TEMPE, Ariz. — Mini-camp is officially over. The next time we see the Arizona Cardinals, they’ll be gearing up for training camp and preseason games. And then a regular season full of unknowns.
Of course, every NFL season is loaded with questions. But the Cardinals are approaching the 2019 campaign with a particularly blank slate. That’s mostly by design, following a disastrous 3-13 effort that saw them struggle to move the ball or show any consistent signs of life in 2018.
That shouldn’t be the case this time around, though. At least not the second part of that sentence. Potential win totals aside, the offense figures to be exciting. Even if what exactly that offense will look like remains a mystery.
“Every offense is,” offensive lineman Justin Pugh said “You don’t know what you’re going to do until you get out there and do it well. Every year that changes. Personnel changes, guys come and go. Every offense, every team. You have your outliers – the Patriots, they know they have Tom Brady, they’re going to do what they do. They’ve done it for however many years. But we’ve got a new offense. We’re going to find what we do well and we’re going to go out there and execute that.”
It helps to have the top pick in the draft to jump start things and get some points on the scoreboard. But the addition of quarterback Kyler Murray isn’t the only reason there’s a buzz around this team. In fact, the arrival of head coach Kliff Kingsbury and his creative approach to moving the ball is arguably the biggest x-factor in the whole equation. And for his part, the first-year head coach has played things pretty close to the vest so far.
“Because I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. “I have a feeling how it’s going to go, but we’re going to do what we’re good at. If we can run the football a ton, we’ll do that. And if we’ve got to throw it more, we’ll do that. So I’m working through it with our offensive staff and we’re going to build this thing once we get to camp.”
Either way, things are going to look different when Arizona has the ball. And that alone is an enticing proposition for a fanbase that watched their team slog to an NFL-worst 14.1 points per game last season. It was clearly a point of emphasis for the front office too, because nine of the 11 offensive starters will likely be different when the Cards take the field against Detroit in Week 1 than they were in Week 17 last year.
David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald are the two holdovers. And while they both play integral roles in the passing game, that’s still the area with the most mystery of all.
Big things are expected of Christian Kirk, as he looks to build on an impressive rookie campaign. His numbers (590 yards through the air, fifth among NFL rookies) weren’t overwhelming, but he was limited to 12 games in an offense that limited guys even when they were healthy. He passed the eye test, though. And he’s the sort of weapon that could be deployed creatively if Kingsbury’s offense gets rolling.
After that, however, Arizona could be very reliant on rookies to step in and pick things up right away, particularly three first-year receivers; The Cardinals took Andy Isabella in the second round with the pick they acquired in the Josh Rosen deal, then selected Hakeem Butler in the fourth and KeeSean Johnson in the sixth.
The learning curve for rookie receivers in the NFL is steep, especially with a rookie quarterback. But the window is open for this trio.
“We’re excited about all three, obviously,” Kingsbury told Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station on Thursday. “They all have different attributes that they bring to the table. Hakeem is 6-foot-6, ran a sub-4.5, big, physical, can really go up and make contested catches. You’ve got KeeSean, who’s one of the best route runners in the draft and he’s shown that so far. And then you’ve got Andy, who was very productive in college and can really make people miss in space. So, they’re all learning the system, getting used to the NFL, but I like their progress so far.”
Plenty of attention has already been paid to Isabella, partly because of his involuntary ties to the Rosen deal, but also because of his fabled work ethic and blazing speed in an offense where quickness is like currency.
Butler is worth keeping an eye on too, though, if for no other reason than the simple fact that there’s no one else in this offense with his size. And he’s well aware of the opportunity in front of him.
“There’s a lot of catches to be had in this offense,” he said. “I will say that. It’s up to that man over there [pointing to Murray across the locker room] to get the ball to us.”
Pressed for more details, Butler took the same approach as his new coach.
“It’s going to be fun,” he hinted. “I don’t want to say too much. I don’t want Kliff to come after me. So I’ll just say it’s going to be fun.”
That’s a veteran move, following the coach’s lead with the media. It’s also a reminder that we’re still in the early stages of this offense even being implemented. Whether it’s ever a truly finished product in year one remains to be seen, but this is the very beginning.
Which means it’s a good time for all these rookies to get in on the ground level and evolve together.
“I mean I really enjoy it,” Butler pointed out. “Because we’re all growing with Kyler and we’ll just see where it ends.”