This article originally appeared in the 2020 Gridiron Annual – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE
Rumours started to leak on social media in mid-June, before being confimed by various members of the Arizona Cardinals on their Instagram stories over the next 72 hours. New wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was first to break rank, uploading a video of himself driving into the Dallas area. He was quickly followed by Chase Edmonds eating barbecue in the small town of Colony; KeeSean Johnson, Darrell Daniels and A.J. Richardson in Frisco, and Christian Kirk signing autographs in a restaurant opposite the Dallas Cowboys’ 91-acre, $1.5billion facility, The Star. But where was the hard evidence for fans? Where were the pictures confiming that, despite the COVID-19 restrictions, the Kyler Murray-arranged offnsive mini-camp was really happening?
They didn’t have to wait long.
Eagle Stadium, about a 20-minute drive east from The Star, is hard to miss. One of the biggest, most expensive high-school facilities in America, it’s where Murray played his prep football. Given its location not only in terms of proximity to a major airport – Dallas Fort Worth – but also geographically towards the middle of the United States, it was a natural landing spot for 20 of his teammates to gather for the first time and put into practice the things they’ve learned in their virtual offeason.
Although the Cardinals aren’t the only team to have benefited from player-only workouts – Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, Josh Allen in Miami and Russell Wilson in California have all spent time running something akin to mini-camps for their teams – the fact that Murray, in just his second year, flew everyone in, put them up at a hotel and took care of the meals over a four-day period at a personal cost of more than $40,000, speaks volumes about just how seriously he’s trying to justify the expectations he and his team are facing. And the enthusiasm is rubbing off.
“We’re so excited,” running back Kenyan Drake enthuses to Gridiron. “With everything going on in the world, I can confiently look at our team and the supporting cast around us – offnse, defensive, special teams, the medical and coaching staff – I feel like we have a great team. We just have to deliver between the lines. But I’m very confient in the individuals we have.”
That enthusiasm permeating the locker room perhaps explains why so many players answered their quarterback’s call.
“Mentally, it’s that feeling of, football’s here, we’re back in camp, we’re back in OTAs and we’re homing in on one goal, and that’s to get better,” said Murray. “I think, honestly, the main focal point is improving our dropback passing game, which was mediocre last season. We made strides — both as a team and myself personally — late on in the year, not taking sacks, throwing it away, those sorts of things but, once we take that next step, we’ll be even more dangerous.”
If Murray’s Cardinals are going to take that leap towards competitiveness in 2020, a lot of expectation hangs on his young shoulders. So, the question is, after a 5-10-1 record a year ago, can he take the desert rebuild into a new phase?
“I don’t like to speak on what I might do,” added the defending NFL Rookie of the Year. “I just want to go out and let my play speak for itself. But know this: I live, breathe and eat football. I can’t wait to get out there with the guys and win games. The goal is to win a Super Bowl and bring it back to Arizona. That’s what we’re focused on.”
“I’ve spent the last few weeks watching his highlights. In fact, I’ve watched Kyler’s highlights more than I’ve watched anyone else’s in my career!”
A Super Bowl run in 2020 seems a little far-fetched, even for the prodigiously talented signal-caller. That said, a strong offeason overseen by GM Steve Keim and head coach Klif Kingsbury has put Arizona in a good position in the ultra-competitive NFC West, headlined by the remarkable trade they pulled with the Houston Texans for four-time All-Pro wideout Hopkins, and the selection of do-it-all Clemson star Isaiah Simmons in the fist round of April’s draft. But it’s Hopkins that really has fans and teammates excited.
“I’m super excited to play with D-Hop,” said a smiling Murray. “I know what kind of player he is, I know what kind of dawg he is, and what type of heart he has. So being able to bring him in alongside the weapons we already have in Larry [Fitzgerald], Christian [Kirk] and Kenyan, that’s huge for us.”
It’s hard to understate what a tremendous deal that was for Keim in terms of value – Houston swapped him and this year’s fourth-round pick for running back David Johnson, a second-round selection in 2020 and a fourth-rounder next year. Even in a year when Hopkins’s statistics dipped relative to his high standard of 2018, most decision-makers in the NFL see him as a transformative player. In seven seasons as a pro, he has surpassed 1,100 receiving yards five times and caught 54 touchdown passes while becoming the second youngest receiver to amass 600 receptions and finishing 2018 with career highs in catches (115) and yards (1,572). His presence will invigorate an offense that began to find its identity in the second half of last season as they improved from dead last in 2018 to 16th in Kingsbury’s first campaign. And, for Hopkins, who found out he was being traded while working out in California with Julio Jones – “we both smiled” – it offers a chance to continue plying his trade with an exciting young quarterback boasting big upside.
“It’s very exciting,” he told reporters after the trade was announced. “Kyler is very similar to Deshaun Watson. They both make plays with their feet, keep their eyes downfield, very strong arms. I’ve spent the last few weeks watching his highlights. In fact, I’ve watched Kyler’s highlights more than I’ve watched anyone else’s in my career!”
So, how does the former Texan feel about his place in Kingsbury’s version of the Air Raid, a system he’s unfamiliar with?
“I’ve played with people who’ve played in Kliff ’s offense, so I understand it,” said Hopkins. “I’ve been leaning on a lot of players who’ve played in that scheme before to get me up to speed: Andre Ellington, Dylan Cantrell, those guys. Communication is key and it’s going to take a lot of meetings outside the facility between now and the start of the season. Kyler and I together have been in touch a lot going over the offense, so I think we’ll be fine.”
And that brings us back to those impromptu workouts at Eagle Stadium, which was the first time he and Murray had met in person. One source familiar with the four day mini-camp told Gridiron that the pair stayed late each day to work on hand signals and checks, and get some extra throws in. So, on paper at least, the offense is in good shape. Yet questions remain on the other side of the ball.
“I was really winging it at the start, and I think that was reflected in our record in the first month. The whole game was moving a lot faster than it ever was at Allen or Oklahoma.”
Vance Joseph’s unit fiished 2019 last in total defense, 28th in points allowed and in the bottom quadrant of most other major categories. While it’s not easy to go from poor to above average in one year, Keim poured the majority of his offeason resources into the unit, which has led multiple players to speak out in praise, not only of the changes, but also about an optimism flowing through the spring Zoom meetings. Their confience is borne out of a marked improvement shown in the final month of the season, as Arizona allowed 329 yards and 22.8 points per game.
“Do those last four games mean anything?” said star corner Patrick Peterson. “You’re damn right it means something. Vance knows what works. He knows what certain players like. He’s going to run with that, and I believe that, if we can do that for 17 weeks, keep teams out of the end zone and hold them to that 15-point mark — which is our goal every Sunday — we can be a top-tier defense.”
If that’s to happen, Keim will need his free agent signees – talented DT Jordan Phillips (Buffalo), ILB De’Vondre Campbell (Atlanta) and edge Devon Kennard (Detroit) – to hit the ground running. The Cardinals’ front seven had serious issues last year and it’s going to need another superhuman effort from Chandler Jones to make them relevant. The former Patriot, who was recently named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team, recorded 19 sacks last season to go along with 13 in 2018 and 17 the year before, taking his career total to 96 and making him one of the most under-the-radar Hall of Fame candidates of a generation. How does he feel ahead of the new system and the onus placed on his shoulders?
“Vance’s system really suits me,” he told Gridiron. “I feel like I’ve got more freedom than at any point in my career to get after the quarterback. And I’m just older, more experienced. I know what it takes to get the job done.”
One player who’ll be required to get the job done early is eighth overall pick Simmons – who Peterson believes can be Budda Baker’s sidekick as a versatile piece in the middle of the field. “Watching a guy like that in college, you can’t not draft him,” said the All-Pro corner. “He was so much fun on Saturdays, so scheme diverse and so athletic that he’s going to be a huge star for us.”
The question is of position. Joseph is already on record saying that the former Clemson star will primarily be a linebacker in his 3-4 front, but the versatility that made him such an outstanding college player will surely have to be utilised in a more imaginative way. Not since Tyrann Mathieu have Arizona had someone this athletic to potentially play across the formation, and his ability at safety could be key given how frequently tight ends exploited the position last season in scoring a combined 16 touchdowns on the Cards.
As much as Simmons can be a difference-maker alongside household names like Jones and Peterson, budding stars like Baker, and young talents such as last year’s second-round pick Byron Murphy and a pair of 2020 fourth-rounders, Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence, the Cardinals’ fortunes will ultimately live and die on the shoulders of their young quarterback. As Murray reflected on his four days in Texas, he was honest on where both he and the team are heading going into the new season.
“It’s amazing watching back the fim and seeing things that I didn’t see then that I know now,” he added. “Even in the Zoom meetings and seeing stuff before Coach even says anything, I already know I should have done this or that. I know that, the more you play, the more things click – and I thought that was starting to happen. I look back and I was really seeing the field cleaner later on in the year. The game slowed down for me and I started to really understand what opponents were doing. I was really winging it at the start, and I think that was reflected in our record in the first month (0-3-1). The whole game was moving a lot faster than it ever was at Allen or Oklahoma.”
With training camp and the season still up in the air because of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, Murray’s goal between now and when Arizona finally hit the field is simple: get better. “I was built for the quarantine life,” he laughs. “I don’t really go outside anyway, other than to work out and throw the football. But I don’t see COVID hindering any progression or success that we might have. I’m still going to grind every day, lifting and running, keeping the arm loose. It’s not hard to find good receivers in the state of Texas to throw to every day, so I’m just sticking to the routine. I know, if I keep being me, the sky’s the limit.”
This article originally appeared in the 2020 Gridiron Annual – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE