The 5: Which Cardinals can step up in DeAndre Hopkins’ absence?
Losing DeAndre Hopkins for the regular season, if not also a postseason run, creates an irreplaceable void on the Arizona Cardinals.
He was their top red zone option in the passing game and a fire escape for quarterback Kyler Murray. He single handedly stole at least a game for the Cardinals last year.
They have not needed such heroics as much in 2021 en route to a 10-3 record with four games left. Because Hopkins missed three games prior to his MCL injury that reportedly will put him on injured reserve and require surgery, Arizona at least has already faced life without him.
Considering players in-house, here is who most can benefit in playing time to help the Cardinals navigate such a life.
WR Antoine Wesley
Two players saw significant bumps in playing time when Hopkins missed Weeks 9-11 with a hamstring injury, and Wesley is the most obvious one.
The 6-foot-4 receiver for first time in his three-year NFL career has earned playing time. He appeared in better than 75% of the snaps during Hopkins-less games for Arizona.
Wesley caught three balls for 62 yards against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 9, then had four grabs for 44 yards two weeks later. He made those seven catches on eight targets.
After Hopkins, the athletic Wesley is the Cardinals’ best jump-ball option, and Kliff Kingsbury throwing him into the action for select snaps even last week in a late comeback attempt showed the head coach has trust in the former Texas Tech product.
Expect to see more of him on the outside.
TE Darrell Daniels (and Zach Ertz)
I know Daniels isn’t the guy you’d expect to be mentioned in terms of replacing an All-Pro receiver, but the numbers bear it out. While he was receiving from 15-25 snaps per game earlier in the year, Daniels’ snap counts jumped to above 30% consistently during Hopkins’ first injury absence.
With Zach Ertz already earning close to 80% of the snaps, Arizona went heavily away from 10 personnel groupings of four wideouts and no tight ends on the field (18% of all snaps this year) and flipped those into 11 personnel.
The Cardinals ran three entire plays out of 10 personnel in the three games without Hopkins. The jump in 11 personnel — one back, one tight end and three receivers — went from 50% for the year to 64%, according to Sharp Football.
Two-tight end groupings (12 personnel) bumped from 22% to 29% when Hopkins was out as well.
Daniels has one reception on four targets this year but did have eight catches for 92 with a touchdown last year. While he will certainly get more playing time, Ertz figures to be used more down the field, with or without Daniels sharing the field.
Ertz’s best game so far came at Seattle in Week 11, when he was targeted nine times and made eight grabs for 88 yards and a score.
WR Christian Kirk
Wesley’s emergence in training camp and production in limited playing time during the season makes A.J. Green and him the two outside guys moving forward.
And that provides more hope that Kirk can remain in the slot, where he currently leads the teams in receiving yards (718), receptions (53) and targets (70).
Looking back at the stale offense from the 2020 season, it’s been Kirk and rookie Rondale Moore creating an inside tandem that has led to more potential for pre-snap movement, creativity and explosive plays.
Kirk is tied with Green at 12 receptions of 20 or more yards to lead the Cardinals as well. His years-long chemistry with Murray will be relied upon with Green and Wesley still relatively new to the team.
WR Rondale Moore
Moore’s role so far this season has been dictated by gameplan more than anything.
He played most extensively in the Week 9 game against the San Francisco 49ers, when Colt McCoy was quarterbacking Arizona. He’s been used as a hybrid running back as well as slot man. And Moore’s largest share of touches (11 receptions) came two weeks later against Seattle.
His opportunities, though, still have room to increase.
He and Kirk being on the field at the same time will remain a key, though it remains to be seen why Moore hasn’t been the downfield threat he was earlier in the season.
Moore’s long catch in the past six week is just 11 yards — that after he posted explosive plays of 20 or more yards in three of the first five weeks of the season.
RB Chase Edmonds
For all the earned hoopla around the veteran James Conner, Edmonds had quietly been a key performer for Arizona before an ankle injury derailed him on Nov. 7.
The running back is averaging an impressive 5.7 yards per carry, two whole yards better than Conner’s average.
While Conner has been a force in the passing game too, Edmonds still ranks sixth on the team in total targets (37) despite playing in nine of 13 games.
Edmonds has been designated to return from the IR, and his activation will give Kingsbury more package options for his play-making well of creativity. That could help Arizona mix things up without the cheat code of one of the league’s most reliable wideouts.