By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports NFL Writer
The arizona cardinals have seen this movie before.
Playing without DeAndre Hopkins, the Cardinals and quarterback Kyler Murray went 1-4 down the stretch of the 2021 regular season and limped into the postseason, losing handily to the Los Angeles Rams en route.
Now, Arizona will hope to avoid a disastrous sequel in 2022 after Hopkins was suspended the first six games of next season for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
DeAndre Hopkins suspended
Five-time Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins has been suspended for six games for violating the NFL’s PED policy. Emmanuel Acho reacts to the news.
Under Hopkins in 2021, the Cardinals averaged 30.2 points per game and looked like a Super Bowl contender.
Without Hopkins, Arizona averaged 19.75 points per game and was outscored in an NFC wild-card game.
And Murray’s stats suffered without his best receiver on the field last year, averaging two fewer yards per pass attempt per game.
In games without Hopkins, Murray threw for 228.4 yards per game. Under Hopkins, Murray averaged 284.5 yards per game and was in the league MVP conversation.
Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury acknowledged that he lacked innovation, failing to turn his offense around late last season with Hopkins out.
“I didn’t do a good job, schematically, of adjusting some things that might have taken some of the pressure off Kyler,” Kingsbury told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine. “If you lose a piece like that, you have to find a way to be more creative.
“I have to get better at it. But I think we’ve gotten better every year, offensively. Obviously, I didn’t like the way we ended up, but we have to continue to be creative and try to put Kyler in positions to be successful and surround him with talent. who can make plays.”
The difference between this year and last year is the weather. Hopkins missed the last five games last season with an MCL knee injury that required surgery this offseason. Now, his six-game suspension will present a similar challenge in 2022.
Does Hollywood Brown trade end Kyler Murray-Cardinals feud?
Arizona traded the 23rd overall pick to Baltimore for Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. The deal reunites Brown with college quarterback Kyler Murray. Shannon Sharpe weighs in on the trade.
So, Kingsbury has the offseason to build a productive offense without the services of Hopkins. He has a playmaker to stretch the field in Marquise Brown, Murray’s best friend and former teammate at Oklahoma. The Cardinals gave up their first-round pick in this year’s draft in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens for Brown.
Murray and Brown work out together during the offseason in Dallas. Under his rookie contract, the Cardinals have two more years of controlled salary for Brown. They have already chosen the fifth year option.
Cardinals owner Michael Bidwell flew his personal plane to Las Vegas to pick up Brown and take him to the team’s draft party, according to Cardinals general manager Steve Keim.
Kingsbury can use Brown to create block plays. The speedy brown finished with 91 receptions for 1,008 receiving yards and six touchdowns in his final season in Baltimore.
To create opportunities on the field for Brown, the Cardinals need to lean on James Conner and the running game. The Pittsburgh product finished with 1,127 scrimmage yards and 18 total touchdowns in his first season for Arizona.
Conner signed a one-year, $1.75 million trial deal last season and returned to the Cardinals on a three-year, $21 million deal this season. He will be the workhorse again, with Chase Edmonds heading to the Miami Dolphins in free agency.
“He was probably one of the best free-agent signings in the NFL. I know I’m a little biased,” Keim said of Conner.
Cardinals hope Kyler Murray signs contract extension
Kyler Murray will reportedly sign an extension with the Cardinals before the start of next season. Marcellus Wiley discusses whether the Cardinals should extend quarterback Kyler Murray.
Schematically, look to the Cardinals to potentially run two more tight end sets with Hopkins unavailable. Arizona selected Colorado State tight end Trey McBride in the second round. Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz and Maxx Williams are already on the list.
According to Next Gen Stats, the Cardinals ran two tight end sets 21 percent of the time last season.
“Those two tight ends are getting threats, both of them,” Kingsbury told reporters of McBride and Ertz. “Obviously, Zach is tested, and we think very highly of Trey and what he can do in mismatch situations. So he’s just trying to figure out how we can use all those guys.”
Ultimately, the Cardinals must show their long-term financial commitment to Murray, and he must lead the team on and off the field.
Friction between the Cardinals and Murray’s field appears to have cooled since Murray’s representation issued an ultimatum just before the combine. Murray has two years left on his rookie deal and he wants a new deal that pays him among the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
And the Cardinals seem willing to grant Murray’s wish, just in time.
“Every deal you’ve ever seen done by a rookie quarterback after his junior year has been done from mid-July through September,” Keim told the “Rich Eisen Show” this week. “So, I wanted to go through the draft process, free agency and all the work that we’ve put in, and we can take a step back, refocus and see if we can do something.”
Keim went on to say that Murray has not demanded a trade, nor would he.
The dynamic Murray has pulled the Cardinals out of the doldrums. Since selecting the 5-foot-10 No. 1 quarterback overall in the 2019 draft, Arizona is 24-24-1, including a postseason appearance last season.
The three years before Murray’s arrival, the Cardinals were a combined 18-29-1. Murray should be an integral part of Arizona’s future, but Kingsbury needs to do a better job of helping his quarterback schematically, both in game design and personnel.
And the Cardinals need to find a way to keep Murray healthy, so he’s at his best late in the season for those critical postseason runs.
“Sometimes, you’re going to want to make the big play, whether it’s with your feet or with your arm,” Kingsbury said at the combine. “But when he’s finding control of him, when he’s taking what’s there, the stuff underneath, he’s really efficient and helps our offense.
“It’s tough to play third-and-seven, third-and-nine, but if you’re third-and-five, you have a fighting chance.”
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @eric_d_williams.
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