As we enter the lone remaining hibernation period on the NFL’s calendar, there is one lingering question for which I’m struggling to find an answer: Why aren’t we talking more about the cataclysmic impact the Cardinals could have on this NFL season?
Think about the most important benchmarks on the coming NFL calendar (the trade deadline, free agency and the massively anticipated 2024 draft), and ask yourself how Arizona could avoid becoming a major player in all three. It all comes back to Pepe Silvia.
Last week, when commemorating the 100-day mark until Week 1 by making 100 predictions for the NFL season, I wondered what might happen if the Cardinals got the No. 1 pick. My thinking in bringing it up was that Kliff Kingsbury is now working with prospective top pick Caleb Williams at USC. Kingsbury, the former coach of the Cardinals, burned out with a franchise that also fired its general manager, was clobbered by an independent player survey for poor working conditions and was sued by one of its former top personnel executives (not to mention careless enough in its attempts to fix the problem that it got whacked with a tampering violation before the draft). Is it too far-fetched to think Kingsbury might tell Williams to pull an Eli Manning? No. Is it likely, given that Jonathan Gannon and Monti Ossenfort seem to be doing their best to turn the Titanic around before it finds solid ice? Probably not. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t layers to this situation worth examining.
Let’s back up for a moment and note that Gannon and Ossenfort seem to be doing right by the Cardinals. This roster needed tearing down for years and was mismanaged severely. It’s not really surprising that they got nothing for DeAndre Hopkins when considering the circumstances. It’s not really surprising that their free-agency period was underwhelming and largely contained Band-Aid style one- and two-year deals (they are already set up to have more than $50 million in cap space for 2024, which is also significant, and we’ll discuss below). With Kyler Murray returning from a torn ACL at a still-undetermined time, and without knowing Murray’s motivations to lay his body on the line for a team that doesn’t look very intimidating on paper, it would be hard to blame free agents for steering clear.
The Cardinals are positioning themselves for a better life in 2024, which was cemented by their decision to trade back with the Texans out of the No. 3 spot in this year’s draft (and by taking Hopkins’s cap hit in one year instead of spreading it out over two). They backed out of the quarterback conversation, as well as the market for a potentially premier pass rusher.
And while this was absolutely the right and responsible decision to make, it’s hard for us to project them to have any degree of success. With that in mind, let’s imagine six possible outcomes for the 2023 Cardinals.
1. The Cardinals are actually pretty good in 2023, and Jonathan Gannon coaches them out of the No. 1 pick conversation with a bargain-basement roster
Similar to what David Culley did with the similarly set-up-to-fail 2021 Texans and Brian Flores did with the obviously tanking ’19 Dolphins, this would be bad news for the Cardinals in some respects, but it would also cement their decision to have hired Gannon. This is not always the worst-case scenario and could position Arizona to more quickly rebuild around a healthy Murray.
2. The Cardinals are bad enough to secure the No. 1 pick
As we alluded to up top, the Cardinals’ having the No. 1 pick in the next draft would put them in a significant position of power. While Murray’s return on the trade market is not what it once would have been (and Arizona has had a hard time managing this power dynamic in the past under a former GM, squandering any value Josh Rosen may have had before ultimately picking his successor, anyway) the two-time Pro Bowler is still one of the 10 best players at his position when healthy and can capably run an offense that is not difficult to replicate. There are easily a half dozen teams with quarterback needs immediately apparent in 2024 that would make sensible partners.
Those who argue against a Murray trade note the massive cap hit, which would not be dissimilar to the Matt Ryan dead-cap hit the Falcons sustained. It is manageable, especially through careful ancillary cap management in the time between now and when the Cardinals are ready to move Murray. It is even more manageable if you are building around a rookie quarterback on a cost-controlled salary. Indeed, the Falcons and their turbo-charged reboot around Desmond Ridder, Drake London, Kyle Pitts and Bijan Robinson could be instructive if the Cardinals secure the No. 1 pick and have to move on from a quarterback with massive, complicating cap ramifications.
The flip side to this, of course, is if the new Cardinals staff falls in love with Murray. While I’d consider this the less likely of two scenarios, given Murray’s injury history and durability, it would have the chance to flip the No. 1 pick for something more significant than what the Bears just received (two first-round picks, two second-round picks and a Pro Bowl–caliber player) for the No. 1 pick this year. That kind of arsenal in capable hands could formulate the foundation of a team that could be ready to compete as the divisional-rival 49ers phase out of a stretch of dominance (once stalwarts like George Kittle and Trent Williams age out).
3. The Cardinals are spiraling toward the No. 1 pick and trade Murray at the deadline
On the latest edition of The MMQB Podcast, cohost Albert Breer brought up a valuable perspective: Because the 2024 draft class is going to be coveted, we will see teams start to position themselves accordingly by the deadline. Recent all-out tanking efforts by the Browns, Dolphins and Texans have made these mass sheddings of talent less taboo, and the NFL has gone as far as blessing a Cleveland team that lumped cash onto Hue Jackson’s desk for having more draft picks.
If Murray is ready to play but the Cardinals are not good, and a team is in need of a veteran starter who can contribute right away (or, if a team like the Vikings, Rams, Raiders or Dolphins, knows it’s too good to get a top-two pick but wants to secure a relatively young starter to replace Kirk Cousins, Matthew Stafford, Jimmy Garoppolo or Tua Tagovailoa) Arizona could pull the trigger early, spare itself the pain and confusion of a repeat Rosen situation and shed the Murray contract sooner.
4. The Texans and Cardinals are really bad, giving Arizona the first two picks
There are 13 instances since 1990 of a team winning nine or more games with a rookie quarterback. Many of those occurrences came when the player landed on a prebaked roster that was already in position to compete (see: Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott). More often, the player and the team have to go through some serious growing pains together. I am having a hard time imagining a scenario where this year’s No. 2 pick, C.J. Stroud, doesn’t go through some sort of learning curve. This is especially true given the Texans’ more developmental feel at the pass-catching position.
Let’s say the Texans wind up earning the No. 2 pick, which would then be property of the Cardinals via the Will Anderson Jr. trade. In this scenario, the Cardinals could not only entertain the decision outlined above, but exercise an additional trade option with the other top pick in a draft class that, at least for now, has two perceived “top” QB talents (Caleb Williams and Drake Maye).
They could load up with double what the Bears got for the top pick this year and use all those assets to rebuild around Murray. Or they could take one of the quarterbacks and unload the other pick for complementary players around him. Or they could take the best quarterback and also draft Marvin Harrison Jr., instantly injecting the team with the most anticipated rookie quarterback-wide-receiver tandem in recent memory.
5. The Cardinals are bad enough to get one or both of the top two quarterbacks, and neither of them wants to play there
Again, I don’t see this as likely, but … with the landscape as it is, we cannot rule it out. Let’s imagine a scenario where Gannon does not perform well, and another layer of the franchise’s malfunctioning is exposed. There is currently smoke around Arizona, which lays a target on everyone in the organization’s backs for further digging. Why did the franchise receive three F’s on the NFLPA report card? How bad is it, really? Is there a narrative account of the alleged burner phone scandal out there?
Quarterbacks have more power than ever. This is especially true for someone like Caleb Williams, who has been unanimously considered one of the best prospects of any age in the sport for almost a decade now. The last player to force a draft day trade, Eli Manning, played for more than a decade and is en route to the Hall of Fame.
6. The Cardinals are just kind of bad—not good enough to crown Gannon the Coach of the Year, but not bad enough to secure either of the top two picks
The absolute worst place the Cardinals could wind up is a cold, numb irrelevance. But, even if this is the eventual outcome of their season, Arizona will still have two medium or medium-high first-round picks in the 2024 draft and will undoubtedly be within striking distance to trade up for either Maye or Caleb Williams.
At the very, VERY least—as far as how great a jam the team is in moving forward—the Cardinals could simply reaffirm their commitment to Murray and make the organizational decision to sit out a possible gold rush at the quarterback position. They’d still have Murray, plus help on the way. Though there may still be some damage control needed when the NFL rumor mill inevitably churns out a story about a Cardinals scout catching Maye or Williams in person, or an incoming phone call inquiring about Murray’s possible availability.
If this is the most boring of scenarios, consider me waiting excitedly with popcorn. This is going to be a long and enjoyable NFL season, but very few teams can operate free of far-reaching ramifications that reverberate from what Arizona does in the coming weeks and months.