The last four years for the Arizona Cardinals have been quite the roller coaster under former head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Bad to mediocre to downright awful. And what made things worse? They drafted their supposed franchise QB — and paid him a truckload of cash — who would rather spend time playing video games than lead his team to the playoffs.
After Kyler Murray suffered a torn ACL in Week 14, the Cardinals limped their way to a 4-13 finish. Kliff Kingsbury was then relieved of his coaching duties — a year after signing a five-year extension. But good for him, though, because he gets to take his bland offense and chill in Thailand with a bunch of money he did little to earn.
The Cardinals underwent a lengthy hiring process to find their next head coach. It started by hiring Monti Ossenfort to replace Steve Keim as General Manager. Immediately after the Super Bowl, Ossenfort and the Cardinals named Eagles Defensive Coordinator Jonathan Gannon their new head coach. Shortly after, Gannon hired his new coordinators — Browns QB Coach Drew Petzing as Offensive Coordinator and Eagles LB Coach Nick Rallis as Defensive Coordinator.
The top of the Cardinals coaching tree is set. So how can we prognosticate what the Cardinals can offer us, fantasy managers, in 2023? Let the fun begin.
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What Went Wrong in 2022
Kliff Kingsbury ran the same offense for four years. We could always count on two things: many targets to the team’s WR1 and 10+ TDs to their RB1. Outside of that, this offense was as vanilla as a common milkshake. It was an average offense all around, finishing in the middle of the pack in yards per game (323.5), passing yards per game (213.3), rushing yards per game (110.2), and points per game (20.0). And that was WITH Kyler Murray for 10 full games this year.
DeAndre Hopkins was suspended for the first six games to start the year. Right when he was set to return, offseason acquisition Marquise “Hollywood” Brown suffered an injury and missed the next five games. While DHop and Hollywood managed to play four games together, the trio of Murray, Hopkins, and Brown played just one full game together. The dreams the team had of creating a dynamic passing attack with the Brown trade never materialized.
James Conner had more targets and receptions in 2022 than in 2021 but fewer receiving yards. His yards per carry and efficiency on the ground improved. However, a massive drop in touchdown production spiraled the Cardinals’ running game. Add in the surprise release of Eno Benjamin (not exactly impactful, just weird timing), and this running game was a massive disappointment from previous seasons.
All of this, combined with a defense with the 2nd-worst scoring defense in the league, led to a disastrous 2022. This disaster landed the Cardinals with the 3rd overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Fixing the Arizona Cardinals in 2023
With new coaches come new schemes and new personnel. Ossenfort will sit down with Gannon and his coordinators to evaluate the roster and see what changes need to be made to right this ship going forward. According to Over The Cap, Arizona currently has a little over $14 million in cap space, 10th-most in the league. That number will jump to over $26 million when they release WR Robbie Anderson (an inevitable decision). A few additional moves will need to be made to give the team more cap space to maneuver in free agency, setting the team up for an impactful draft.
There are a couple of things to note for Arizona as we look ahead to 2023. First, the team currently has a projected $78 million in cap space in 2024. We could see a scenario where Ossenfort plays the long game and keeps spending at a minimum this offseason to better their long-term future.
And with Kyler Murray’s current contract, his cap hits will be astronomical in the near future. So it will take some savvy roster construction to put a competitive roster around him to make a run toward the playoffs. And that’ll start with inexpensive contracts. Translation: invest in rookies on cheap deals.
That leads us to the first big move the Cardinals need to make this offseason.
Trade DeAndre Hopkins
Look, I love DHop as much as the next football fan. And even though he’ll be entering his age-31 season in 2023, he’s still one of the best WRs in the league. But he currently has the highest cap hit on the team at $30.75 million. That is almost double the next largest cap hit ($17.87 million). So moving Hopkins leaves $22.6 million in dead cap but saves them over $8 million this year. (A move like this plays into long-term thinking.) In addition, the draft picks the team would get in a move — likely a couple of mid-round picks, given Hopkins’ age and contract — will help with the strategy of building the team with inexpensive contracts.
The money saved in moving Hopkins and releasing Anderson will go towards re-signing a key weapon for Murray.
Extend Hollywood Brown
Brown is heading into Year 5 and currently has a cap hit of $13.413 million. Extending Brown and paying him between $20-$25 million in AAV allows the team to lock in a reliable target for Murray for the foreseeable future. It also lets Arizona manipulate his cap hits early in the contract.
When Hopkins was suspended, Brown was the unquestioned top option in this offense. He averaged 10.7 targets, 7.2 receptions, and 80.8 yards while scoring three touchdowns. For someone that many think isn’t big enough to be a number one wide receiver, Brown’s done well for himself.
What makes this an easy decision for me is the new OC, Drew Petzing. Petzing comes from Cleveland, having worked under Kevin Stefanski in both Cleveland and Minnesota. Stefanski’s style of offense typically features an elite WR option and a top option at TE. The Cardinals re-signed TE Zach Ertz last offseason to a three-year deal. They also drafted last year’s top TE option, Trey McBride, who showed flashes of his ability down the stretch. That leaves room for Brown to play the “Amari Cooper role” in this offense.
The WR1 in Stefanski’s offense the last three years has averaged over seven targets per game. Cooper averaged 7.76 targets per game last year, which accounted for a 24.4% target share. Brown is no stranger to being the unquestioned top option in a run-heavy offense, having spent his first three seasons in Baltimore. His target shares in those years were 16.1% (2019), 24.6% (2020), and 23.9% (2021). So it’s safe to say Brown can handle the role.
Rolling with Hollywood Brown, slot man Rondale Moore, Zach Ertz, and Trey McBride as the team’s top pass catchers, the team is now free to focus on other aspects of building this roster to better compete (and score more fantasy points) in 2023. Free agency should concentrate on reuniting Gannon with some familiar options to help bring his defense to life.
Sign CB James Bradberry and LB T.J. Edwards
For as much crap as I’ve given Jonathan Gannon and his ass-backward way of running a defense, it makes a ton of sense for him to dip into the Eagles’ pool of free agents to make his defense start to click in the desert.
James Bradberry turned in a 2nd team All-Pro performance opposite Darius Slay Jr. in Philadelphia this season under Gannon’s tutelage. He’s an established veteran and is in line for the type of payday that the Eagles just won’t be able to give him. Bradberry’s recent statements on deciding between a new contract that pays him what he’s worth and playing for a chance at a Super Bowl makes me think he’s not taking another team-friendly deal to play opposite Slay once more.
This is where Arizona can pounce. They currently have a good young corner in Byron Murphy and an elite safety in Budda Baker. Bring in a guy like Bradberry who can handle his own and help the established players learn the defense is simple math. This will go a long way in fixing this bottom-two-scoring defense.
Signing T.J. Edwards is admittedly wishful thinking. Gannon’s DC hire of Nick Rallis was instrumental in Edwards becoming one of the best LBs in the league. So following Rallis to Arizona makes all the sense for Edwards to be the leader of Gannon’s defense. This also opens the door for Philadelphia’s 3rd round pick from 2022, Nakobe Dean, to take his rightful place in the middle of Philly’s defense. And that’s something I so desperately want to see.
One last note on defense before I switch gears to the point of this article: Gannon should look at Isaiah Simmons and see his version of Haason Reddick. Simmons is an athletic freak who has been criminally misused to begin his career. Reddick has a similar story. I fully expect Gannon to try Simmons out as a pass rusher. This will hopefully unlock his potential and add some juice to the team’s pass rush.
Target Interior Linemen in Free Agency
According to PFF, the Cardinals were tied for 30th in run block grade as a team. There are 32 teams in the NFL. So, like, they sucked at creating holes for James Conner and company in 2022. Fixing the interior of the offensive line will go a long way toward opening up the running game, which is expected to be at the forefront of Petzing’s play-calling.
The price for elite Guard play in free agency has skyrocketed in recent years. The Cardinals need to be prepared to pay up to fix this problem. More importantly, they need to shop smart and find players who fit the type of scheme that Petzing will deploy. Last year in Cleveland, Stefanski ran a lot more gap concepts than in years past. It wouldn’t be farfetched to expect Petzing to follow suit. Impending free agent Will Hernandez should be a target of theirs, as should Cowboys RB Connor McGovern. Both were in the top half of Guards in Run Block grade on Gap concepts via PFF.
Sign RB D’Ernest Johnson and QB Jacoby Brissett
Much like Gannon did on defense, bringing in Bradberry and Edwards, who know his system, it makes sense to go after an offensive piece or two that know the type of system that will be deployed. James Conner has been the unquestioned workhorse for Kingsbury’s Cardinals for the last two seasons. With Petzing now running the offense, I expect more of a split to rotate backs and keep defenses honest.
Conner is skilled as a pass catcher and has the size to run between the tackles effectively. Bringing in D’Ernest Johnson to compliment Conner helps keep him fresh. It also provides the offense with a back who averages 5.2 yards per carry over his career in this system. Arizona can likely sign Johnson for a reasonable amount (three years at $3-$4 million per year is very doable). And after only four carries in 2022, a year after registering 100 carries, Johnson is probably eager for a fresh start. In addition, signing Johnson frees up the need to use their limited draft capital on a running back.
Jacoby Brissett is becoming something of a nomadic spot-starter QB. With stops in Indianapolis, Miami, and Cleveland over the last three years, landing in Arizona to fill in for Kyler Murray as he recovers from his torn ACL is just par for the course.
Brissett was somewhat effective while filling in for DeShaun Watson last year. He completed 64.4% of his passes and finished 8th in the league in QBR. Inserting him into an offense he already knows, with effective pass catchers and a solid duo at RB, will help get the offense on track in Murray’s absence. Brissett is also a respected figure in the locker room and should have no problem gaining the team’s respect. (This is under the assumption that Colt McCoy retires, which remains a possibility as he’ll be 37 this year.)
Draft Day targets
Sitting at the 3rd overall pick, it’s fair to assume the Cardinals will have their choice of elite defensive talent with teams trying to trade up for their QB. This also raises the idea that Arizona could trade back and accumulate additional draft picks to supplement their team-building prospects.
Assuming they stay at three, the pick is likely DT Jalen Carter or EDGE Will Anderson Jr. Both could fit seamlessly into Gannon’s defense. Last season, the Eagles led the league (by a large margin) in sacks and got production from all over the line. Carter can bring the pressure from the interior, the same way Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox did. Anderson can bring the pressure from the edge, like Haason Reddick, Josh Sweat, and Brandon Graham did. Whoever the pick is, it’ll be a significant first step in getting the defense back to respectability.
As for the rest of the draft, they’ll need to target a potential outside WR to pair with Hollywood Brown and additional depth across the offensive line. And that’s before getting to the defense. The bad news? They currently have only five picks, including the aforementioned number three overall pick. The good news? They’re in line for several composition picks and can add some additional mid-round picks if they trade DeAndre Hopkins and (maybe) Zach Ertz.
2023 Season Outlook
With a new offense comes new expectations. Switching to a style of play similar to the 2020-2022 Cleveland Browns doesn’t exactly make my pants get tighter. Still, there will certainly be some offensive performances to enjoy if the Cardinals make some of the moves mentioned above.
A legitimate WR1 in this Cardinals offense will have top-15 upside. While the RB1 won’t be on the same level as Browns star Nick Chubb, they should be able to muster a strong RB2 campaign. Add in the fact the TE will be involved heavily for fantasy managers that crave quality TEs, and you’ll have some players to help you win your leagues.
Little is known as to when Kyler Murray will return from his torn ACL. Murray had surgery on January 3rd, And a typical recovery time is roughly nine months. But Murray also suffered damage to his meniscus, which could mean he may not return until October or November. So I don’t expect Murray to be ready for the beginning of the season. And if that’s the case, many of the Cardinals’ weapons will likely see discounts on draft day.
Remember how cheap Amari Cooper was in drafts in 2022 because Deshaun Watson was slated to miss 12 games? He still finished as the WR10 on the season. If the Cardinals can bring in Brissett to lead the team in lieu of Murray’s return, Hollywood Brown and the other weapons will be just fine.
We might not be able to fix every team this offseason, but you can click here to see who else we fixed!