Most NFL teams enter the 2019 campaign dreaming of making a lengthy postseason run. That isn’t necessarily the goal for the Cardinals. The most important thing Kliff Kingsbury can do this season is to make sure that Kyler Murray’s career gets off to a good start.
In many ways, wins and losses are irrelevant for Arizona this year. Cardinals fans shouldn’t get too caught up in whether or not their favorite team will go over or under their projected win total of 5.5 this season. It would be nice to rack up some impressive wins to build momentum for 2020, but the franchise needs to make sure Murray is the potential All-Pro quarterback they believe he can become.
Kingsbury’s high-octane offensive system will definitely give the former Oklahoma star a lot of opportunities to show off his talent. The Cardinals are going to spread the field at every opportunity. That means Murray will have plenty of chances to throw the ball and use his feet to make big plays on the ground. It’s safe to assume that Arizona’s coaching staff will largely tailor their offensive philosophy on what Murray does well.
Even though Murray was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, it’s important for Cardinals fans to temper their expectations for him as a rookie. One big issue is the lack of quality present in Arizona’s offensive line. This group was one of the weakest units in the league in 2018. There are valid reasons to think they’ll improve this year, but anything better than a middle of the pack performance would be a major surprise.
The good news is that the Cardinals do have significant talent at some of their skill positions. David Johnson struggled under Steve Wilks last year, but his diverse skill set should show up well in Kingsbury’s new offense. He can take pressure off of Murray on the ground and as a release valve in the passing game. Safe throws to Johnson should be a staple part of Arizona’s offense in the early going.
Murray’s group of wide receivers also has a chance to develop into an above average unit. Larry Fitzgerald is the biggest name on the roster, but his skills are on the decline. Even so, his large catch radius should help Murray overcome the sort of inaccuracy that rookie quarterbacks usually display.
Two young receivers have the potential to grow into the NFL along with Murray. Christian Kirk enjoyed a good, but not great rookie season in 2018. The expectation in the desert is that he will become the team’s No. 1 wideout this year. He certainly has that kind of talent, but he needs to become more consistent in his sophomore season.
The Cardinals also plucked Andy Isabella out of UMass in the second round of this year’s draft. He lacks the size to play outside at just 5-foot-9, but he’s got the speed and explosiveness to be productive in the slot. It might take him some time to adjust to life in the NFL, but look for him to be a key for Murray during the second half of the season.
When calibrating expectations for Murray’s rookie year it’s instructive to look at two rookie quarterbacks from last year’s class. Baker Mayfield is obviously the guy the Cardinals hope Murray compares favorably to this year. The commonalities between both players are obvious. Both played at Oklahoma. Both are extremely accurate passers who lack the ideal height to succeed in the NFL.
The difference between the two largely lies in their mobility. Mayfield isn’t a statue, but he isn’t a guy who makes a ton of plays outside the pocket. Murray is absolutely a quarterback who is comfortable in the pocket, but he’ll look to throw on the move more than Mayfield in the Cardinals’ offensive scheme.
Hoping for a Mayfield style rookie season is a little ambitious for the Cardinals. Instead, Arizona fans should use Sam Darnold as a barometer. He enjoyed an up and down rookie year with the Jets, but his play down the stretch really picked up. Darnold isn’t all that similar to Murray as a player, but his rookie campaign serves as a more realistic expectation of what Cardinals fans should expect from their high-profile rookie.
Ultimately, Murray is going to put up big statistics right away for this offense. The ball will be in his hands starting on Week 1 and he’ll get a ton of passing attempts. He’s got too much talent not to complete his share of throws. The real number Cardinals fans need to watch is his interception total. That, more than raw yards, will be the key statistic for him this year.
In the end, expect Murray to comfortably go over 4,000 yards passing. Unfortunately, he’s also going to comfortably go over 10 interceptions playing behind this questionable offensive line. Cardinals fans can safely expect a lot of highs and a fair amount of lows from Murray this season. Throwing for 4,250 yard and 15 interceptions feels like a solid prediction for his first season in the pros.