As the regular season comes to a close, and the Cardinals miss playoffs for a fifth straight season, I can't help but feel that we are moving in the right direction; regardless of how the second half of our season went. Kyler Murray showed flashes that he can be a future MVP, D-Hop proved he is still a top 3 receiver, the defense started to put the pieces together late in the season, and our special teams finally began to mold and impress in the last few games. Despite an 8-8 record, the Cardinals were an exciting team to watch in 2020.
In summary, the Cardinals started off hot; taking down the San Francisco 49ers, the previous Super Bowl runner ups, and the Washington Football Team, the winners of the NFC East. After dropping two games to the Detroit Lions and the Carolina Panthers, the Cardinals went on a mini win streak, taking down the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys 30-10 and 38-10 respectively. After winning a Sunday night overtime thriller with the Seattle Seahawks, the Cardinals would split their next two games, losing to the Miami Dolphins, then beating the Buffalo Bills by a Hail Murray to DeAndre Hopkins. Through the first nine games, the Cardinals found themselves with a 6-3 record, their best mark since the 2015 season where they would finish 13-3. The Cardinals would then drop the next three games against the Seahawks, New England Patriots, and Los Angeles Rams. After picking up wins against the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, the Cardinals would lose their last two games against the 49ers and the Rams. After a 6-3 start, the Cardinals went 2-5 in their last seven games to finish with an 8-8 record. Injuries, play calling, and the overall offensive performance would cause the downfall in the second half of the season. Besides this, there were some players who shined throughout the season; some in the beginning, and some at the end. Listed below are some key players that are going to be pivotal going into the 2021 season:
Photo: Arizona Cardinals
Key Players for 2021
Chase Edmonds - HB
Chase had the best season of his young career. He made impacts in the run and pass game, rushing 97 times for 448 yards and 1 TD, as well as hauling in 53 catches for 402 yards and 4 TDs. He also did a solid job returning kicks 18 times for 412 yards, with a long of 54 yards. In an increased role, I feel Edmonds could be the future bell cow for our offense. Given Kenyan Drake's contract is going to expire, brining Edmonds back will be paramount to maintain some familiarity in our backfield.
Andy Isabella - WR
With the possibility of Larry Fitzgerald retiring, we need to get our wide receiver corps solidified ASAP. Andy brings a lot of speed to an offense that lacks in that area. When Christian Kirk was out against the Lions, Isabella stepped up and made critical plays. He caught 4 passes for 47 and 2 TDs, showing some explosive potential. We could have had a bigger producer and a perfect replacement for Fitz, as Isabella was selected two picks before DK Metcalf in the 2019 draft. I do believe, however, that Andy will be a cornerstone piece in this offense over the next few seasons.
DJ Humphries - LT
What a season for DJ. While letting up only 3 sacks, DJ received a 88.3 PFF grade on the season, ranking him near the top with the likes of David Bakhtiari, Trent Williams, and Garrett Bolles. He was awesome when run blocking and did a great job in pass protection. He is a main reason why our offensive line went from bottom five a year ago to top ten this season. I expect DJ to play even better next year and to be a leader in the trenches.
Zach Allen - Interior DL
Allen erupted towards the end of the season. Our third round pick showed he can be a force in the middle of our defense. Over the last four games, he tallied 21 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 sack, 2 QB hits, and 3 pass deflections. Losing Jordan Phillips and Corey Peters in the second half of the season may have been a blessing in disguise. These injuries gave Zach Allen more playing time and allowed him to blossom. Seeing as Peters will most likely retire this offseason, Allen will pair up with Phillips and Angelo Blackson to anchor the defensive front in 2021.
Haason Reddick - Edge Rusher
Probably my favorite story on the Cardinals this season was the development and improvement of Haason Reddick. In 2017, we drafted him in the first round and immediately moved him to inside linebacker to fill a hole in our defense. After spending two of his first three seasons in this position, and not producing much, the Cardinals declined his fifth year option. Haason saw this as a challenge and went into the season with a goal in mind. Fast-forward to the offseason, Reddick ranks top five in sacks (12.5), TFLs (20), and forced fumbles (6). Most of these stats were in Chandler Jones's absence, so he may have a bigger impact next season with a healthy Jones on the opposite side, assuming we resign Haason or put a franchise tag on him. If not, I could see Haason moving to the Tennessee Titans, where he would have an immediate impact. Hopefully, this doesn't happen the Cardinals bring back the former first rounder.
Isaiah Simmons - LB/Safety Hybrid
What a rollercoaster ride for this guy. After getting torched Week 1 by Raheem Mostert, to making an interception to set us up for a win against the Seahawks in Week 7, to committing game changing penalties against the Patriots and Rams, he definitely had a crazy season. After playing strictly linebacker in pass packages in the beginning of the season, he found more time at safety and nickelback as the year progressed. This allowed Simmons to make plays and be a force in our defense. Due to some penalties later in the year, he saw less playing time. Simmons will be a big time player for our defense for years to come, and I expect he has a breakout season next year.
Photo: Arizona Cardinals
With these key players in mind, there are some other areas that need to be addressed.
Things to Improve On:
Kyler had a weird season. Through the first eight games, he was looking like an MVP candidate, as he was on pace for over 4,000 passing yards, 1,000 rushing yards, and 40 total TDs. He battled injuries through the second half of the season and was not the same threat he was before. His passing game also struggled as he missed multiple throws, especially on third and fourth down, despite ranking 11th in the leag. If Kyler can throw more efficiently and stay in the pocket for longer, instead of trying to scramble the moment he feels pressure, he will generate better passing numbers in 2021.
I love Kliff as a coach. I think he has a great scheme for our offense and has matched up players perfectly. At the same time, some of his play calling is questionable. There were times he chose to kick a field goal with more than enough time on the clock, or he chose to go for it on fourth down instead of kicking a field goal when in the redzone. On 3rd and long, he opted to run it instead of trying to get the first down. On some of these calls, there was little time left in the game. These decisions cost us some games, most notably against the Patriots in Week 12, and the Rams in Week 17. Those are two games that, if he calls better plays, could end up being wins, giving us a 10-6 record and a playoff berth. If this offense wants to reach it's true potential, which we never reached in 2020, Kliff needs to be a more sound play caller.
Our pass defense needs attention in the offseason. With three cornerbacks over the age of 30, and only one star player in Budda Baker, our secondary will look much different next year. I expect the Cardinals to let Peterson, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Johnathan Joseph walk this offseason, leaving us with Byron Murphy Jr. as the only corner who had significant playing time. Deionte Thompson and Jalen Thompson, both of which are safeties, were injured constantly throughout the season and never got settled in our defense. Despite finishing 10th in pass defense, we only faced six opponents in the top half of the league in passing (three of which we saw twice). Four of our opponents also finished in the bottom five for passing. With only two consistent players potentially coming back to our secondary, this will be an area of focus during the offseason.
Special Teams altogether
Our Special Teams needs to be reworked. Besides Aaron Brewer, the long snapper, Andy Lee, the punter, and Ezekiel Turner, our Special Teams weapon, we were inconsistent on all phases. In kick and punt returns, we finished in the bottom ten for total yardage, as well as 18th for kick returns and 29th for punt returns on average. On the flip side, we allowed the 7th most kick return yards and the 14th most punt return yards (there are no average stats for return yards against). We need a real kick and punt return threat, as well as a better kicking game. Nugent did a great job at the end of this season, but he is not a long term solution. I think the Cardinals should go after a rookie in the draft, or pick up someone who recently came into the NFL (Joey Slye, Daniel Carlson, etc.). If we can get a new kicker and a return threat, our special teams will look a lot more threatening in 2021.
Photo: Arizona Cardinals
Given the key players and areas that need to be looked at, we have a lot to look forward to this offseason. We are lacking at some positions and they need to be reinforced by free agents and draft picks.
Positions to be Addressed
If it wasn't clear earlier in this article, corner is a huge need for the Cardinals. We need someone who can come in and play the #1 corner spot, pending we do not bring Pat Pete back next year. Byron is most effective in the slot, so I don't think we will place him there. JC Jackson, a 25 year old who had the second-most interceptions this year (9) and allowed a passer rating of 66.5, is set to be a free agent. In Stephon Gilmore's absence, JC showed he can take on the #1 cornerback role and will shut down most guys he will face. I expect New England to resign him, with Gilmore and Jason McCourty getting up there in age, but you never know. If we can't snag Jackson, Shaquill Griffin of the Seattle Seahawks would be a solid second option. In the draft, we should be targeting either Caleb Farley out of Virginia Tech or Patrick Surtain II out of Alabama. Both players can have an immediate impact and be inserted into the #1 role from day 1.
Besides DJ Humphries, and possibly Josh Jones, our offensive line needs to be improved. Outside of DJ, no offensive lineman on our team had a PFF grade above 70, with only two above 55. Justin Pugh committed 9 penalties, tied for second most in the entire NFL. To boot, three of our linemen are over the age of 30. I would be targeting a younger interior lineman, like Forest Lamp or Ted Karras. I think we are fine at tackle, considering Josh Jones was our go to guy in six linemen packages. If Caleb Farley and Patrick Surtain II are not available, I would go with Wyatt Davis out of Ohio State in the draft.
With Fitz possibly retiring, or not, we need to look for either a true slot or an outside receiver for 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR). Christian Kirk is great playing outside in multiple back or tight end sets, and did a solid job moving to the slot in 11 sets. Since Kirk is successful at both, I think we should target one type of receiver. Corey Davis is an interesting option, but I think he will be too expensive, given his breakout season. John Ross III is also intriguing, and given his lackluster career so far, would be an affordable option for the Cardinals. This would lock up our true slot receiver and give us a kick and punt return threat. If we want to stick with Kirk in the slot, Demarcus Robinson would also be a viable option. Looking towards the draft, there are plenty of receivers to pick from. Rashod Bateman out of Minnesota looks solid, but I would argue to wait a year or two for George Pickens to get into the NFL. No matter where we are in the draft, we should try to trade up and get him. He will be a dominate force in the NFL if he stays on pace with his development.
Photo: Arizona Cardinals
Fitz may retire, Kenyan Drake, Patrick Peterson, De'Vondre Campbell, Haason Reddick, and others are set to become free agents in the offseason, and the Cardinals are projected to have a just north of $20 million in cap space. We will have to be frugal with who we let go and who we go after in free agency.
Some other players to watch out for in 2021 are Dennis Gardeck and Dan Arnold. I believe both can make stronger impacts next season with more playing time. Gardeck was the most efficient pass rusher in the NFL in 2020, and Dan Arnold outplayed most tight ends throughout the final six games of the season. Expect to see more of them next year.
As for the 2020 season, we played up and down to our competition, with our biggest loss being decided by 11 points and our biggest win decided by 28 points. For how "explosive" our offense was supposed to be, three blowouts and an 8-8 record isn't much to show for it. With the right pieces in place and a strong offseason, the Cardinals can be a real threat in the NFL next year and for some time after. Kyler Murray will win MVP at some point, and the Cardinals will hoist the Lombardi Trophy within the next few years.