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The Cardinals aced the offseason, and Kyler Murray could be an MVP candidate



Yes, the Cardinals. They aced a major trade, free agency and the draft. In total, coming off a promising first year of the union between Coach Kliff Kingsbury and Murray, their offseason catalyzed a radical and swift reinvention.

Arizona General Manager Steve Keim pulled off the deal of the offseason by acquiring superstar wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins from the Houston Texans. More quietly, the Cardinals overhauled an atrocious defense with targeted free agent signings. The draft fell perfectly for them, highlighted by eighth overall pick Isaiah Simmons, a singular talent who fits exactly what they needed.

Keim tries not to hold expectations. While he called the offseason “tremendous,” he emphasized that names on a roster mean nothing before games begin. But he also set out this offseason not to continue rebuilding but to make the Cardinals an immediate force.

“Philosophically, you have to say: ‘The moment is now. Let’s strike,’” Keim said. “You have to be extremely aggressive. You can’t sit back and wait. As long as everything pans out, you’re hoping that you’re paying this quarterback an exorbitant amount of money in three years.”

Both Keim’s faith and urgency started with Murray, the 2019 first overall pick. Murray absorbed blows typical of a quarterback’s rookie season but also flashed a unique combination of passing touch and foot speed, which Kingsbury’s scheme fully unlocks. And the past two years have shown how much a uniquely gifted quarterback, when properly supported, can flourish in his second season.

Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson share little stylistic overlap, but in broad contour the past two NFL MVPs possess striking similarities. They were first-round quarterbacks. They won the MVP in their second seasons in overwhelming fashion despite entering the season as long shots. Their franchises embraced their unique skills, dismissed their alleged flaws and constructed their entire operation around them.

Looking for the next quarterback who plays like Mahomes or Jackson on the NFL horizon is folly, but they have provided a formula for identifying the league’s next breakout quarterback and therefore the NFL’s next breakout team. The quarterback who fits the template precisely happens to lead the team that, in the aftermath of the draft, boasts perhaps the best offseason facelift in the NFL.

Murray was at the center of the Cardinals’ offseason, at least indirectly. He provides the roster-building bonanza of a quarterback on a rookie contract, which Keim said allowed him salary cap freedom for the first time in his Arizona tenure.

The cap flexibility opened the possibility of taking on Hopkins when the Texans made him available. Adding Hopkins at any price would have been considered a windfall. To acquire him for fading star running back David Johnson and a second-round pick was an absolute heist. They will have to give Hopkins an expensive new contract, but paying stars is the spoil of starting a quarterback on a rookie deal. The Cardinals gave Murray one of the best wide receivers in the league without taking anything essential away.

“To me, looking at our offense, being able to add a perimeter receiver like him in the prime of his career is something that is pretty unusual, to say the least,” Keim said.

Keim found a rare opportunity. Texans Coach Bill O’Brien also serves as Houston’s general manager, and he has been uncommonly willing to part with major assets. Not many teams would have been willing to take Johnson’s contract, which will pay him $11 million in 2020, a year after the 28-year-old lost his primary role to Kenyan Drake.

“Every team values people differently,” Keim said. “I think that Bill O’Brien probably valued David Johnson pretty highly. You go back to 2016, he showed the ability to be an elite running back. The way Bill uses his offense, David could be a really good fit. … The bottom line is, the way the Texans are structured and many of the things they have coming up from a salary cap standpoint, they were willing to move on from DeAndre.”

Keim entered the offseason primarily focused on fixing Arizona’s defense, which ranked last in yards allowed and fifth worst in points allowed. For a unit with cornerback Patrick Peterson and edge rusher Chandler Jones, high-end talent was not the problem. But Keim identified three areas for improvement: The Cardinals were awful covering tight ends, weak against the run and needed more pass rush. They signed inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, whose speed allows him to match up with tight ends. They added pass rusher Devon Kennard to play opposite Jones, and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips as a reliable run-stopper.

Then the draft fell perfectly for them, and Simmons — whom Keim said he had in the top five on his board — landed in their laps. Simmons can change a defense by himself; his athleticism and versatility allow him to line up anywhere and do anything. He is particularly well suited to cover tight ends, which is an acute advantage in the same division as San Francisco 49ers star George Kittle.

The Cardinals didn’t have a second-round pick because of the Hopkins trade, but if they did, they might have used it to take the player they scored in the third round. Many mock drafts pegged offensive tackle Josh Jones as a possible late first-rounder. The Cardinals chose him with the 72nd overall pick — and Keim said they probably have taken him 40th overall with the pick they sent to Houston.

“He would have been in consideration at 40,” Keim said. “As far as he was sticking out on our board, it would have been hard for him not to be the pick. He was a guy that was in our top 30.”

Keim disagreed with the widespread concern about Arizona’s offensive line, viewing many of the 50 sacks it allowed as avoidable once Murray learns how to harness his playmaking ability. But Josh Jones’s arrival could nonetheless provide a boost for Murray. The same could be said for seventh-round running back Eno Benjamin, whose elusiveness makes him a good bet to carve a role right away behind Drake.

Keim felt confident in the Cardinals’ draft not despite forced changes to the process because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but because of them. The Cardinals, he said, will retain by choice many of the practices they employed by necessity.

“Flying from Arizona to Clemson, South Carolina, to meet with Isaiah Simmons when you wasted a whole day and you could have talked to six or seven players in that day on a conference call or a video chat,” Keim said. “Isaiah Simmons, we talked to him probably three days a week on a video chat. I also think doing it that way, a lot of coaches became more familiar with the prospects in terms of developing relationships, getting to know them a little better.”

The digital meetings made his spring more efficient and allowed him to study more film. Those sessions gave Keim more confidence and made his evaluations sharper, less cluttered by an overload of information gathered away from the field.

“You go out and you fall in love with a player in the fall because you’re watching the tape and you’re evaluating his skill as a football player,” Keim said. “Now all of a sudden we’ve confused ourselves in the spring because we’re worried about how big his arm is or how long his arms are or how fast he runs the three-cone. Unfortunately, we don’t run the three-cone at 1 p.m. on Sunday.”

For all the pieces the Cardinals added in the offseason, “You obviously need to have the No. 1 priority, which is the quarterback,” Keim said. The Cardinals gambled when they made Murray the shortest quarterback drafted — not drafted first overall, just drafted, period — since at least 2000. But his blend of skills was a perfect fit for Kingsbury, the coach Keim trusted to modernize the Cardinals’ offense even after Texas Tech fired him.

Murray is still the Cardinals’ primary source of hope. Quarterbacks with elite, singular talent have taken over the league in their second seasons. Mahomes spent almost his entire rookie season on the bench. The Ravens used Jackson as a gadget until Joe Flacco’s injury thrust him into starting. Murray already has one frequently dazzling season under his belt. It seems hasty to consider him a potential MVP candidate, but in the NFL, the moment usually arrives faster than you see it coming.

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