Cardinals 2021 lookahead: Fitzgerald’s future among WR questions
With the Arizona Cardinals missing out on the playoffs having finished 8-8 this year, we’re leaping ahead to — we hope — a relatively standard offseason.
In November, the NFL mapped out a 2021 offseason that officially begins March 17, when free agents can be signed. Then comes the NFL Draft scheduled for April 29 through May 1.
The Cardinals have big roster decisions to make across the board. By looking back at last year, we’re taking a look — by position group — at the personnel decisions ahead for Arizona general manager Steve Keim.
We’ve run down the quarterback and defensive line positions so far. Now to the group under the most scrutiny with the reported departure of assistant coaches David Raih and Tom Clements: the receivers.
Players under contract
DeAndre Hopkins ($12,500,000)
Christian Kirk ($1,875,639)
Andy Isabella ($1,262,694)
KeeSean Johnson ($902,328)
Trent Sherfield (restricted)
The good news
I think DeAndre Hopkins was worth the trade and worth the contract extension he self-negotiated.
We can end this section there. OK, fine.
The Cardinals got great early returns from their trade with the Houston Texans last March. Hopkins closed 2020 with 1,407 receiving yards, six touchdowns, the catch of the NFL season that won Arizona a game against a very good team, plus quite a few money quotes regarding his freeway driving and football abilities.
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury suggested throughout the year that Hopkins having more “time on task” with quarterback Kyler Murray will take that duo’s relationship on the field to another level.
Hopkins is a unique person with other interests. He has relatively unusual practice habits.
The Cardinals have appeared fine with letting him be him. The problems that cropped up in the passing game — from Hopkins lining up mostly on the left side of the ball to the uneven production among the team’s other receivers — will be the focus heading into next year.
Larry Fitzgerald’s future once again is up in the air, and while we’re used to this process by now, this year just feels different.
That’s mostly because Fitzgerald’s production finally dropped off. He closed with 407 yards and a single touchdown, missing two games because of coronavirus and another with a groin injury.
Fitzgerald said after returning from his COVID-19 stint that he hadn’t been completely healthy up to that point, which brings up whether he was struggling through other physical ailments in 2020. Does that weigh on him? Did his time sitting on the couch with an illness make him realize he can survive away from the game of football?
The only thing we know is it will be sad if Fitzgerald goes out like this, without one last catch in front of fans at State Farm Stadium to cap his 17 seasons as a Cardinal.
He probably doesn’t care about that.
All of that wondering comes before we even consider how the Cardinals feel about Fitzgerald. Yes, they love him, but he has commanded eight-figure salaries with his string of one-year contracts. If the production is waning, how much would Keim want to pay heading into a year where the salary cap crunch is happening because of the pandemic?
Fitzgerald is far from the only question-mark here.
Arizona reportedly moved on from Raih and Clements, and it has to be taken as a sign the team is unhappy about the player development. It means that the Cardinals front office still thinks its two young receivers drafted in 2019 can become successful in the NFL.
Andy Isabella and KeeSean Johnson have flashed, but getting them more confident and productive alongside Hopkins and Christian Kirk still has to be a priority.
Speaking of Kirk, his down 2020 season appeared to be more about the wonky passing game. He recorded 621 receiving yards — 88 fewer than the year before — but also was targeted 28 fewer times. He should be fine.
Last but not least, Trent Sherfield enters restricted free agency with only five catches on the season, including a four-catch season finale. You’d think the Cardinals would bring him back because of his great special teams play, but he’s also a reliable backup WR who gets things done when called upon.
All-in-all, there’s room to build the Hopkins-Murray relationship, but Arizona needs a boost behind their No. 1 wideout. Right now, we don’t know exactly if they will find it internally or externally.