Kyler Murray, McBride among Cardinals to be excited about in the new year

Jan 1, 2024, 10:49 AM | Updated: Jan 5, 2024, 1:16 pm

Kyler Murray celebrates with Monti Ossenfort postgame...

Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals talks with Arizona Cardinals general Manager Monti Ossenfort after the game at Lincoln Financial Field on December 31, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

When you look back on the Arizona Cardinals, the 2023 regular season will not be one of the great successes for the franchise on paper.

Four wins and a clear discrepancy in talent doesn’t scream highlight material in a league that is predicated on production.

But for all the weaknesses, clear progress is being made, especially in the culture department.

The “culture shock” as offensive lineman D.J. Humphries calls it isn’t the only thing to be excited about as we ring in 2024, either.

A look at the Cardinals to really get excited about heading into the new year, beginning at the top:

Kyler Murray

Murray hasn’t shocked the world stats-wise since returning midseason from a torn ACL suffered last year.

He has, however, endured more change than anyone else on the roster.

Not only did Murray see the head coach that he entered the league with get shown the door, he also watched the general manager that made him a No. 1 pick in 2019 resign.

Throw in a detailed rehab plan for his torn ACL, a new coaching staff with a fresh philosophy offensively and the franchise Murray once knew well was anything but.

And that’s more than OK.

Instead of struggling with change, Murray has embraced it, seemingly buying into everything head coach Jonathan Gannon and general manager Monti Ossenfort envision this team becoming from Day 1.

That’s not to say that it hasn’t been easy.

Moving away from former head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid thinking to new offensive coordinator Drew Petzing’s more traditional NFL offense, Murray has had to step out of his comfort zone a bit, whether that’s been changing his footwork or working much more under center than he had in previous seasons.

While there have been growing pains for Murray, he’s continued to show a willingness to learn and adapt, two vital pillars to Gannon’s overarching message to the team. And through it all, the question as to whether the Cardinals would move on from the QB has gotten quieter and quieter.

Through his first six games under the new regime, he went 2-4 behind 1,305 yards and six touchdowns to four interceptions on 62.3% passing. He also carried the football 34 times for another 187 yards and three scores.

Those numbers don’t jump off the page but it’s at least a start.

Game No. 7, though, was easily Murray’s best, with the QB throwing three second-half touchdowns in a comeback win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Give him a proper offseason and training camp with Petzing, quarterbacks coach Israel Woolfork and the rest of the coaching staff and there should be even more noticeable growth when the season opener rolls around in 2024.

Trey McBride

McBride has fully introduced himself to the rest of the NFL this season behind big games and solid blocks.

In 16 games played (11 starts), McBride has established himself as Arizona’s biggest pass-catching threat in 2023, pacing the team in catches (78) and receiving yards (791). He’s tied for second in touchdowns (two).

McBride also etched his name into the franchise record books a few times. He became the first Cardinals tight end to reach the 100-yard mark in a game since Rob Awalt in 1989 on top of establishing a new franchise record for catches in a single season that was held by Jackie Smith (1967) and Zach Ertz (2021).

He also joined Smith as the only Cardinals tight ends to reach the 700-yard mark in a season.

It’s been an impressive second season for McBride, who made Ertz expendable with his upped play.

And while his pass-catching numbers stand out the most, McBride’s improved blocking cannot be understated. He put it upon himself to become a complete tight end this year. He’s clearly accomplishing that.

The sky’s the limit for McBride, who should take another step or two in 2024 with more time on task with Murray and another offseason with the new regime under his belt.

James Conner

This one shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone if you’ve been watching the tape.

Conner thrives in Petzing’s run-first offense. And when he gets going, so does everything else.

When Conner sees at least 16 carries in a game, Arizona is two games over .500 at 3-1 in 2023. In that four-game span, Conner surpassed the 100-yard mark three times and added five total touchdowns. That includes his most recent performance against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 17, where he ripped off 128 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. He also added a one-handed touchdown catch for five yards.

But on the flip side, when Conner has seen fewer than 16 rushing attempts, the Cardinals are 1-7. They’re 0-4 in the four games he missed due to injury.

And just as important as what he does on the field, he gives the locker room another strong leader ready to put the team over everything else, an important characteristic for the new-look Cardinals.

What more can you ask for?

Paris Johnson

The rookie has checked all the boxes in Year 1.

A certified people mover, Johnson has played every available offensive snap in 2023 and continues to see an upward trajectory in NFL growth.

Getting a full NFL offseason to bulk up and fine-tune his craft should make for a big leap in Year 2 for the 2023 first-round pick out of Ohio State.

There’s no doubt Johnson is going to be a Cardinals starter for years to come.

The real question is: Will he stay on the right side or venture left?

Kyzir White

White only got in 11 games as a Cardinal before a torn bicep cut his season short.

Despite missing the past six games, though, the MIKE backer still paces Arizona’s defense in tackles with 90. The next closest? Budda Baker at 77.

He produces and brings the violence and intelligence Gannon and defensive coordinator Nick Rallis want in the middle of the defense.

Just based on his 11-game sample size from a production standpoint, his relationship and familiarity with the coaching staff and the underdog mentality he brings to every snap, White is an easy extension candidate next season.

Garrett Williams

Williams got a late start to the season thanks to a torn ACL suffered last year.

He made up for lost time, though, quickly moving into a nickel role alongside Baker and Jalen Thompson that has proved valuable to Gannon and Rallis.

Williams’ 23 tackles, one interception and two passes defensed across nine games played don’t jump off the page but give him a normal offseason where he can focus on football over rehabbing a major injury and the jump in production should be noticeable in Year 2.

Dante Stills

Stills has found himself in a starting role along the defensive line due to injuries to those in front of him and the progress the rookie has shown throughout the year.

The 2023 sixth-rounder has taken the next-man-up mentality and ran with it in Arizona’s rotation of defensive linemen, too, recording 3.5 sacks, five tackles for loss, five QB hits and a fumble recovery.

Like a handful of Cardinals rookies, an offseason of bulking up on top of focusing in on the little things should make a big difference for Stills moving into Year 2.

BJ Ojulari

Similar to Williams, Ojulari found himself behind the eight-ball due to injury right out the gates.

But despite hardly getting a training camp rep, the young pass rusher has slowly but surely carved out a role for himself and now sits second on the team in sacks with four, behind only Dennis Gardeck. He also has four tackles for loss and six QB hits.

Arizona is in need of some serious pass-rushing help in 2024. Could the 2023 second rounder be the solution? Or at least part of it? I think so.

Michael Carter

Carter has slowly gained more and more work out of the backfield behind Conner and is proving he can be the second part of Arizona’s 1-2 punch in the ground game.

Last week’s matchup against Philadelphia proved just that as the RB ran for 61 yards on seven carries while adding a six-yard touchdown on one catch.

On top of his ability as a change-of-pace back, Carter also brings with him a ton of energy that is infectious in the locker room, according to Gannon and numerous players and coaches.

And since the Cardinals claimed him from the New York Jets, the running back is locked in to return next year and build off his small 2023 sample size.

Keep your eyes on Carter in 2024.

2024 first-round draft picks

We won’t know who the picks will or will not be until April. That doesn’t mean you still can’t be excited for them.

The Cardinals have not one but two first-rounders thanks to Ossenfort’s draft-day trade last season with the Houston Texans that centered around Arizona’s No. 3 overall pick and Houston’s first-round selections in 2023 and 2024.

Arizona could very well use the two picks on players like wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. or a lockdown cornerback, two positions of great need for the Cardinals.

It could also trade out of the pick(s) altogether, building even more draft capital for Ossenfort to mold.

Either way, these picks are going to provide a much-needed roster shakeup in a big way.

And why stop there?

Ossenfort found talent in the later rounds that could be starters for years to come. And with the number of draft picks the GM and the rest of the front office has at their disposal, there’s no reason to believe Ossenfort can’t do something similar in 2024.

As they say, “Let Monti cook!”

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Kyler Murray, McBride among Cardinals to be excited about in the new year