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 backstretch of the 2021 regular season and limped into the postseason, losing handily on the road to the Los Angeles Rams.
Now, Arizona will hope to avoid a disastrous sequel in 2022 after Hopkins was suspended the first six games of the upcoming season for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs 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.
With Hopkins in 2021, the Cardinals averaged 30.2 points a game and looked like a Super Bowl contender.
Without Hopkins, Arizona averaged 19.75 points a contest and was overmatched in an NFC wild-card game.
And Murray’s statistics suffered without his best receiver on the field last year, averaging two yards less per passing attempt a game.
In games without Hopkins, Murray threw for 228.4 yards per game. With Hopkins, Murray averaged 284.5 yard per game and was in the league MVP conversation.
Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury acknowledged he lacked innovation, failing to change his offense at the end of last season with Hopkins out.
“I didn’t do a good job, schematically, of adjusting some things that could have taken some pressure off of Kyler,” Kingsbury told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine. “You lose a piece like that, you’ve got to find a way to be more creative.
“I’ve got to be better at that. But I think we’ve improved each year, offensively. Obviously, I didn’t like the way we finished, but we’ve got to continue to be creative and try to put Kyler in positions to be successful and surround him with talent that can make plays.”
The difference between this year and last year is time. 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.
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Arizona traded the 23rd overall pick to Baltimore for Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. The deal reunites Brown with his college quarterback Kyler Murray. Shannon Sharpe weighs in on the trade.
So, Kingsbury has the offseason to construct 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 to obtain Brown.
Murray and Brown work out together during the offseason in Dallas. Under his rookie deal, the Cardinals have two more years of controlled salary for Brown. They’ve already picked up the fifth-year option.
Cardinals owner Michael Bidwell flew his personal jet to Vegas to pick up Brown and deliver him to the team’s draft party, according to Cardinals general manager Steve Keim.
Kingsbury can use Brown to create chunk plays. The speedy brown finished with 91 catches for 1,008 receiving yards and six touchdowns in his final season in Baltimore.
To create opportunities downfield 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, prove-it deal for $1.75 million last season and returned to the Cardinals on a three-year, $21 million contract this season. He’ll be the workhorse back, with Chase Edmonds leaving 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 about Conner.
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According to reports, Kyler Murray will sign an extension with the Cardinals prior to the start of next season. Marcellus Wiley discusses whether the Cards should extend QB Kyler Murray.
Schematically, look for the Cardinals to potentially run more two tight-end sets with Hopkins unavailable. Arizona drafted Colorado State tight end Trey McBride in the second round. Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz and Maxx Williams are already on the roster.
According to Next Gen Stats, the Cardinals ran two-tight-end sets 21 percent of the time last season.
“Those two tight ends are receiving threats — both of them,” Kingsbury told reporters about McBride and Ertz. “Zach is obviously proven, and we think very highly of Trey and what he can do in mismatch situations. So, it’s just trying to figure out how we can use all those guys.”
Finally, the Cardinals must show their commitment financially long-term to Murray, and he must lead the team on and off the field.
The friction between the Cardinals and Murray’s camp appears to have cooled since Murray’s representation issued an ultimatum right before the combine. Murray has two years left on his rookie deal and wants a new contract that pays him among the top QBs in the NFL.
And the Cardinals appear willing to grant Murray’s wish — in time.
“Every deal that you’ve seen done for a rookie quarterback after their third year have all been done anywhere from about mid-July to September,” Keim told the “Rich Eisen Show” this week. “So, I wanted to get through the draft process, free agency and all the work that we’ve put into it, and we can take a step back, refocus and see if we can get something done.”
Keim went on to say Murray has not demanded a trade, nor would he trade him.
The dynamic Murray has pulled the Cardinals out of the doldrums. Since drafting the 5-foot-10 quarterback No. 1 overall in the 2019 draft, Arizona is 24-24-1, including a postseason appearance last season.
The three years before Murray arrived, the Cardinals were a combined 18-29-1. Murray should be an integral part of Arizona’s future moving forward, but Kingsbury needs to do a better job of helping his quarterback schematically, both in play design and personnel.
And the Cardinals need to figure out how to keep Murray healthy, so he’s at his best at the end of the season for those critical postseason runs.
“At times, he’ll want to make the big play, whether it’s with his feet or his arm,” Kingsbury said at the combine. “But when he’s finding his check-down, when he’s taking what’s there — the underneath stuff — he’s really efficient and it helps our offense.
“It’s hard to play from third-and-seven, third-and-nine, but if you’re third-and-five, you’ve got 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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