think you will have to do that. Of the two, my advice would be to take Fitz late, and reap the benefits of near identical production as Kirk, for half the cost. Although both are capped by the presence of Nuk, a WR3 finish for both players is easily in the Cards. Yes, I did it again. Sue me.
Current ADP: WR40(Kirk) WR71(Fitz)
2020 Outlook: WR27-WR37 for Both
If you are questioning any other players on the roster and their fantasy value for the year, I regret to inform you that unless major injuries happen, or Covid wipes out multiple starters, they will not have value for you in 2020. The Cardinals TE room has been a fantasy wasteland for the entirety of the teams existence. WR Keesean Johnson flashed last year, and WR Hakeem Butler was a draft darling in 2019, but both lost any upside the second Hopkins came to town. The team could try throwing one of them into a False-TE position in an attempt to have their own makeshift Evan Engram, but unless that happens neither will see a large enough target volume to justify playing at any point. Understanding what has been laid out for you here, and that bad defenses breed good offenses, it should be easy to see how the Cardinals have a path to some SERIOUS fantasy production in 2020. Whether it's the young gun QB, or the old vet WR, the team has value to it. Make sure you don't miss out!