Washington Mascots at Arizona Cardinals: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

Washington Mascots (1-0) at Arizona Cardinals (1-0)

The Cardinals pulled off a big upset last week in San Francisco, knocking off the reigning NFC Champions by score of 24-20 as 6.5-point underdogs. The Cardinals legitimately played well on both sides of the ball and finished with the 5th highest first down rate differential of the week at +8.24%. I buy their offensive performance, as they finished last season 18th in first down rate differential and now have DeAndre Hopkins as a #1 option, Kyler Murray in his second year, and a full season of Kenyan Drake, so they could make a leap offensively, but I have to see more from their defense to buy that they’re going to be consistently better than their 30th ranked finish in first down rate allowed in 2019, without any major off-season upgrades.

The Cardinals’ defensive performance last week might have had more to do with the fact that the 49ers were missing their two starting wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk due to injury and then had to turn George Kittle into a decoy for most of the game after he suffered an injury of his own. If the Cardinals’ defense falls back down to earth, they won’t be more than a middling team and will be looked back on as overrated after the first week.

The formerly named Washington team also got an upset win last week, knocking off the Eagles by score of 27-17 as 6-point home underdogs. That upset also was influenced by injury, as the Eagles were missing their top two offensive linemen and their entire right side of the offensive line with injury, though Washington had injury issues of their own, missing top linebacker Thomas Davis and top cornerback Kendall Fuller, who are both expected to return this week. However, Washington didn’t get nearly as much attention for their upset as Arizona, as this line shifted up further from Arizona -6 on the early line last week to Arizona -7 this week. 

The Cardinals are definitely the better team, but the Mascots do some things well as well and they will play hard every week for Ron Rivera because of the situation he’s coaching through (think the Colts surprising 11-win season in their ChuckStrong year in 2012), so I only have the Cardinals about 3 points better in my roster rankings. Given that and that the Cardinals won’t have a normal homefield advantage this week, there’s some line value here with Washington, who should only be underdogs of 4.5 points at most and should be able to keep this one relatively close. They’re worth a small bet.

Arizona Cardinals 24 Washington Mascots 20

Pick against the spread: Washington +7

Confidence: Medium

Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (0-0) at San Francisco 49ers (0-0)

Every year there is at least one team that proves to be overhyped. The Cardinals seem like the leading candidate going into this season. Much of their hype is based around second year quarterback Kyler Murray, who many are expecting will follow in the footsteps of Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson and breakout as an elite quarterback in his second season, after a nondescript rookie year. 

However, Mahomes and Jackson are the exception to the rule when you look historically and Murray has a long way to go to become that level of a quarterback. He doesn’t have the size of either quarterback, the athleticism of Lamar Jackson, or the throwing ability of Patrick Mahomes and finished his rookie year as just Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. Despite that, he enters the season with the 6th highest MVP odds, ahead of much more established players like DeShaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, and Drew Brees.

That hype is showing up in this line, favoring the reigning NFC Champion 49ers by just 6.5 points at home over the Cardinals. The Cardinals have more talent around the quarterback this season with Kenyan Drake and DeAndre Hopkins, but they still have issues on the offensive line and their defense, which finished last season 30th in first down rate allowed, isn’t noticeably improved either. The Cardinals should be a better team this season, but they finished last season 27th in first down rate differential last season at -3.87%, so they have a long way to improve.

The 49ers, on the other hand, finished last season 2nd in first down rate differential at +5.29%. This season, they have injuries in the receiving corps and they won’t have their normal homefield advantage in this one, but they’re still close to last year in terms of talent level. It’s typically tough for teams to be as good as the 49ers were last season in back-to-back years, but the typical risk factors for regression aren’t really present here. 

The 49ers didn’t benefit from an unsustainably high turnover margin (+4). They didn’t win an unsustainably high amount of close games (5-3 in games decided by 7 points or fewer). They didn’t stay unsustainably healthy, actually having the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury of any team in the league last season. They also mostly avoided the significant personnel losses that high level teams often have, ranking 4th in the NFL in snaps returned from last season and generally doing a good job of replacing the few key players they lost. They also bring back all key members of their coaching staff. They should be able to win this one with relative ease, so I like them a lot if you can get them less than a touchdown. Including playoffs, the 49ers won 10 of their 15 games by a touchdown or more last season.

San Francisco 49ers 27 Arizona Cardinals 17

Pick against the spread: San Francisco -6.5

Confidence: High

Arizona Cardinals 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Cardinals went in a bold new direction last off-season. After the 2017 season, the Cardinals cleaned house and went forward with new head coach Steve Wilks and first round quarterback Josh Rosen, but the Cardinals struggled mightily in a 3-13 season and decided to abruptly change plans, firing Wilks after just one season, replacing him with college head coach Kliff Kingsbury, sending Josh Rosen to the Dolphins for the 62nd overall pick, and using the #1 overall pick on Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, Kingsbury’s hand picked quarterback who he had recruited in college. Kingsbury ran an offense at Texas Tech that was very much not the traditional “pro-style” offense and Murray was unconventional himself, making just 17 college starts and measuring in at 5-10 207, both of which usually prevent guys from going in the first round, let alone #1 overall.

For as much talk as there was about this unconventional duo, they had a first season that was actually relatively boring. Grandiose predictions about the Cardinals running 1,200 plays or attempting 700 passes were always unrealistic and were never based on what Kingsbury’s offense actually did at Texas Tech, as they were always pretty run/pass balanced. Instead, the Cardinals ranked 22nd in offensive plays with 1,000 and 18th in pass attempts with 554, far from unconventional. The one signature feature that was present in Kingsbury’s offense was their tendency to use 3 and 4 wide receivers regularly at the expense of tight ends, but even that wasn’t as extreme as some expected, as there were predictions that the Cardinals would essentially run 4-wide receivers as their base set.

For a quarterback considered boom or bust coming into the league, Kyler Murray was pretty standard as a rookie, completing 64.4% of his passes for an average of 6.87 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while rushing for 544 yards and 4 touchdowns on 93 carries (5.85 YPC). The Cardinals’ offense ranked just 18th in first down rate at 35.20%, but Murray wasn’t working with the best supporting cast and that was a huge leap from 2018, when the Cardinals ranked dead last in first down rate at 29.16%. 

All in all, Murray finished 28th among 39 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, not great, but not bad for a rookie quarterback. The jury is still out on Murray long-term and I don’t think he’s changed many people’s opinion of his chances to develop into a franchise quarterback long-term, but it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see him at least take a small step forward in his 2nd season in the league and he obviously could take a much more significant step forward as well. 

The Cardinals have been all in on Murray since day 1, only ever having Brett Hundley (67.6 career QB rating on 337 attempts) behind him on the depth chart as the backup. Hundley had to see limited action in 2019 (11 attempts) and predictably struggled, so the Cardinals are obviously hoping Murray can avoid missing any time with injury. Murray’s small frame and propensity to take off and run seem like they would make him more injury prone, but he doesn’t have a significant injury history, so it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if he made all 16 starts in 2020.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Like many teams with a young quarterback on a cheap rookie deal, the Cardinals have been somewhat aggressive adding veteran talent around Murray, in order to maximize their chances of winning in the short window their quarterback is cost controlled. The Cardinals have maintained some long-term flexibility, with a projected 64 million in cap space for next off-season, but they made a big long-term addition when they traded for Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

It was a shocking move, not just because no one publicly knew the Texans were looking to move Hopkins, but because the Cardinals paid significantly less for him than the Browns did for Odell Beckham and the Bills did for Stefon Diggs, even though Hopkins is the best of that trio. While the Bills gave up a first, a fourth, and a swap of late round picks and the Browns gave up a first, a third, and starting safety Jabrill Peppers, the Cardinals gave up just a 2nd round pick and running back David Johnson for Hopkins and a 4th round pick. 

Obviously the Texans value Johnson highly, but they’d have to value him equivalent to a late first round pick for the Texans to have gotten fair value in that trade compared to what the Giants and Vikings got for Beckham and Diggs. In negotiations with any other team, Johnson may have been seen as a negative value in a trade, as the seemingly washed up former feature back had a 11.2 million dollar guaranteed salary and may have cost the Cardinals a draft pick to get rid of in a salary dump if the Texans hadn’t come along with valued him like a first round draft pick.

Thanks to the Texans’ bizarre affinity for Johnson, the Cardinals now have a legitimate #1 receiver for Murray. He’s not only the Cardinals’ #1 receiver, but he’s been one of the top receivers in the entire league for years, finishing in the top-5 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the past 5 seasons. Over those 5 seasons, Hopkins has averaged a 103/1352/9 slash line per 16 games, despite having routinely horrible quarterback play for years before DeShaun Watson arrived in 2017.

With Watson, he has averaged an 111/1422/10 slash line per 16 games in 37 starts. He’s also missed just one game with injury in 7 seasons in the league and has shown he can continue playing at a high level through injuries and constant double teams. Hopkins may want a pay increase, but he wouldn’t need a huge one, with 39.915 million over 3 years left on his deal, and so far he’s shown no signs of wanting to hold out for that pay increase.

Hopkins will take over the #1 receiver role from future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, who remains with the team for his age 37 season, his 17th season in the league, all in Arizona, and possibly his final season overall. Fitzgerald obviously isn’t still what he was in his prime, when he averaged a 90/1136/8 slash line per season from 2005-2017, while missing a total of just 6 games due to injury, but he still led this team in receiving last season and finished above average on PFF, something he’s done in every season in the league. Fitzgerald’s 75/804/5 slash line and 49th ranked finish on PFF in 2019 weren’t great and he could decline further in 2020, but he won’t be needed nearly as much with Hopkins in town.

Before Hopkins was acquired, it looked like Christian Kirk would be the long-term #1 receiver after Fitzgerald, as he’s averaged 1.53 yards per route run in two seasons in the league since the Cardinals took him in the second round in 2018, but instead Kirk will be a complementary receiver behind Hopkins. That doesn’t mean he won’t have a big role though, as the Cardinals figure to use Hopkins, Fitzgerald, and Kirk together on most snaps in 2020. Kirk could easily take a step forward in his third season in the league.

Hopkins, Fitzgerald, and Kirk being locked in as close to every down players leaves the three receivers the Cardinals drafted in 2019 to compete for the #4 receiver job, but the Cardinals use 4 wide receivers as much as any team in the league, so whoever wins that job could have a somewhat significant role. Andy Isabella was drafted in the 2nd round and seems like the obvious favorite for the role, but he was limited to 157 snaps as a rookie, behind 6th round rookie KeeSean Johnson, who played 370 snaps. Johnson struggled on those snaps and Isabella has more long-term upside, but there will be training camp battles to decide the depth spots, with 2019 4th round pick Hakeem Butler also potentially in the mix after missing his rookie year with injury.

The Cardinals don’t have much at tight end, but that’s not a big deal because they don’t use tight ends that often. The Cardinals completed just 40 passes to tight ends in 2019 and that number could be even lower as veteran Charles Clay (18 catches) is no longer with the team. That leaves Darrell Daniels and Dan Arnold, who have played just 333 snaps and 271 snaps respectively in 3 seasons in the league total since going undrafted in 2017, to compete for the #2 tight end job. Arnold at least has shown some upside (1.79 yards per route run in his career), but it’s tough to expect much from either player.

Clay’s departure should also open up more playing time for Maxx Williams, who led the position with 490 snaps last season. Williams has never topped 32 catches in a season in 5 seasons in the league and is unlikely to significantly improve on last year’s 15/202/1 slash line, even with Clay gone, but he’s at least a consistently strong run blocker, including a #1 ranked finish among tight ends in run blocking grade in 2019. With good depth at wide receiver, that’s really all the Cardinals need Williams to be.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Part of the reason why the Cardinals wanted to move David Johnson is because they had found a better lead back in Kenyan Drake, who took Johnson’s starting job down the stretch last season, and they couldn’t justify paying big money to both Johnson and Drake, who was set to hit free agency this off-season. Johnson one of the best running backs in the league in 2016, but had been limited to 3.60 YPC on 363 carries over 3 seasons since 2016, while Drake, acquired at the trade deadline last year for a mere 6th round pick, rushed for 643 yards and 8 touchdowns on 123 carries (5.23 YPC) in 8 games. 

Drake was originally acquired to be an injury fill-in for David Johnson and injured backup Chase Edmonds, but he ran so well that he kept the job. His play had a noticeable impact on this team, as they had a 37.53% first down rate in 8 games with Drake, most equivalent to the 10th ranked Colts on the season, as opposed to a 33.01% first down rate in 8 games without Drake, most equivalent to the 26th ranked Bengals on the season.

Drake’s breakout stretch isn’t all that surprising, as he had always shown a lot of talent in three and a half seasons with the Dolphins. His 4.60 YPC average on 333 carries with the Dolphins may not seem like anything spectacular, but 3.29 YPC of that came after contact, as he routinely ran behind terrible offensive lines in Miami. His offensive line isn’t much better with the Cardinals, but he’s a perfect fit for this offense because he has the size and agility to take advantage of defenses lined up to defend 3-4 wide receivers and he’s a solid receiver in his own right, with 53 catches in 2018 and 50 catches in 2019, including 28 in 8 games with the Cardinals. He could easily catch another 50-60 passes in 2020 and, while he’s unlikely to be quite as efficient as a runner as he was down the stretch last season, he should continue having a lot of success on the ground as well.

With Johnson gone, the Cardinals kept Drake on a 8.483 million dollar transition tender while they work on a long-term deal and Drake is locked in as the feature back at least for 2020. Chase Edmonds remains, but he won’t be anything more than a true backup behind Drake. A 4th round pick in 2018, Edmonds hasn’t been a bad backup thus far in his career, averaging 4.26 YPC on 120 carries and showing some potential in the passing game as well. He could easily take a step forward in his third season in 2020, although it would likely take an injury to Drake for any improvement from Edmonds to be noticeable. With 7th round rookie Eno Benjamin in the mix as a deep reserve, this is a solid position group.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Cardinals made a big jump on the offensive line from 2018 to 2019. They still had problems upfront, but they were one of the worst offensive lines in the league in 2018 and were largely a capable unit last season. The Cardinals improved upfront despite any major off-season additions, only adding veteran right guard JR Sweezy and veteran right tackle Marcus Gilbert on inexpensive deals, the latter of whom ended up missing the whole season with injury.

The big difference was that this group was much healthier than the year before, as, outside of Gilbert’s injury, the Cardinals had just 2 missed starts on the offensive line all season in 2019, after leading the league in adjusted games lost on the offensive line in 2018. In 2018, left tackle DJ Humphries, left guard Justin Pugh, and center AQ Shipley were limited to 522 snaps, 343 snaps, and 0 snaps respectively due to injury, but in 2019 all three made all 16 starts and they combined to miss just 43 snaps all season. All three also return to the Cardinals in 2019, along with right guard JR Sweezy and right tackle Justin Murray, so the Cardinals could start the same starting five again in 2020 if they want.

That being said, we could see new faces upfront at a couple positions, especially right tackle. Not only do the Cardinals have veteran Marcus Gilbert returning from injury at a position where his backup Justin Murray was serviceable at best in the first significant action of the 2016 undrafted free agent’s career last season, but the Cardinals also used a 3rd round pick on offensive tackle Josh Jones, who could easily end up making starts before season’s end.

Marcus Gilbert is probably their best option, although it’s tough to know what to expect from him. Not only did he miss all of last season with injury, but injuries limited him to just 12 starts between 2017 and 2018 and he’s now going into his age 32 season. Gilbert performed well in limited action in 2017 and 2018 and was Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked offensive tackle in his last relatively healthy season in 2016, but Gilbert is a big question mark because of his age and injury history. He could easily not be the same player he was or get injured again. Murray showed he can be capable last season, but he’s still relatively inexperienced and probably would best as a backup long-term, while Jones could develop into a starter long-term, but would likely struggle as a rookie, so the Gilbert gives the Cardinals’ their best chance at capable right tackle play in 2020, even if he’s a very unpredictable option.

The Cardinals could also change starting centers. In 2018, Mason Cole made all 16 starts as a 3rd round rookie in place of an injured Shipley and finished 36th out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF, but Shipley wasn’t much better last season, finishing 30th out of 36 qualifying centers. Shipley, who hasn’t received an above average grade from PFF since 2016, is now going into his age 34 season, while Cole is heading into his 3rd year in the league and may be the better option. 

Even if Cole can’t lock down the starting job, I would still expect him to see some playing time as the top reserve option on this offensive line. In addition to playing center, he can also play guard, where he started in two games last season when Justin Murray was out, pushing typical left guard Justin Pugh out to right tackle in the process. Pugh should remain as the starting left guard, but his ability to move to right tackle in a bunch is a bonus. 

Pugh finished 22nd among guards last season on PFF last year and has mostly played well throughout his 7-year career, but injuries have been a big problem for him in recent years, costing him 22 games from 2016 to 2018 and limiting him to 779 underwhelming snaps combined in two seasons from 2017-2018. Pugh showed he can still be an above average starter when healthy last season, but he’s now going into his age 30 season and the days of him finishing 11th and 15th among guards on PFF like he did in 2015 and 2016 are probably gone at this point. He could remain a solid starter for at least another couple seasons, but his injury history is concerning.

Left tackle DJ Humphries also has a concerning injury history, as he played all 16 games for just the first time last season, after being limited to just 27 games total in his first 4 seasons in the league combined. A former first round pick, Humphries showed some of why he was taken so high in his first healthy season, earning an average grade from PFF, and he’s showed plenty of potential in limited action in the past as well, so he has the potential to be a consistently solid left tackle going forward if he can stay healthy. 

The problem is the Cardinals re-signed him to a contract this off-season that basically pretends his injury history doesn’t exist, giving him 43.75 million over 3 years and guaranteeing 30 million of it over the next two seasons. Humphries is only in his age 27 season and could remain a solid starter in 2020, but if he gets hurt again the Cardinals could regret that contract quickly. If he were to miss time, the Cardinals would likely turn to rookie Josh Jones, who is the most natural fit on the left side of any of their right tackle options. 

JR Sweezy is locked in at right guard for the 2nd year in a row, after posting a middling grade in his first season in Arizona. An 8-year veteran, Sweezy has had stretches of solid play throughout his career, but his middling year last year was his highest ranked season since 2015, prior to a significant back injury that cost him all of 2016, and now he’s going into his age 31 season, so he’s unlikely to get better. He could remain a capable starter, but he comes with some downside as well. Overall, this doesn’t look like a bad offensive line, but they need to stay healthy and they have injury prone projected starters at left tackle (Humphries), left guard (Pugh), and right tackle (Gilbert).

Update: The Cardinals signed veteran offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum, who has some starting experience and has generally been a solid starter. He’ll likely be a reserve in his age 31 season though, after earning a middling grade in 13 starts with the Jets last season, but he gives the Cardinals needed insurance at tackle and can play guard in a pinch as well.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

In addition to spending heavily to add DeAndre Hopkins and keep Kenyan Drake on offense, the Cardinals also spent some significant money on defense this off-season. At the interior defender position, their big addition was ex-Bills defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, who comes over on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. Phillips seemingly had a breakout year with 9.5 sacks last season, but totalled just 5.5 sacks in his first 4 seasons in the league combined and he wasn’t nearly as good as his sack total in 2019, totalling just a 7.7% pressure rate and earning middling grades overall from Pro Football Focus, getting his high sack total primarily from being in the right place at the right time on a good Buffalo defense. 

Even only earning middling grades made 2019 the best season of Phillips’ career, as he’s consistently been mediocre at best in 5 seasons in the league, both as a run stuffer, and a pass rusher (7.2% career pressure rate), leading to the 2015 2nd round pick being available for just 4.5 million on a 1-year deal in his first trip to free agency last off-season. Even after last year’s big sack total, it’s hard to argue he deserves much more than that this off-season, so he’s an obvious overpay on a contract that guarantees him 14.5 million in the first year and will realistically pay him 20 million over 2 years before the Cardinals can comfortably move on. He’s also had work ethic concerns in the past, which could easily become a problem again now that he has significant guaranteed money. Either way, he’s not going to have the impact that the Cardinals are expecting.

Phillips will most directly replace Rodney Gunter, who played 602 snaps last season. Corey Peters led this defensive line with 805 snaps played last season, but that was a career high and I would expect that to go down in 2020. Not only is Peters primarily a run stuffer, earning above average grades from PFF as a run stuffer in 6 straight seasons, while only totalling a 4.6% pressure rate over that same time, including just 2.5 sacks, 2 hits, and a 5.3% pressure rate in an every down role in 2019, but he’s also going into his age 32 season and Phillips could easily overtake him in snaps in his first season in Arizona. He should continue to play a significant role, but he’s not someone you can regularly play in passing situations and expect to get consistent pass rush and he could easily decline in 2020, given his age.

Second year player Zach Allen will likely be the beneficiary of Peters playing reduced snaps, as he figures to be the 3rd starter in base packages with Phillips and Peters and he figures to play a role in passing situations as well. Allen barely played as a rookie, limited to 144 snaps by injury, but he was the 65th overall pick and still has the upside to develop into a capable starter, at the least. I wouldn’t expect huge things from him this season, but he should be a solid rotational player. The Cardinals also have reserve Jonathan Bullard, who has been a capable situational run stuffer while playing an average of 335 snaps per year over his 4-year career, and used 4th round picks and defensive tackles Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu, who could also see action as rookies. This is an underwhelming group that lacks high end talent and has questionable depth.

Grade: C

Edge Defenders

On the edge, the Cardinals’ big free agent addition was Devon Kennard, who comes over from the Lions on a 3-year, 20 million dollar deal. Kennard isn’t much more than a snap eater though and the Cardinals no longer have a pair of key contributors at the position from last season in Terrell Suggs (638 snaps) and Cassius Marsh (429 snaps), so Kennard isn’t really an upgrade Kennard spent the first 4 seasons of his career with the Giants as a hybrid off ball linebacker/edge defender before moving more into a pure edge defender role with the Lions over the past 2 seasons. 

Kennard’s versatility is a plus, as is his experience in multiple defensive fronts, and he’s been a consistently solid run stopper regardless of where he’s lined up, but he leaves something to be desired as a pass rusher, totalling just 14 sacks over the past 2 seasons, despite playing 58.9 snaps per game, and adding just 16 quarterback hits and a 9.2% pressure rate. Now in his age 29 season, Kennard is who he is at this point, which isn’t a bad thing, but he doesn’t come with much upside.

Depth is also a big problem at the edge defender position because Kennard was their only off-season addition and two of the Cardinals’ only three edge defenders to surpass 100 snaps last season are no longer with the team. Without another good depth option, the Cardinals will likely play hybrid edge defender/off ball linebacker Haason Reddick on the edge in a significant role as the primary reserve. A first round pick in 2017, Reddick was lauded for his versatility entering the league, but he still hasn’t found a consistent role and he unsurprisingly had his 5th year option, which would have guaranteed him 10.089 million for injury, declined this off-season. 

Reddick began his career primarily on the edge, but he failed to get consistent pressure (7.3% pressure rate) and was subsequently moved to more of an off ball role. As an off ball linebacker, Reddick developed into a plus blitzer, but struggled both in coverage and against the run, leading to him being benched down the stretch in 2019. Now he looks likely to move back to the edge just because the Cardinals are deeper at off ball linebacker than they are at the edge, but Reddick isn’t a guarantee to be much better than he was as a rookie. Still only in his age 26 season, Reddick theoretically still has untapped potential, but he’s running out of chances.

The Cardinals’ lack of edge defender depth isn’t as big of a deal as it would be for other teams because top edge defender Chandler Jones comes off the field as infrequently as any edge defender in the league, leading the position by a wide margin with 1,069 snaps played last season (no one else had more than 980) and averaging 62.8 snaps per game over the past 4 seasons, while not missing a single game due to injury. 

Jones isn’t just durable, as he’s also one of the best players in the league at his position. Jones leaves something to be desired against the run, but his 72.5 sacks over the past 5 seasons are first by a pretty significant amount (Aaron Donald is 2nd with 63) and he’s added 48 hits and a 11.3% pressure rate over that stretch as well, while finishing in the top-35 among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons, including 3 seasons in the top-20 and a 15th ranked finish in 2019. 

Jones’ age is a minor concern in his age 30 season, but even if he begins declining he should remain a top flight pass rusher. He should also continue playing close to every snap, as could Devon Kennard (935 in edge defenders snaps last season), to compensate for the Cardinals’ lack of depth at the position. Jones significantly elevates this group by himself, but they’d be in huge trouble if Jones ever missed significant time with injury and Kennard is a middling player overall.

Grade: B

Linebackers

As I mentioned, the Cardinals are much deeper at off ball linebacker than they are on the edge, which is why Haason Reddick figures to play on the edge much more often. That wasn’t the case last season, but the Cardinals used the 8th overall pick on Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons and signed ex-Falcon De’Vondre Campbell to a one-year deal worth 6 million in free agency. Along with holdover Jordan Hicks, added from the Eagles on a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal last off-season, all three of the Cardinals’ top off ball linebackers figure to see significant snaps and they may also see the field together in some base packages.

Simmons is the most intriguing of the bunch. Not only is he highly talented, as evidenced by his high draft selection, but he’s also a very unique talent, as he’s 6-4 238, moves and covers like he’s about 215 pounds, and can rush the passer off the edge. He drew mixed reviews as a draft prospect, with some teams having him as their top ranked overall player and some teams having him much further down the board because of his lack of a clear position.

With a player like Simmons, it’s always a risk that he can’t find one area where he excels, but if he develops he has the ability to be a truly unique talent. The Cardinals seem relatively committed to playing him at linebacker and that definitely figures to be his base package position, but they could move him to the slot or to the edge or even to safety in sub packages, which would allow them to play their top-3 linebackers together in some sub packages. It’ll be interesting to see how Simmons develops long-term and, in the short-term, he may be the favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Hicks also has upside, after a career worst 50th ranked finish among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, as he finished in the top-14 in his 3 healthiest seasons in Philadelphia. Hicks was still effective against the run in his first season in Arizona last year, but struggled in coverage. Hicks has a significant injury history, missing 8 games in 2015, 9 games in 2017, and 4 games in 2018, and those injuries may have piled up to sap his athleticism and slow him down in coverage. Contract guarantees made moving in from Hicks unrealistic this off-season, but it’s possible he sees primarily base package snaps, with Simmons and Campbell added to the mix this off-season and possibly working as the top-2 coverage linebackers. Hicks is only in his age 28 season though, and played all 16 games last season, so he has some bounce back potential if he can continue staying healthy.

Campbell also has issues in coverage, but his contract suggests the Cardinals have a big role in mind for him. Campbell has been a decent run stuffer in 4 seasons with the Falcons, but the 2016 4th round pick never developed in coverage and finished 80th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers in his final season in Atlanta. It’s unclear why the Cardinals felt he was worth 6 million dollars and, even if he does take a step forward in his 5th season in the league, the Cardinals will have to pay even more to keep him when he hits free agency again next off-season. This isn’t a bad linebacking corps, but they lack another coverage linebacker besides the rookie Simmons, who may play elsewhere on a significant amount of sub packages.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Cardinals didn’t make a significant addition in their secondary this off-season, but they do get a significant addition from last off-season back from injury, as Robert Alford was signed to a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season and subsequently missed the entire 2019 season with injury. Alford isn’t a big re-addition though as, like many of the Cardinals’ signings this off-season, as he was an overpay, even before he missed an entire season. He was a capable starter in his prime, but he fell to 112nd out of 126 qualifying cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his final season in Atlanta in 2018, before missing all of last season, and now he’s going into his age 32 season, so his best days are almost definitely behind him. 

Alford probably won’t have to play every down in this secondary, but he doesn’t have much competition for the #3 cornerback job and he may struggle even in a lesser role. Tramaine Brock was the Cardinals’ 3rd cornerback last season and he wasn’t bad in that role, but he’s no longer with the team, leaving 2018 undrafted free agent Chris Jones and 2016 undrafted free agent Kevin Peterson, who struggled on 275 snaps and 255 snaps respectively last season in the first significant action of their career, as their top alternatives to Alford. Even though he’s an underwhelming option, Alford seems likely to see significant action in sub packages.

Patrick Peterson and Byron Murphy return as the top-2 cornerbacks and will play every down. Murphy struggled mightily last season, finishing 121st out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF, but he was just a rookie and the 2019 33rd overall pick still has a huge upside, so he could easily take a significant step forward in 2020, even if only by default. Peterson, meanwhile, has been with the Cardinals since they drafted him 5th overall in 2011 and he’s finished in the top-19 in 5 of 9 seasons with the team. He’s been a bit up and down though and last season he fell to 44th among cornerbacks on PFF, after finishing 10th in 2018. On top of that, his age is becoming a concern in his age 30 season. Peterson has some bounce back potential, but it’s very possible his best days are behind him at this point.

At safety, the Cardinals return 16-game starter Budda Baker at one spot and Jalen Thompson and Deionte Thompson, who both made starts last season, at the other. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Baker took over as a starter halfway through his rookie year and has made 36 starts since. He’s underwhelming in coverage, but makes up for it with strong play against the run and his ability to blitz and rush off the edge in certain situations as well and he’s still only going into his age 24 season, so his coverage abilities could improve going forward. Even with his underwhelming coverage play, he’s earned average or better overall grades from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league, including a career best 33rd ranked finish in 2020. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he surpassed that in 2020.

Jalen Thompson and Deionte Thompson, meanwhile, were both 5th round rookies last year, Jalen arriving through the supplemental draft and Deionte through the traditional draft. Jalen saw significantly more snaps (607 vs. 252) and played slightly better, but both struggled and there’s no guarantee either one is any better in 2020. They’ll compete for the starting job in training camp and it’s possible one of them can develop into a capable starter, but this looks like a weakness in this secondary as of right now. Their lack of proven depth at cornerback behind a possibly declining Patrick Peterson is a problem as well.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Cardinals come into 2020 with some hype, with some expecting Kyler Murray to make a similar 2nd year leap like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson have over the past, now that he has acquired DeAndre Hopkins as a #1 receiver. What Mahomes and Jackson did is hardly the norm, however, and Murray’s MVP betting odds, which currently give him the 6th highest chance to win the MVP ahead of players like DeShaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Carson Wentz, show that he’s overhyped right now.

Also, aside from acquiring Hopkins, the Cardinals didn’t do much of anything to significantly upgrade this roster this off-season, with most of the money they spent in free agency going to players who aren’t upgrades on the players they’re replacing. The Cardinals will likely be better in 2020 than 2019, but they finished last season 27th in first down rate differential, so they have a long way to go to get into playoff contention, especially on defense, where they ranked 30th in first down rate allowed and don’t seem noticeably better in 2020. Barring a breakout year from Murray, I wouldn’t expect much from this team. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Final Update: Not much has changed for this team, which should continue having one of the worst defenses in the league.

Projection: 5-11 (4th in NFC West)

Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (5-9-1) at Los Angeles Rams (8-7)

The Rams have had a very disappointing 2019 season. After going 13-3 and representing the NFC in the Super Bowl last year, the Rams sit at just 8-7 and have been eliminated from the playoff race entirely ahead of week 17 this year, with their season officially ending in a heartbreaking last second loss in San Francisco last week. There are still a lot of positive takeaways from this season though. 

Their offense hasn’t been as good as it’s been in past years, ranking just 15th on the season with a 36.37% first down rate, after finishing last season 3rd at 43.02%, due to a complete dropoff in offensive line play and quarterback Jared Goff’s inability to make good decisions and good throws under pressure, but they’ve been impressive defensively. They rank 8th in first down rate allowed at 33.87%, and they have been even better since acquiring cornerback Jalen Ramsey and putting breakout player Troy Hill into the starting lineup opposite him during week 7, ranking 5th in the NFL with a 32.44% first down rate allowed over that stretch. 

The Rams end their season with a home game against a last place Cardinals team. The Cardinals won in Seattle last week in a big upset, but that’s not as impressive as it sounds, as the Seahawks entered that game with the worst point differential ever for a 11-3 team and were missing their two best defensive backs, their best offensive lineman, and their best defensive lineman. Just a few weeks earlier, the Cardinals were demolished at home by the Rams in a 34-7 game, one of four games they’ve lost by at least 17 points this season. On the year, the Cardinals rank 28th in first down rate differential at -4.44% and have a -74 point differential that suggests their 5-9-1 record is an accurate representation of how they’ve played.

Under ordinary circumstances, we’d be getting significant line value with the Rams as just 6-point home favorites over the Cardinals, but the Rams are probably not going to give their best effort this week after having their disappointing season ended in heartbreaking fashion last week. In fact, we might not see anything close to the Rams’ full strength lineup this week, as Rams head coach Sean McVay has been the most cautious coach in the league when it comes to not risking his key players’ health in meaningless games. 

In 3 years with the Rams, he’s rested key players in meaningless games every chance he’s gotten, whether it’s pre-season games or week 17 games when the Rams’ seeding has been locked in. This is the first time the Rams have been eliminated from playoff contention in the McVay era, but it stands to reason he might have a similar approach this week, at the very least with players that are less than 100% with injury. The aforementioned cornerback duo of Jalen Ramsey and Troy Hill, which has been a huge part of their defensive success, has already been ruled out and there’s speculation that running back Todd Gurley among others could also be held out, which adds a lot of uncertainty to this game. 

Also adding uncertainty is the injury to Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray. Murray got in limited practices this week through a hamstring injury and would probably play if this game mattered, but the Cardinals could be cautious with nothing to play for and hold him out, which would force overmatched backup Brett Hundley into action, a significant dropoff. Even if Murray does play, he might not be as effective because mobility is a big part of his game. With all this uncertainty, I have no idea how to make a pick on this game, but I’m taking the Rams for pick ‘em purposes for now. There’s a good chance I update this write-up before gametime.

Update: Murray is playing for the Rams, but there’s no indication of how long the Rams will play starters for. I’m leaving this as is.

Los Angeles Rams 24 Arizona Cardinals 17

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -6

Confidence: None

Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (4-9-1) at Seattle Seahawks (11-3)

The Seahawks are 11-3 and control their own destiny for a first round bye, but most of their wins have been close, with all but one win coming by 8 points or fewer. In fact, their record in games decided by more than a single score is just 1-2. A win is a win for standings purposes, but blowout wins tend to be more predictive of future success than close wins. Their point differential of +26 is the worst ever for a 11-3 team and ranks just 11th in the NFL. In first down rate differential, they are even worse, ranking 19th in the league at -0.80%. Russell Wilson is a great quarterback who has been able to pull out close wins, but the rest of this team is pretty underwhelming when you compare them to the other contenders and they haven’t shown the ability to blow out anyone, even bad teams.

Their one win by more than one score came against the Cardinals, who happen to be their opponents this week. The Cardinals have 5 losses by double digits and 4 losses by 17 or more points, but their 17-point home loss to the Seahawks in week 4 was closer than the final score suggested, as the Seahawks had just a +3.39% first down differential in the game, with the margin of victory being inflated by a Seattle return touchdown and a pair of missed field goals by the Cardinals. 

The previous matchup between these two teams was in Arizona and this matchup is in Seattle, but the Seahawks are far from 100%. They’re getting defensive end Ezekiel Ansah back from injury this week, but will remain without top defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and will likely be without their top-2 defensive backs, Shaq Griffin and Quandre Diggs, and left tackle Duane Brown, all of whom did not practice on Friday. The Cardinals could easily keep this game within 10 points. They rank 28th in the NFL in first down rate differential on the season at -5.28%, but they aren’t that far behind the 19th ranked Seahawks in that metric, so my calculated line is Seattle -7.5. This is a low confidence pick for now, but If left guard Justin Pugh and wide receiver Christian Kirk are both able to play and/or this line moves up to 10, I would bet on the Cardinals.

Seattle Seahawks 27 Arizona Cardinals 20

Pick against the spread: Arizona +9.5

Confidence: Low

Cleveland Browns at Arizona Cardinals: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Cleveland Browns (6-7) at Arizona Cardinals (3-9-1)

Expected to be a contender in the AFC this year, the Browns have been massively disappointing, entering this game at 6-7 with little chance of getting into the post-season. Despite their underwhelming record, I think they’re still a little overrated. People look at their roster and see the big name stars, but they are a very top heavy roster with minimal talent beyond their stars and little depth at the bottom of their roster. Now without star defensive ends Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon, the Browns have arguably the worst defensive line in football, giving significant snaps at defensive end to bottom of the roster type players. I have them just 22nd overall in my roster rankings without those two players.

The Browns are also in an awful spot this week, flying across the country to play a last place non-conference opponent with a huge home game against the Ravens on deck. With their season essentially over, I don’t expect the Browns’ best effort at all this week, especially with how undisciplined and poorly coached they are. Road favorites are 44-75 ATS since 2008 before being home underdogs, including just 4-16 ATS as road favorites of 3+ before being home underdogs of 4+ (the early line has Cleveland +7 next week). 

Unfortunately, it’s hard to justify a big bet on the Cardinals this week as they’ve been pretty terrible this season. First overall pick Kyler Murray has been promising and could easily develop into a franchise quarterback long-term, but he’s not good enough right now to elevate this team by himself and outside of him their roster isn’t that much better than it was last season when they finished with the worst record in the NFL at 3-13. The Cardinals rank just 29th in first down rate differential at -6.40% and 26th in point differential at -102, and their only three wins have come by a combined 10 points against teams that are a combined 7-32 on the season. They still have a good shot to catch the Browns off guard in a tough spot and I like getting the field goal protection with them at home, but I wouldn’t go crazy with this bet because the Browns would be the best team the Cardinals have beaten this season.

Arizona Cardinals 24 Cleveland Browns 23 Upset Pick +135

Pick against the spread: Arizona +3

Confidence: Medium

Pittsburgh Steelers at Arizona Cardinals: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) at Arizona Cardinals (3-8-1)

The Steelers looked dead in the water after week 5, with a 1-4 record and franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out for the season, but they’ve won 6 of 7 games since then to climb back into playoff contention. Their early season losses don’t look so bad anymore either, as they all came against teams that are currently 10-2 (Patriots, 49ers, Seahawks, Ravens), with only the Patriots game being decided by more than a field goal. The Steelers haven’t had a tough schedule over the past 7 games since their tough start to the season, but they have picked up a pair of wins over .500 or better teams in the Colts and Rams over that stretch. 

With Roethlisberger out, the Steelers defense has led the way, ranking 8th in first down rate allowed at 33.42%, led by an All-Pro caliber trio of Cameron Heyward, TJ Watt, and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Their defense has been even better in the past several weeks, leading the league with a 29.76% first down rate allowed since week 7, even more impressive when you consider they lost stud defensive end Stephon Tuitt for the season after week 5. The Steelers’ offense has the 3rd worst first down rate over that stretch at 29.84%, but they switched quarterbacks last week from backup Mason Rudolph to undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges, who seems to be an upgrade, even if only by default. 

The Steelers’ schedule continues to be relatively easy, with a matchup against the Cardinals this week. Not only are the Cardinals 3-8-1, but their 3 wins came by a combined 10 points against teams that are a combined 6-30. In their 8 losses, they have been outscored by 13.25 points per game. They rank 28th in point differential at -96 and 30th in first down rate differential at -6.60% and are one of the worst few teams in the league. The Steelers’ offensive issues keep them in the middle of the pack in my roster rankings, but the Cardinals rank 30th and I have them calculated as 4.5-point underdogs in this matchup. It might not seem like we’re getting a ton of line value with the Steelers at -2, but about 20% of games are decided by 2-4 points, so those are a significant two points. The Steelers are worth a small bet this week in a game in which they basically just need to win to cover.

Pittsburgh Steelers 20 Arizona Cardinals 16

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -2

Confidence: Medium

Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (6-5) at Arizona Cardinals (3-7-1)

This is one of the tougher games of the week to predict against the spread. On one hand, the Rams were embarrassed last week against the Ravens in a 45-6 loss and teams typically bounce back from bad losses. Since 2002, teams are 60-38 ATS after a loss by 35 points or more and favorites, like the Rams are this week, have won 20 of 24 games straight up after a loss by 35 or more over that time period. On the other hand, this could be a look ahead spot for the Rams with a much harder divisional game on deck against the Seahawks. The Rams will almost definitely be home underdogs in that game and road favorites are just 26-55 ATS since 2012 before being home underdogs. 

We’re also not getting any line value in either direction. The Cardinals’ only 3 wins have come by a combined 10 points against teams that are a combined 5-29, while 4 of their 7 losses have come by double digits, with an average margin of defeat of 11.3 points per game. Their point differential of -69 ranks just 28th in the NFL and they rank 29th in first down rate differential at -5.73%. However, the Rams have been a pretty middle of the pack team this season, so they shouldn’t be favored by more than a field goal in this game. I have this line calculated at Rams -3, which is exactly where the line is.

Ultimately, what I think this game will come down to is the Rams’ mindset about their playoff chances. Last week’s loss wasn’t a death sentence for their playoff chances, but they’re 2 games behind the 8-3 Vikings for the last NFC wild card spot right now with 5 games to go and probably need to win out and finish 11-5 to give themselves a shot. If the Rams believe their season is over, they probably won’t give their best effort against the Cardinals, especially with a much bigger game on deck. If they believe they still have a shot to make the post-season, we could see a very different level of focus and motivation from them this week after being humbled last week. I think the latter is more likely than the former, but I definitely wouldn’t bet on it. A push might be the most likely result.

Los Angeles Rams 23 Arizona Cardinals 20

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -3

Confidence: None

Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers: 2019 Week 11 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (3-6-1) at San Francisco 49ers (8-1)

The 49ers got off to a dominant 7-0 start to the season, winning their first 7 games by a 18.57 points per game, despite only a +4 turnover margin, and leading the league with an incredible +12.75% first down rate differential. However, then they went into Arizona for Thursday Night Football week 9. The 49ers won the game to improve to 8-0, but they won by just 3 points against a Cardinals team that has consistently ranked in the bottom-5 in first down rate differential this season and the 49ers actually lost the first down rate differential in the game by 7.77%. On top of that, they suffered a pair of serious injuries, with top linebacker Kwon Alexander going down for the season and tight end George Kittle out indefinitely. 

Without Kittle and Alexander, the 49ers suffered their first loss of the season at home to the Seahawks last week and they suffered additional injury losses in that game. Valuable rotational defensive end Ronald Blair is out for the season, left tackle Joe Staley is out indefinitely, after just returning from a 6-game absence last week, and top wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is highly questionable after not practicing all week. The 49ers also got right tackle Mike McGlinchey back last week and could get cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon back this week, but their backups have played well in their absence, so neither is a significant re-addition. 

The 49ers now face the Cardinals again, but, despite what happened last time and all of the injuries the 49ers are dealing with, the Cardinals should still be a relatively easy matchup for the 49ers in San Francisco this week, especially since the 49ers will have a full week to prepare this time. The Cardinals rank 26th in point differential at -59, despite a positive turnover margin at +4, and rank 28th in first down rate differential at -5.64%. The 49ers, despite their loss last week, still rank 2nd in first down rate differential at +8.94%. Their injuries have dropped them to 8th in my roster rankings, but I still have this line calculated at San Francisco -12.5, so we’re getting line value at -10. I can’t take the 49ers with any confidence because this is a tough spot for them in between a tough overtime loss and another big game on deck against the Packers, but the 49ers should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

San Francisco 49ers 31 Arizona Cardinals 20

Pick against the spread: San Francisco -10

Confidence: None

Arizona Cardinals at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2019 Week 10 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (3-5-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-6)

The Buccaneers are 2-6, but they’ve been competitive in most of their games, despite facing the 5th toughest schedule in the NFL in terms of DVOA (6 of 8 opponents are 5-3 or better). Only two of their six losses have come by more than one score and the Buccaneers actually won the first down rate in both of those losses. Against the 49ers week 1, the Buccaneers won the first down rate battle by 3.85% but lost the game 31-17, primarily because they lost the turnover battle by two. Against the Panthers week 6, they won the first down rate battle by 1.33% but lost the game 37-26, primarily because they lost the turnover battle by 6. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and the Buccaneers rank 19th in first down rate differential on the season at -1.05%, despite that tough schedule. 

The Cardinals have one more win than the Buccaneers, but they haven’t played nearly as well. Their 3 wins have come by a combined 10 points against teams that are a combined 3-22, while 3 of their losses have come by 17 points or more. They have a significantly worse point differential than the Buccaneers (-56 vs. -22), despite a significantly better turnover margin (+3 vs. -5), and they rank just 29th in first down rate differential at -6.12%, despite an easier schedule. 

I have this line calculated at Tampa Bay -6.5, so we’re getting some line value with the Buccaneers at -4, although not enough to take them confidently. The Cardinals aren’t in a good spot, between a close loss to the 49ers and a rematch next week, but the Buccaneers aren’t either, between a close loss to the Seahawks and a home game against the division leading Saints. Both teams could be flat this week, so while Tampa Bay should be the right side, this is just a low confidence pick.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 34 Arizona Cardinals 27

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -4

Confidence: Low