It’s not until Week 13 that the Rams meet the final of their NFC West rivals, and that might be a good thing given the changes that have gone on in the offseason for the Arizona Cardinals. The fact that the Cardinals had the honour of selecting #1 in this year’s Draft should tell you all you need to know about their 2018 season. A combination of injuries, bad play, bad coaching and just a downright bad roster combined to send the Cardinals to the worst record in the league. It also led to the firing of first-year Head Coach Steve Wilks and his entire staff. It’s fair to say that things can only really go up from here for this franchise.
You must have been living under a rock if you aren’t aware of Arizona’s new Head Coach, Kliff Kingsbury. This will be his first job in the NFL as he comes to the Cards directly from the college game, most recently as the HC of the Texas Tech Red Raiders, where reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes honed his skills. Kingsbury will call the plays for the offense and will be using his famed Air Raid playbook. It remains to be seen how well it will translate to the NFL, but it will be interesting to see the results. Former Denver Broncos HC Vance Joseph comes in to take over the defense and will help take the load off Kingsbury in his first HC role, similar to what we saw with McVay and Wade Phillips in Year 1.
The worst kept secret in the run-up to the 2019 Draft was that the Cardinals were taking QB Kyler Murray with the #1 selection. Kingsbury had long coveted the young Texan, even trying to recruit him out of High School when Kliff was at Texas A&M as an offensive coach. Murray is an exciting talent and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. He is extremely short for a modern NFL QB, coming in at around 5’10, but he has a similar playstyle to Russell Wilson which we know translates to the league. CB Byron Murphy was the next pick for the Cards and will possibly be thrust into a starting role quicker than expected with star Patrick Peterson suspended for 6 games. Arizona went after a few wide receivers in this Draft, something that was drastically needed with Kingsbury’s new offense being used. Andy Isabella was the first to be chosen. At 5’9 he’s not the biggest, but he ran a 4.31 40-yard dash and will be able to take the top of defenses. Hakeem Butler and KeeSean Johnson were the other two to be selected. Both are bigger receivers and have shown production at the college level. Johnson is the Fresno State all-time leader in yards and receptions. DE Zach Allen and S Deionte Thompson are the other two picks on defense that could make an impact as rookies. C Lamont Gaillard, T Joshua Miles, DE Michael Dogbe and TE Caleb Wilson rounded off the rookie class for Arizona.
Free Agency saw a lot of departures from the Cardinals and that’s not too much of a surprise given their record from 2018. A clearout was needed. Josh Rosen was, of course, traded away during Day 2 of the Draft to the Miami Dolphins, with it clear that he had no future in Arizona. It would be a stretch to say that the Cardinals lost any irreplaceable talent in Free Agency, but they did let a few of the more well-known players go, particularly on defense, including Deone Buchannon and Tre Boston. OLB Terrell Suggs is probably the highlight name that has joined the team, with the now 36-year old still able to provide a presence off the edge and contribute with sacks. Jordan Hicks might be the most important free agent that was signed, though. He will go into the middle linebacker role and take on the playcalling duties for the defense. Injuries have been an issue for Hicks in the past, so the Cards will be hoping he’s over them. CB Robert Alford was signed to a decent money deal, but it remains to be seen what his role will be, as his play with the Falcons saw him cut from the team. There were numerous signings for Arizona, but none that you would say are top players, such as Charles Clay, JR Sweezy, Darius Philon and Tramaine Brock. A lot of these were one-year deals as well.
The offense and how it plays will remain a mystery until we see it in action in Week 1. This is why it’s probably a good thing that the Rams don’t meet the Cardinals until Week 13. It gives Wade Phillips and his staff 11 games of film to look at and breakdown and by then any quirks about the scheme should be on show. What we do know is that the QB will be Kyler Murray and his best playmakers are likely to be RB David Johnson and WR Larry Fitzgerald. Johnson was one of the best running backs in the league before an injury slowed him down a bit and then, like everyone in Cardinals red, he had a bad 2018. He should be able to bounce back in 2019 with a better scheme. There’s not really much else to say about Larry Fitzgerald that hasn’t been said. He has been a constant thorn in the side to the Rams and he’s back for possibly one more season. There’s no doubt that he will still be the go-to guy in this receiving group, despite his advancing years. Second-year player Christian Kirk and possibly former Bears WR Kevin White will round out the pass catchers along with the rookies. The offensive line was a mess in 2018 as it was ravaged by injuries. Should they remain healthy, they should at least provide a bit more protection to Murray, but I still expect to see Kyler running for his life in 2019.
The defense will move back to a 3-4 defense just a year after moving into a 4-3. Chandler Jones remains their best pass-rushing threat and will look to extend his streak of seasons with over 10 sacks to 5 years. Terrell Suggs should help share the load in getting after the QB and will keep opposing offensive lines honest coming off either edge. A defensive line of Darius Philon, Corey Peters and Rodney Gunter is stout but doesn’t rank among the elite groups in the league. The back end of the defense has the potential to be good, but the suspension of Patrick Peterson is a huge blow. As mentioned earlier, it probably puts Robert Alford and rookie Byron Murphy into the starting roles for at least the first 6 weeks, which is far from ideal. At safety, Budda Baker and DJ Swearinger are a good group to have as your last line of defense. Swearinger was picked up during the 2018 season after being cut from Washington. At best, I see this group overall as a mid-tier defense. It will be interesting to see how much Vance Joseph can get out of them.
It will be difficult for the Cardinals to be worse than they were in 2018. Almost all of any potential improvement depends on how well the Air Raid offense of Kingsbury translates to the NFL. If it does, Arizona will win more than 3 games in 2019, thought that’s hardly a bold prediction. Kyler Murray will excite the league one way or another. He is extremely dynamic when he has to use his legs, something he’ll probably have to do a lot. He’ll probably wind up as the Offensive Rookie of the Year. I just don’t see enough improvement from this team to even get to 8-8 in a year, although stranger things have happened. As it stands, I expect the Rams to sweep Arizona for the 3rd year running.