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State of the 2021 Arizona Cardinals: Kyler Murray and Co. must learn to close

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Cardinals' organization, Cardinals fans around the world and my Chicago-affiliated relatives who still root for the Cardinals because they once played their home games at old Comiskey Park:

It's an exciting time in the desert for a team that was built to provide exactly that feeling. The Cardinals took some bold steps just a few years ago, and while they ultimately sputtered to a lackluster finish in 2020, they are now on the cusp of being the kind of high-flying squad we haven't seen in Arizona for quite some time.

How the Cardinals got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • Starting the season off with a 24-20 win over the San Francisco 49ers. Yes, the Niners were decimated by injuries last year -- but they were mostly full-go in Week 1. Beating the defending NFC champs set a tone for the Cards in the early part of 2020.
  • Securing a huge overtime win over Seattle on Sunday Night Football in Week 7 to go into their bye at 5-2. Arizona rallied from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to force overtime -- and it came a week after the Cards smoked the Cowboys 38-10 on the road on Monday Night Football.
  • Beating the Bills 32-30 in one of the most entertaining games of the season. Kyler Murray hit DeAndre Hopkins on a winning 43-yard desperation heave with 2 seconds left. Must have been refreshing for the home fans to get to enjoy a play like that for a change.

The low:

  • Slumping out of the playoff picture. After going 6-3 and forcing their way into a three-way-tie for first place in the NFC West, the Cardinals won just two more games -- over the lowly New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles -- before finishing 8-8 and in third place in the division, losing the final spot in the NFC playoff field to the Chicago Bears.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Kliff Kingsbury. I know a lot of people were a little concerned about Kingsbury's ability to transition to the NFL after he went 35-40 in six seasons coaching Texas Tech. Now, I've always contended that if you can succeed even a little bit at Texas Tech, you're doing well for yourself. And I want to love Kingsbury. I really do. But he didn't do himself any favors with the late-season collapse I wrote about above. After losing to a San Francisco team whose playoff fate was already sealed in Week 16, the Cards still could have made it to the postseason by beating the Rams in Week 17 -- but they couldn't get the job done, and now Kingsbury is still searching for his first winning season in the NFL. It was like needing to sink a 3-footer to qualify for the U.S. Open and failing to send it home. That's the kind of stuff that can stick with you.

At the same time, we can't look past what Kingsbury has been able to do with this offense in his two years on the job. Remember, when he was hired in 2019, the Cardinals were coming off a season in which they ranked last in the NFL in scoring, total yards, passing yards and rushing yards. He turned this team into one of the most enjoyable to watch in the NFL, with Arizona ranking 13th in scoring, sixth in total yards, 17th in passing yards and seventh in rushing yards in 2020. He's successfully punched up this offense -- like Carrie Fisher, in script doctor mode, helping to turn The Wedding Singer into an all-time classic.

Quarterback: Kyler Murray. Murray has been exciting -- there is no doubt about that. It's unusual when something or someone actually meets or exceeds expectations, but Murray has been great since the Cardinals drafted him first overall in 2019. He racked up 4,614 offensive yards in 2020, which was fourth in the NFL. There were nine games last year in which Murray recorded at least one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown, the most by any quarterback in a single season since at least 1950. He also joined Cam Newton as the only quarterbacks in NFL history with at least 25 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns in a single season. The next step for Murray is finishing stronger.

Consider that in Murray's first nine games last season, he accounted for 27 offensive touchdowns -- and in his final seven, he had just 10. (Yes, I know he suffered a shoulder injury, but Murray himself said it didn't impact him that much.) With the NFL season getting longer, it's even more important that Murray learns to finish. I don't want to be a buzzkill or anything, but the former baseball guy needs to really embody that closer's mentality.

Projected 2021 MVP: DeAndre Hopkins, wide receiver. Obviously, the season is going to come down to Murray, but I wanted to give a little bit of love to DeAndre for his awesome debut as a Cardinal last season. The prize in one of the more lopsided trades in recent memory ranked in the top three in the NFL in targets (160), receptions (115) and receiving yards (1,407) in 2020. He also accounted for 33.2 percent of the Cardinals' air yards last season, the 11th-highest percentage in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. With some receiving help coming via the draft and free agency, Hopkins should thrive again in 2021.

2021 breakout star: Isaiah Simmons, linebacker. I'm not going to lie; Isaiah was one of my favorite players in the 2020 draft class, someone I thought would have a huge impact right from the jump after he was selected eighth overall. And he was ... fine, making seven starts and finishing with a pair of sacks, a pick and four tackles for loss. He just did not meet the high expectations I had for him. I mean, it sort of reminded me when Adam Rose made the jump from NXT to the WWE (I still own his shirt). He was OK, just not as good as I expected him to be. Good news is, Simmons should get his chance this year, especially with linebacker De'Vondre Campbell signing in Green Bay. I foresee him making the leap.

New face to know: Rodney Hudson, center. Hey, I know who you thought I was going to mention right here. But we'll get to him (and him) in a moment. The biggest addition (to me) was this three-time Pro Bowler, acquired from the Raiders in exchange for a third-round pick. Hudson has been Pro Football Focus' highest-graded pass-blocking center since 2016 (with a grade of 92.6). And he's allowed just two sacks in 2,955 pass-block snaps in that time (PFF).

2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. The NFC West is the most competitive division in football. This is not up for debate; it's a fact. The Cardinals won eight games last year and have added veterans to make a push. Kingsbury needs to show he can win, and Murray needs to take another step in Year 3. The stakes are astronomical.

Three key dates:

Week 2 vs. Minnesota Vikings. Both teams likely feel like they are going to the playoffs this season. These are the kinds of games the Cardinals need to win -- and they kind of did last year, securing the aforementioned big victories over Dallas and the Bills. But they have to keep doing it. Side note: This is the only home game for the Birds during the first four weeks of the season.

Week 11 at Seattle Seahawks. The Cardinals folded down the stretch last season, and they cannot afford to do that again. The Seahawks have some weird losses late in the season -- although this wouldn't actually be that weird, seeing as how the Cardinals have won four of their last six in Seattle. (OK, maybe that is weird.)

Week 13 at Chicago Bears. Arizona will come out of its late-season bye with a matchup against the team that beat the Cardinals out of an NFC playoff spot last year. Winning this one (plus a Week 14 Monday Night Football showdown with the Rams) will help further establish their ability to perform in crunch time.

Will the Cardinals be able to …

Get to the quarterback? The Cardinals had 48 sacks in 2020, tied for fourth in the NFL. Their leader in the category, Haason Reddick, had a classic breakout season in a contract year, racking up 12.5 sacks -- and they wisely let him walk. (A player who excels in their contract season is like the partner who is lame for the first six months of the relationship, then crushes Valentine's Day -- it's awesome for the one day, but you don't get married on Feb. 15.) The Cardinals brought in J.J. Watt to help fill that void, at least a little bit, and I think he'll make a great tandem with Chandler Jones, who missed most of 2020 with a biceps injury. I know the 30-year-old Jones, who has more sacks (61) than anyone but Aaron Donald (65.5) since joining Arizona in 2016, missed mandatory minicamp as he heads into the final season of his current deal. He could be a holdout, maybe even get traded, but with the Cardinals in win-now mode, I have a feeling this will get worked out. If Jones can return to form on a contract year (like Reddick), he could join with J.J. and Markus Golden (who was traded back to the team that drafted him by the Giants last October and signed a two-year deal to stay in Arizona this offseason, and who I haven't even mentioned until now) to make up a good line.

Get valuable contributions from receiver A.J. Green and running back James Conner? The Cardinals' big-name offensive additions over the past couple of years -- Hopkins, Murray, Hudson, Green, Conner and Brian Winters -- would make for one impressive Madden Ultimate Team. Green made the Pro Bowl in each of his first seven seasons, but last earned that honor in 2017. I'm kind of excited about the 32-year-old, heading into his first NFL season in a uniform other than Cincinnati's. I'm not saying Green is going to have 100 catches and 1,500 receiving yards, but he still has the ability to make some clutch plays. If the 37-year-old Larry Fitzgerald returns, we'll really have a Red situation going on, and I will be into it. Yes, I'm talking about the Bruce Willis movie. Such an obvious tie-in.

As for Conner, things never quite clicked for him during a Pittsburgh tenure marred by injury. But with Kenyan Drake signing in Vegas, Conner will be asked to contribute plenty on a team that ranked sixth in rushing attempts in 2020.

Overcome the loss of longtime CB1 Patrick Peterson? But as all those big names came aboard, the Cardinals parted ways with Double P. (I don't know if anybody calls him that, I should have consulted the Fantasy Footballers.) The Cardinals signed Malcolm Butler, which is a fine backup plan -- kind of like picking up a 12-er of Michelob Ultra on the way to a party. Arizona also added Darqueze Dennard and brought back Robert Alford. The Cards must have confidence in these guys, because they used their first-round pick on Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins. (Collins, it should be noted, was arrested for excessive speed and reckless driving; it's not known what impact this will have on his availability this season.) They did move up to take corner Marco Wilson in the fourth round and added Tay Gowan in the sixth. But the Cardinals seem a little thin at corner. Especially in a division with receivers like DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and Deebo Samuel.

One storyline …

... people are overlooking: It was actually the OFFENSE that cost them last year. The Cardinals were 8-2 in games where they scored 24-plus points and 0-6 when they scored less than 24 points last season. It was kind of like they were playing under custom Madden rules: first to 24 points wins! Unfortunately for Arizona, the scoring dried up down the stretch, with the Cardinals averaging 20.6 points per game over their 2-5 finish.

... people are ALSO overlooking: The Cardinals might have found their Tyreek Hill. Second-round pick Rondale Moore has a lot of similar measurables to Hill, as general manager Steve Keim put it. I understand that it's one thing to have the same build and speed as Hill and quite another to produce like the three-time All-Pro receiver on the field. But Moore is going to get his chance in this big-name lineup. The Cardinals used four receivers on 20.3 percent of their snaps last year, which led the league, according to Next Gen Stats.

... people are overthinking: Chase Edmonds' potential limitations in 2021. Sorry, I know that most of the time, it seems like this section is aimed at fantasy dorks, but I just can't take myself out of that space. A lot of people will point to James Conner's signing as an indicator that fourth-year pro Edmonds won't see much uptick in production after ex-RB1 Kenyan Drake's exit, but I am here to remind you that Edmonds was great when given his chances last season. So, yes, fine, you should target him in your fantasy drafts.

For 2021 to be a success, the Cardinals MUST:

  • Get to the postseason. They can't have any near misses -- even getting above .500 isn't enough. It's got to be playoffs or nothing.

In closing

This is a big year for the Cardinals and the plan they've been working on since they made the swift move to start over at coach and quarterback in 2019. Kingsbury and Murray came close to fulfilling that promised (and, probably, providing a more entertaining playoff matchup than Bears-Saints) in 2020, but the pair fell short. Now, though, it's time to take that next step.

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