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No. 1 receiver? Cardinals WR Christian Kirk’s big game begs the question

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Christian Kirk rushes the ball in the second half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Around Arizona Cardinals headquarters, you could tell the optimism about Christian Kirk wasn’t fluff before his three-touchdown game on Sunday.

Actually, the optimism flowed while he was sidelined with a serious ankle injury for most of October. It was a testament to his genetics that a ugly twist of an ankle in Week 4 didn’t cause more damage, but it was Kirk’s work ethic that was talked about repeatedly by head coach Kliff Kingsbury as the receiver rehabbed.

Just days after the injury, he was attempting to go through at least limited drills with his teammates and participated in practices for the near-month he couldn’t play in games.

Once he was cleared, Kirk went about his business, quietly recording 98 combined rushing and receiving yards against the New Orleans Saints. But his third game back was a coming out party.

Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a 30-27 loss, he caught three touchdown passes and tallied 138 yards on six receptions.

“It feels great. Just really happy with how the whole recovery process went with the ankle,” Kirk said. “Each week I’ve been feeling better.”

That rookie quarterback Kyler Murray has been the one targeting him lends optimism this is only the beginning for Kirk.

They are the first quarterback-receiver duo under the age of 23 to record a three-touchdown game since the Minnesota Vikings’ Fran Tarkenton connected with tight end Charley Ferguson on Nov. 11, 1962, for three scores.

“I think consistency at the quarterback position always helps,” Kingsbury said of Kirk. “You look at those great ones, they always have a guy in place for a long time where you build that rapport, you build that trust, and you’re their guy. I think there’s a lot of factors that play into it.”

Kirk, speaking about feeling like a veteran, inadvertently reminded reporters Wednesday just how much more potential there is to squeeze out of him.

The second-year pro is still just 22 years old. That makes him and rookie receiver Andy Isabella, who shares a birthday, the youngest players in the wide receiver room.

While 16-year pro Larry Fitzgerald leads the team with 556 receiving yards, Kirk leads the Cardinals in yards per game (66.7), which is 31st in the NFL, and targets per outing (8.9).

Already, in statistical terms at least, he can be considered a No. 1 receiver.

Kingsbury sees the potential is there for him to soon become that with certainty.

“He’s not the biggest guy, but you look at Antonio Brown, Steve Smith, guys like that, he just has that type of juice,” Arizona’s coach said. “I’m not saying he’s going to get to where they’re at, but he has that type of ability, in my opinion, to be able to go inside, outside and be a mismatch wherever he goes.”

Kirk has shadowed Fitzgerald, the face of consistency in the sports, since he arrived last year.

The youngster has produced echoes of his mentor’s work ethic when it comes to his football preparation. Kirk has made sure to watch how the future Hall of Famer conducts his charitable endeavors.

With the media, Kirk hasn’t ducked a request for an interview even as they’ve come multiple times a day and multiple days a week — unofficially, he might do more interviews than any other player on the team.

He credits his father, who Kirk calls his “cheat code to life,” for instilling in him that humbleness that allows him to quietly go about his business.

“Linebacker, safety, defense, running back, be a football player and be tough,” he said of what his father taught him growing up. “That’s always just kind of carried with me.”

Because of that, Kirk hasn’t complained or pouted while being thirsty for more touches.

This year especially, he hasn’t needed to.

“He’s the antithesis of (the diva wide receiver stereotype) in everything he does,” Kingsbury said. “If he gets the ball 10 times or he doesn’t get it at all, he doesn’t say a word. He just goes as hard as he can every single play. That’s what he’s about.”

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