Arizona Cardinals roundtable: What swings the season for good or bad?
Before the Arizona Cardinals open their 2021 campaign Sunday, we asked the Arizona Sports staff a few pertinent questions about how Year 3 of the Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray era will go.
Here’s the first of a two-part series to preview the season.
What is one specific make-or-break thing that will swing the Cardinals’ season one way or the other?
Vince Marotta, co-host of Bickley & Marotta: It’s not a ground-breaking answer, but it’s all about the continuing development between play-caller and quarterback. I think if you polled most people who have been paying attention, they’d rate Kyler Murray’s performance well ahead of Kliff Kingsbury’s in the first two years of their union. On too many occasions in the last two seasons, it’s appeared (at least to me) that Kingsbury’s often passive play-calling limits the Cardinals offense in a rectangle that’s only about four or five yards deep. It’s time for Kliff to take the governor off the offense and let Kyler (and others) shine by stretching the field more vertically.
Dave Burns, co-host of Burns & Gambo: The secondary. If opposing teams tug on that thread hard enough, the concern here is it will unravel the whole operation. I wasn’t that comfortable with the secondary before Malcolm Butler’s surprise step down, and now I fear opposing offenses will feast. Byron Murphy Jr. will need to be great — not good but great — because everybody else is a question mark moving forward.
John Gambadoro, co-host of Burns & Gambo: Let’s go with Kliff Kingsbury’s development as a coach. The talent on the roster is there. They are stacked. Sure, cornerback is a concern and a question but every team has at least one of those — except maybe Tampa Bay. You see how Bruce Arians had all his timeouts with under two minutes left last night — he even got to use one to save a 10-second runoff on a false start penalty. He used two of his timeouts to save clock when Dallas had the ball. Kliff cannot be wasting timeouts because the play clock is winding down early in the third quarter. That stuff comes back to haunt you.
Ron Wolfley, co-host of Wolf & Luke: The development of the two, young linebackers should be the fulcrum of the season. Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins, and how quickly they get up to speed and learn their respective positions, will dictate how their defense plays. If they develop quickly, they’ll win games. If they struggle to learn the NFL game, the Cards offense will need to be one of the best in the league in order to win games. That puts too much pressure on the offense to be perfect, and without seeing this offense play in real games, it seems like a big ask.
Luke Lapinski, co-host of Wolf & Luke: A few months ago I would’ve said the evolution of Kyler Murray in Year 3. And that’s still important. But we already know Murray’s good – now it’s just a matter of how much better he can become. Since the question is “make-or-break” though, I’ll focus on the rookies. The Cardinals are relying pretty heavily on three of them, and how quickly they adapt to the NFL game could define this season. Rondale Moore can experience some growing pains and they should still be ok, but if Marco Wilson looks like a rookie on an island in the secondary, that’s a problem. And Zaven Collins is probably the most important of them all. He’s stepping in to the center of the defense as a starter, calling out the plays, and being asked to do all this with Derrick Henry running at him in Week 1. And then Dalvin Cook in Week 2. If the rookies get up to speed quickly, they’ll fill important roles on this team. But if they struggle to live up to expectations, Arizona could be vulnerable at some very pivotal positions.
Tyler Drake, ArizonaSports.com Cardinals reporter and editor: Health! Scream it from the rooftops: Health will be the deciding factor for the Cardinals this season. General manager Steve Keim went out and added a number of faces this offseason who have proven in years past they can get it done when healthy. Thanks to a busy offseason of meshing new and old, Arizona looks like a playoff team on paper, but if you can’t run out key pieces like J.J. Watt, Chandler Jones or A.J. Green for a majority of the season, there’s gonna be a drop in play. We’ve already seen Jordan Phillips head to the injured reserve for the third time over the course of his short Cardinals career. Hopefully, that’s not the tip of the iceberg for an Arizona team with a ton of potential.
Kellan Olson, ArizonaSports.com editor: How the young talent comes together on defense. I know that’s broad, but any way you stack it, the Cardinals are heavily reliant on it.
Let’s start with defending the run. On the defensive line you’ve got Zach Allen (24 years old), Leki Fotu (23) and Rashard Lawrence (23) joining J.J. Watt as the guys trying to prevent holes from being created. If they are created, it’s Zaven Collins (22) and Isaiah Simmons (23) attempting to plug ‘em up. Through the air, the Malcolm Butler development suggests the Cardinals were ready to start fourth-round pick Marco Wilson (22). It’s cool to be excited about where he’s at, but it would be a lot more exciting as an entire concept if he was starting alongside a proven Pro Bowler. Instead, it’s going to be the solid Byron Murphy Jr. (23) and Robert Alford.
So after zooming out to get the whole perspective, if we come closer, you basically need one of those players at each position group to exceed expectations. Allen, Fotu and Lawrence have all been encouraging at times. We don’t really know much on the linebackers. Murphy taking a leap from reliable to really good isn’t crazy to suggest. If some of that comes together, you’ve got an average defense, maybe a bit worse. And that’s completely fine given what the offense should do, and what it’s capable of, with Murray poised to be a full-fledged star in Year 3.
Kevin Zimmerman, ArizonaSports.com lead editor: Best-case, I think the Cardinals offense goes from underwhelming to great. Worst-case, it’s middle-of-the-road. Maybe Kyler Murray hitting the gas makes the offense explosive, but that only goes so far.
I think of all units to swing this thing, it’s the defensive line. We know the cornerback situation and expect the inside linebackers to take some lumps while making up for mistakes with their athleticism. But if that defensive line led by J.J. Watt and a fun young core of Allen, Fotu and Lawrence can cause problems inside of the proven pass-rushers on the roster, it suddenly leaves the defensive players behind them in a much better position to attack a steep learning curve without putting the team in a bad spot.