The NFC West has become a meat grinder in recent years. In just the past five years, all four teams have won the division at least once. Five of the last eight NFC representatives in the Super Bowl have hailed from the West, including the San Francisco 49ers in 2019.
In the debut seasons of both head coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray last year, the Arizona Cardinals won just five games and brought up the rear in the division. But the Redbirds could be poised to make some noise in football's toughest division in 2020—and if they do, it will be because Arizona's offense has the makings of a unit to be reckoned with.
The Cardinals made the single biggest splash of the 2020 offseason by pulling off a trade that was less transaction than it was thievery. For the cost of a highly paid, injury-prone tailback in David Johnson and a pair of draft picks (a second-rounder in 2020 and fourth-rounder in 2021) the Cardinals pilfered superstar wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a 2020 fourth-round pick from the Houston Texans.
Over the last five seasons, Hopkins has been one of the most productive wideouts in the NFL. In four of those five years, Hopkins has eclipsed 1,100 yards. Hopkins' average stat line over that span is 101 catches, 1,318 yards and nine scores.
That's pretty good.
Hopkins gives Murray a true No. 1 receiver—a go-to guy in the passing game who is open whether he's open or not. And as former Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner (who rode go-to wideout Larry Fitzgerald all the way to a berth in Super Bowl XLIII) told a Phoenix radio station, having a guy like Hopkins can make all the difference in the world for a young quarterback.
Warner said, via Kellan Olsen of Arizona Sports:
"Having a No. 1, having a difference-maker—and for me, with a young quarterback and really for any quarterback—having a guy where you say to yourself, 'There is no bad matchup for DeAndre Hopkins.' There's not a guy out there that you say to yourself, 'Well, if that guy's guarding him we don't have the advantage. And so that's where it starts is that for any quarterback you want to make the game as easy as possible, and the best way to make it easy for a quarterback is to go, 'Oh, DeAndre Hopkins is one-on-one? Forget about everything else! Throw it to that guy!' You can simplify the game for a young quarterback."
It's not like Hopkins is walking into a terrible receiving corps, either. Fitzgerald may not be the dominant wideout he once was (Hopkins and Fitz in his prime playing together? That would have been something to see), but even at 36 years old, he remains a reliable target underneath who caught 75 passes in 2019. Christian Kirk has shown flashes of potential in his two NFL seasons, and at just 23 years old, Kirk's best football is ahead of him. Ditto for slot wideout Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler, who sat out his rookie season with a broken hand.
It's a group that possesses both considerable depth and talent. But as ESPN's Josh Weinfuss reported, over the past three years, Arizona receivers have averaged just 11.7 yards per catch. In 2019, Arizona wideouts managed just 8.9 air yards per target—last in the NFL.
The Cardinals needed a player who could stretch the field. A vertical threat. Hopkins fits that bill and then some. Last year's 11.2 yards per reception notwithstanding, Hopkins has averaged at least 13.7 yards a grab five times in seven seasons.
Of course, a receiving corps is only as good as its quarterback. Murray's rookie season wasn't flawless, but it was pretty good. The No. 1 overall pick in 2019 completed over 64 percent of his passes, topped 3,700 passing yards and threw 20 touchdown passes. He also added 544 yards on the ground, joining Cam Newton as the only rookie signal-callers in NFL history in the 3,500/500 club on the way to being named Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Murray improved steadily as his rookie season wore on, and there's ample reason to think that Hopkins' arrival could spur a big second-year leap. Per Darren Urban of the team's website, Murray seems to think so—Kingsbury said he's itching to get to work with his new teammate.
"He's through the roof," Kingsbury said. "He's excited, and he can't wait to get back and get things rolling."
Young quarterbacks can also benefit greatly from a strong ground game. The Cardinals were 10th in the league in rushing last year at 124.4 yards per game, and the team should once again be stout in that regard—compliments of another gift.
After three-plus ho-hum years in Miami, tailback Kenyan Drake was dealt from the Dolphins to the Cardinals for a conditional pick in October. In his first game with Arizona, Drake rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown against the 49ers. He had two more 100-yard rushing efforts for the Cardinals, gained over five yards per carry, caught 28 passes in eight contests and averaged over 100 total yards per game.
That performance showed enough that Arizona slapped the transition tag on the 26-year-old, and Drake already signed that tender—meaning that while he can still work on a long-term deal with the Cardinals, Drake cannot negotiate with other teams.
All told, Murray has the best assemblage of skill-position talent around him of any team in the NFC West. And it can be argued that it's as good as any team's in the NFL.
There's still work to be done. Arizona's offensive line ranked 21st in run blocking and 26th in pass protection in 2019, per Football Outsiders. That needs to improve. Arizona also ranked 24th overall in passing and 18th in yards per attempt in part because Kingsbury's offense features a lot of quick, short passes. To take full advantage of all those weapons, the second-year coach needs to open things up more. Attack defenses down the field.
But while Arizona didn't make any significant additions up front, it also didn't suffer any major losses. With the arrival of Hopkins and the Cardinals' need for wideout help greatly reduced, the eighth overall pick in the 2020 draft could be used to add one of this year's top tackle prospects—a notion that has gained a ton of steam in recent mock drafts.
It was Kingsbury's offensive acumen that got him the job in Arizona and Murray's potential that got his name called first in last year's draft. Now, the table appears set for both to be maximized.
Is it guaranteed that the Cardinals will take a massive step forward offensively in 2020 and challenge the Niners and Seahawks in the NFC West? No.
But some of the oddsmakers in Las Vegas like their chances. At the William Hill sportsbook, only four players have better odds of winning the NFL MVP award in 2020 than Murray. His odds are better than Drew Brees'. And Aaron Rodgers'. And Dak Prescott's.
Given what the Cardinals have achieved this offseason and the fact that the last two MVPs were second-year quarterbacks, it's probably not wise to bet against him.