Locker clean-out: Kingsbury looks at RB room, pitch to Fitz and more

Dec 30, 2019, 4:16 PM | Updated: 7:28 pm
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 22: Head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals and wide rec...
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 22: Head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald #11 talk on the field before the game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on December 22, 2019 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Kliff Kingsbury carries himself as an honest, open-to-learning head coach.

He defers and is sharp in not passing blame, which is why he didn’t let some Bruce Arians-esque honesty creep out of his mouth in his final meeting with the media a day after his season concluded with a loss to the Rams on Sunday.

“We’ll have those personnel discussions coming up,” he said. “Overall looking at it, I felt like we were competitive and had a chance to win a bunch of games. This league it comes down to one-score games, and we were in a bunch of them. We just didn’t get over the top.

“A lot of that’s on me; a lot of that is coaching and being better in situational football. That’s something, as a staff, we’ll all work to be better at.”

While both Kingsbury’s offense and Vance Joseph’s defense gave those inside and outside of Arizona’s locker room reasons to be positive after a 5-10-1 season, the course ahead remains challenging.

“It’s about wins and losses,” he said. “Everywhere I’ve been, it wasn’t about offensive stats or anything like that. It’s about winning games, and that’s something we want to be better at moving forward.

“Like I said, I appreciate those guys buying in to a different offense than they’ve been accustomed to, some quirkiness to it and different things that probably got out of their comfort level, but they bought in. They played their tails off and fought for each other.”

But roster decisions loom for a team with a lot of money to spend and quite a few holes, especially when it comes to depth.

The Cardinals’ recent draft history does not reflect well on general manager Steve Keim. For the NFL Drafts spanning 2013-18 — the duration of Keim’s time as GM — Arizona has only nine of 42 draftees remaining on the roster. As of all NFL rosters prior to the season finale, that was tied with the Cleveland Browns for the worst rate among NFL teams.

Now that Kingsbury has navigated his first year in the NFL, he has more comfort in what types of players he needs and a better idea of his ideal offensive roster construction.

On Monday, he wouldn’t indulge reporters in what priorities lie ahead for the Cardinals but did admit that this offseason will be easier because of his comfort working with Keim.

“I just think of the comfort level with both of us, being upfront and honest is something we’ve come a long way. ‘Hey you’re not going to hurt my feelings. I’m not going to hurt your feelings. Let’s get to the right place on it.’ I think that’s going to help moving forward this offseason and the draft and in free agency,” Kingsbury said.

As for what’s to wrap up for the 2019 season and what’s ahead, here are a few notes from the team’s locker cleanout on Monday.

Conversations ahead about running backs

Running back Kenyan Drake is a free agent. David Johnson is not.

The former, however, looked like the team’s running back of the future down the homestretch of 2019 as he finished with 643 yards, 5.2 yards per rush and eight touchdowns in eight games played for the Cardinals.

“I thought he made big steps,” Kingsbury said. “I think with an entire offseason in our system, he has a chance to really, really take off. We have to sit down with personnel and kind of see where we’re at with those three guys.”

With Chase Edmonds still on his rookie deal next year, would Kingsbury be interested in managing three quality running backs?

“That remains to be seen,” he said. “I didn’t do a great job of it this year, but like I said, Kenyan (Drake) got hot, and we wanted to give him a chance to be the guy and felt like he played his best football when he was the guy and got the majority of the carries.

“I’ve had three in college, and I know it’s a different game, but it’s just a matter of finding ways to use them.”

A pitch to Fitz

As of Monday morning, Kingsbury had yet to pitch receiver Larry Fitzgerald about returning for his 17th NFL season, something the head coach mentioned he would get to after the season.

Kingsbury apparently will be brief in that presentation.

“‘Please come back.’ That’s pretty much it,” Kingsbury said. “I think he’s playing as good as anybody, honestly. You watch what he does week-in and week-out, the little things, the blocking and the toughness that he brings to the offensive side of the football. We missed him twice for huge plays yesterday. He’s just still creating separation. He does it all.”

Fitzgerald caught 75 balls on 109 targets for 804 yards and four touchdowns, bettering his 69 catches for 734 yards a season ago.

The pitch for him to return, it seems, will not send Kingsbury back to his recruiting practices from his days at Texas Tech.

“Probably not,” the coach said. “He’s pretty wise to the game. He’s been pitched about everything on this planet, so I think he sees right through any of my BS probably.”

WR-heavy draft could be enticing

Arizona locked itself into the eighth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, one that is viewed as favorable for teams looking to add to the WR core. That could mean a team like the Cardinals could get value later.

Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb are atop the prospect list.

But it will depend on other roster needs, how the draft goes and whether Kingsbury wants a clear-cut No. 1 wideout. Those first two items will be fluid leading into the draft.

As for the last one, Kingsbury was asked about whether he thinks his offense needs a No. 1 receiver.

“I’m not sure. I like what our wideouts did,” he said. “I like what our offense did. I think it’s on us as a coaching staff to maximize who we have regardless of what it is.

“This is a wideout-heavy draft. There’s no doubt there’re some great players at that position, but we have to take the best player that makes us better immediately and has the biggest impact for the organization.”

Pending free agents talk return

Among notable free agents who have spoken about their status heading into 2020, offensive linemen D.J. Humphries and A.Q. Shipley, plus backup quarterback Brett Hundley, have expressed the desire to return next year.

“My goal is to finish my career here,” said Shipley, who played 16 games coming off a torn ACL that zapped his 2020 season. “It’s not my call, but I think it’s well known to them and well known to this locker room I’d like to stay here.”

Hundley said he views starting quarterback Kyler Murray as a brother and would like to remain in his hometown — but he did add that a chance to start with another team would be enticing.

OLB Jones could need thumb-mending

There were no serious medical updates for the Cardinals coming out of the season finale, a 34-27 loss to the Rams.

However, outside linebacker Chandler Jones could potentially need work done on ligaments in his thumb, an injury that he played through in the last game of the year.

Jones, by the way, closed with 19.0 sacks (second in the NFL) and eight forced fumbles after failing to add to those numbers against the Rams.

Snap counts favor Cardinals labeled injury-prone

Health concerns cast doubt, fair or not, on the potential of several Cardinals players heading into 2019, especially along the offensive line.

That group proved that doubt unwarranted. Left tackle D.J. Humphries, center A.Q. Shipley and left guard Justin Pugh were top-three among offensive players in snaps taken this year. Meanwhile, middle linebacker Jordan Hicks finished third in the NFL with 149 tackles and didn’t miss a snap or a game.

“I’ve always said that as long as I’m on the field, things will work out, “Hicks said. “Not only to play all 16 but to play every single snap … huge achievement for me, especially with my history and all the chatter about my health, I think that was able to shut some of that noise up.”

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Locker clean-out: Kingsbury looks at RB room, pitch to Fitz and more