In shortened offseason, team younger at inside linebacker, Watt impact felt Darren Urban
The Cardinals are essentially off until training camp in late July. There was more on-field work than last year, thank goodness, but still it wasn't the same as a pre-pandemic scenario. Nevertheless, gleaning tidbits here and there -- by what was done, by what was said -- was still possible. So here's what came out of the 2021 offseason, and how it figures into the Cards' trajectory heading into training camp.
THE PLAYERS CHOSE TO WORK WITH A SHORTENED OFFSEASON
What the NFL offseason will look like a year from now -- with COVID, hopefully, fully under control -- will be something to watch. The players and their union made a deliberate push to shrink on-field work (and its intensity) during offseason months, leading to a third version of what the offseason looked like in three years. Kyler Murray, who was part of the full offseason as a rookie, the on-field absence in 2020 and now the abbreviated three-OTAs, earlier minicamp 2021, said he preferred the 2020 version. Everything besides the minicamp is voluntary, and it will be interesting to see how this continues to develop and whether there is a league-wide consensus or if players from each franchise will have to negotiate with each head coach for details as they did this offseason.
INSIDE LINEBACKER IS ABOUT THE FUTURE AND POTENTIAL
When the Cardinals drafted Isaiah Simmons in 2020, they had a rangy piece for the interior of their front seven. But when Zaven Collins was the No. 1 draft pick in 2021, there was an all-in approach to how the Cardinals were building the defense, their own version of units like the Patrick Willis-NaVarro Bowman 49ers or the Bobby Wagner-K.J. Wright Seahawks. Simmons, hurt by no on-field offseason work (or preseason games) as a rookie, took some time to get on the field. Collins, with on-field work available this offseason and three preseason games coming, was immediately installed as a starter. Veteran Jordan Hicks will be a reserve at best, it looks like, as Collins-Simmons will be manning the middle of the 3-4 -- for the good, and the inevitable hiccups their inexperience will bring.
THE CHANDLER JONES SITUATION IS ONE TO WATCH
The smile seems omnipresent on the face of Chandler Jones when he's around. That's just his personality. The sacks also are omnipresent, when Jones is healthy. That's what the Cardinals are counting on now that Jones is back after his biceps tear ruined his 2020 season. The wrinkle, of course, is that Jones is going into the final year of his contract. He did not attend the mandatory minicamp, although coach Kliff Kingsbury acknowledged the team had conversations with Jones. You assume as far as minicamp goes, the sides were on the same page. It doesn't make sense that Jones would sit out, given that he lost so much of his 2020 season, but as both players and organizations often say, the NFL is a business. How that impacts the Cardinals' top pass rusher will be one of the storylines to watch going into camp.
J.J. WATT HAS ALREADY MADE AN IMPACT
The Cardinals need newcomer J.J. Watt to produce as a defensive lineman, and his ability to do that won't be known until the games begin to count. But there is little question Watt, who arrived for the aforementioned voluntary OTAs and minicamp, has already left an imprint. His energy was apparent on the practice field, engaging teammates. On social media we learned of his interactions with teammates off the field. These are the additional benefits a team likes to see when a player gets a big contract. Again, it won't matter if Watt can't produce on the field, but the odds are strongly in the Cards' favor on that one as well.
BYRON MURPHY IS THE TOP CORNERBACK, AND ROBERT ALFORD ISN'T GOING AWAY
Much of what was talked about BPPL -- before Patrick Peterson left -- was putting Byron Murphy Jr. in his comfort area of slot cornerback. But APPL, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph made it clear that even with the signing of veteran Malcolm Butler , it is Murphy that stands as the top cornerback in the room. What does that mean? Well, Murphy might get plenty of outside work, especially in a base defense. And we'll see how the rest of the defensive back rotation might go. Robert Alford is going to push hard to have a role after missing two seasons with injuries. Butler finished his 2020 season pretty well. Cornerback is still the position most in the spotlight going into camp, but the Cards are hopeful they aren't in too bad a place APPL.
THE ROOKIES WILL HAVE A CHANCE TO PLAY
We've already mentioned Zaven Collins, so that's a given. But second-round wide receiver Rondale Moore is going to be given every opportunity to have a role in the offense as a piece Kliff Kingsbury has been seeking since he showed up in Arizona. What happens with others -- particularly cornerbacks Marco Wilson and Tay Gowan -- may simply depend on what the veterans do in front of them, although seeing Wilson and/or Gowan on special teams early and often wouldn't be a surprise. Moore will be given the chance to be the dynamic return guy the Cardinals have needed.
KYLER MURRAY HAS SOME STRONG FEELINGS ABOUT RUNNING
It's a simple equation, really, for Murray and the Cardinals' offense. Improving the passing game to the point where the Murray can run to hurt opposing defenses but doesn't have to do it to make the Cards' offense function is an end goal the quarterback would like to reach. There is no question Murray can mess up a defense with his legs. There is also no question that, like any QB who will run, each attempt is another chance for a defender to produce a hit that will hurt and/or turn that QB less effective. Some of this falls to Murray, who needs to continue to improve as a passer. Some of that falls to the duo of Chase Edmonds and James Conner, who need to do well enough in the running game that Murray is, as he put it, a "luxury" as a runner.
THE FUTURE OF LARRY FITZGERALD (SOMEHOW) STILL DOESN'T HAVE CLARITY
At this point, sure, it seems hard to believe Larry Fitzgerald walks back in the door, considering all the additions made in the wide receiver room. But never say never. And until Fitz says something publicly, it's still an unknown. At first, you were thinking something would be said by the end of February, or at least before free agency started. Then something before the draft sounded necessary. But Kingsbury and Steve Keim have said repeatedly they have yet to hear from Fitz his choice (and it's hard to believe the Suns minority owner would say something right now, knowing how big the news would be one way or the other, while the Suns are in the middle of their impressive playoff run.) Amazing that one of the things learned this offseason is that we haven't learned anything from Fitz.