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32 Teams in 32 Days: Arizona Cardinals

Introduction:

Kliff Kingsbury failed forward on an impressive level this year. The story is well documented of how he got fired as head coach of Texas Tech after three consecutive losing seasons, only to ultimately emerge as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. Not many people can turn getting fired into a promotion, but Kingsbury pulled it off.

Part of the logic-challenged hire surely comes from the insatiable search by NFL front office personnel for the “next Sean McVay.” In Kingsbury’s case, he not only brought the “young offensive mastermind” label to his Cardinals interview, but also the ability to say, “I was the head coach who got Patrick Mahomes ready for the NFL.” Needless to say, Arizona brass couldn’t help themselves and hired him.

Whether or not Kingsbury will manage to evolve his 35-40 career record as a head coach in college into a successful run as a head coach in the NFL remains to be seen. In the meantime, it’s a safe bet that no matter what his win/loss totals are, his team’s Air Raid offense will lead to scoreboard totals that challenge credulity on a regular basis.

For dynasty owners’ purposes, the end result should be an injection of supercharged value into the Arizona skill players who take the field.

Studs:

Kyler Murray – Murray went 42-0 as a starter in high school, winning 3 state championships in the largest division of Texas high school football. He went on to go 2-1 as a starter for Texas A&M as a true freshman in the SEC, then posted a 12-2 mark as a starter at Oklahoma last season. He has excelled (despite his height limitations) at every level against the best competition his peer group had to offer. There is every reason to expect that he will continue finding success in the NFL.

Yes, he will have to be more cautious than ever with his decision making when it comes to running the football. Yes, there will be gargantuan men hunting him, and they’ll be bigger and faster and stronger than any men who have hunted him before. He will need to avoid taking direct hits from them. But if he can do that, Murray has a chance to be one of the truly special players at the position.

Envisioning a Russell Wilson type skillset and performance from Murray is not at all hyperbolic. But unlike Wilson, Murray is working with a coach who wants to sling the football all over the field and run 60 minutes of 2-minute-drill offense. This could get fun in a hurry if you’re a Kyler Murray owner.

David Johnson – For as pass-happy as Kingsbury’s offenses have been, his teams at Houston, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech averaged 124.5 running back rushing yards per game. To be clear, that stat represents exclusively the ground game average for running backs and does not include the rushing totals from QBs like Johnny Manziel and Patrick Mahomes. That comes as quite excellent news for David Johnson owners, since it’s already entirely reasonable to envision Johnson surpassing the 80 receptions he hauled in during the 2016 season.

If you’re dreaming of the sexiest possibility within the range of outcomes, consider these jaw-dropping numbers: When Kingsbury was co-offensive coordinator at Houston in 2011, running backs combined for 322 carries, 1,942 yards, and 28 TD on the ground. Through the air, running backs hauled in 108 receptions for 1,186 yards, and 8 receiving TD. And that was all in 14 games. If those stats were all accrued by one workhorse running back, for the purposes of this thought exercise, he would have scored 636.8 fantasy points going into the semifinals week of your fantasy playoff bracket.

And keep in mind that those ridiculous RB numbers from the 2011 Houston team came from a squad whose top 3 wide receiver stat lines ran: 89/1752/20 … 87/1229/12 … and 96/958/5. The 2011 Cougars averaged 599.1 yards of total offense each week. In 7 of their 14 games, Houston ran 80+ offensive plays, topping out at 98 offensive snaps in their only loss of the season, a 49-28 stunner against Southern Mississippi in the Conference USA championship game.

Granted, the strength of schedule faced by those Cougars was not exactly a savage gauntlet. They did beat UCLA to open the season, and they bounced back to beat Penn State in the Cotton Bowl, but the vast majority of their remaining opponents were…overmatched, let’s put it that way. The opposition will be much stiffer in the NFL, of course. But the prolific capabilities of the Air Raid offense are still noteworthy, and they bode well for the chances of David Johnson to finish as the RB1 overall for the second time in his career.

(For a deeper dive on David Johnson, check out this excellent article dynasty nerd Steven Spaccarotelli put out early this month, in which he makes a detailed case for Johnson’s continued elite value.)

Duds:

Ricky Seals-Jones – It turns out that it sucks being a tight end in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, unless you’re Jace Amaro anyway. Amaro was undoubtedly a beast in Kingsbury’s first season at Texas Tech in 2013, leading the Red Raiders in both receptions and yards, posting a stat line of 106 receptions, 1,352 yards, and 7 touchdowns. Replication of that kind of stat line would be an ideal scenario for Seals-Jones owners, but nothing even remotely close to that ever happened for another Texas Tech tight end in the half decade since.

Other than Amaro’s lone unicorn season, Kingsbury’s tight ends have been ghosts. In his one season as offensive coordinator at Texas A&M in 2012, two tight ends combined to compile a state line of 9 receptions for 77 yards. In his two previous seasons as co-offensive coordinator at Houston, the tight end stat line over those two seasons combined was 1 reception for 12 yards.

And at Texas Tech, since Amaro’s outlier campaign of terror in 2013, the five subsequent seasons have seen tight ends compile the following composite stat line: 0 receptions for 0 yards. (Gulp.)

The stark reality is that Kingsbury has shown a penchant for using wide receivers and running backs, but not tight ends. Perhaps Kingsbury adapts to the personnel on his roster and utilizes Seals-Jones as functionally just a giant wide receiver; that’s possible, but based on Kingsbury’s history, it’s well within the range of outcomes that Cardinals tight ends may evaporate for fantasy purposes in the Arizona heat.

That doesn’t mean that there is no hope at all for Seals-Jones. After all, he is a converted wide receiver (which was his listed position for the duration of his college career), and there is a band-getting-back-together element for Seals-Jones and Murray, who previously connected on the field during Murray’s one season at Texas A&M in 2015. But it remains entirely reasonable to register concern about how much opportunity that chemistry will have to manifest itself on the field if Kingsbury rolls out 10 personnel on a steady basis.

The Cardinals did select tight end Caleb Wilson with the last pick of the 7th round, so if there is hope for the tight end position in Arizona, it may lie in stashing Wilson on a taxi squad while he develops. With that in mind, Wilson has been filed as a “stash” later in this article. 

Kevin White – There was a faint blip on the dynasty radar for some folks when Kevin White signed with Arizona earlier in the offseason. But it’s intervention time for any stubborn Kevin White truthers who still remain: Stop trying to make fetch happen.

Is it conceivably possible that Kevin White finally stays healthy, earns playing time, and finds success on the field in Arizona? Sure, it’s possible. But it’s also possible that aliens exist, though you can probably hold off on believing in them until one shows up at your door asking for a phone, a bike ride, and some Reese’s Pieces.

In a similar spirit of skepticism, it’s probably safe to wait on believing in the myth of Kevin White until he scores double-digit fantasy points in more than two NFL games (which would surpass his career total of double digit scoring games).

Somewhere Between Stud & Dud:

Larry Fitzgerald – Fitzgerald posted the lowest receiving yards total of his career in 2018, despite playing all 16 games. He still did enough to remain a WR3, finishing as WR28 overall. However, Fitzgerald actually finished the season as a WR2 down the stretch, scoring as WR18 overall from weeks 7-16 after a horrid first six weeks where he posted WR67 totals.

After considering retirement, he returned to the team on a one-year deal. Perhaps the new offense and new QB reinvigorate Fitzgerald and help him cap off his career with a renaissance campaign for the ages. Or more likely, an impending breakout season by Christian Kirk (more on that below) could clip Fitzgerald’s target share slightly and keep him in the low-end WR2 or high-end WR3 range. Either way, he remains a solid dynasty hold as a startable asset, but his value cliff is looming on the horizon.

Breakouts:

Christian Kirk – Kirk would have been a popular breakout candidate this fall even without the potentially prolific offense and the QB phenom coming to town. But factoring both of those additions in, a prosperous future seems in store for Kirk, and his return on investment appears ready to turn a profit in the 2019 season.

After a miserable week 1 game to begin his career, Kirk quickly started figuring things out and performed as a low-end WR3 (WR32 overall) from weeks 2-13, when a fractured foot ended his rookie season. The fact that Kirk managed to even become serviceable on a poorly coached team with subpar QB play in his rookie campaign is noteworthy and promising.

Considering his 2nd round draft capital, 93rd percentile breakout age, and his performance in his first NFL season, it’s no surprise that Kirk has been a regular on “breakout candidate” lists all over the fantasy landscape. The hype is deserved, and it won’t be a shock if Kirk takes over as the top receiving option on his team and as a regular starter (and trade target) on dynasty teams everywhere.

Andy Isabella – We may not be able to believe much of anything NFL coaches and GMs say, but what they do certainly speaks volumes and is worth our attention. In that regard, the selection of Andy Isabella in the 2nd round of the draft spoke loud and clear. Dynasty owners will be wise to pay attention to that message.

With a much-hyped D.K. Metcalf still available with the 62nd pick, and with draftnik darling Hakeem Butler also up for the taking (if he was their priority target), the Cardinals selected Isabella as their marquis young receiver to pair with Kyler Murray, their marquis young quarterback.

Isabella vaporized stopwatches at the combine, running a 4.31 in the 40 (100th percentile). His other metrics are all upper percentile, with the exception of his catch radius (44th percentile), which is no stunner for a player who stands 5-9/180.

Common knocks on Isabella often focus on the low-hanging fruit of the UMASS schedule. But his performances against Power-5 conference opponents were decent as a sophomore, strong as a junior, and excellent as a senior.

Sophomore season:

2016 Game Logs Table
ReceReceReceReceRushRushRushRush
RkDateOpponentRecYdsAvg TDAttYdsAvgTD
22016-09-10Boston College35518.30133.00
42016-09-24Mississippi State6325.30000
82016-10-22@South Carolina5377.40461.50
Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 6/19/2019.

Junior season:

2017 Game Logs Table
ReceReceReceReceRushRushRushRush
RkDateOpponentRecYdsAvgTDAttYdsAvgTD
52017-09-23@Tennessee34615.3024422.00
92017-11-04@Mississippi State715822.61155.00
Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 6/19/2019.

Senior season:

2018 Game Logs Table
ReceReceReceReceRushRushRushRush
RkDateOpponentRecYdsAvg TDAttYdsAvgTD
22018-09-01@Boston College59619.2011414.00
122018-11-17@Georgia1521914.622105.00
Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 6/19/2019.

Another element of Isabella’s game that bodes well for him is his versatility. He can play inside or outside, and once the ball is in his hands, he turns into a running back in the open field. That’s a trait that has been much more widely associated with a prospect like Deebo Samuel, but it applies to Isabella as well, and with good reason: Isabella arrived at UMASS as a running back, and that remained his listed position on the roster during his freshman season. He made the switch to wide receiver as a sophomore and began his explosive career arc from there.

Isabella has the pure speed to be a deep threat and the agility to use double moves to get there. But he can also flex his adaptability to line up in the slot as needed. With that said, it’s not unreasonable to think that Kingsbury may have been looking to find an Arizona version of Houston Texans slot receiver Keke Coutee, who was the leading receiver in Kingsbury’s offense at Texas Tech in 2017. Both players share some strikingly similar numbers on their respective resumés:

Coutee: 5-10/181, 4.43, 11.08 agility score, 93/1,429/10 (15.4 ypr) in his final college season

Isabella: 5-9/188, 4.31, 11.10 agility score, 102/1,698/13 (16.6 ypr) in his final college season

Kingsbury handpicked Kyler Murray as the QB he always wanted to run his offense, and in Andy Isabella, he has handpicked the player he views as the best receiver to weaponize in his system. If Kingsbury has evaluated well, it may not take long for Isabella to become a star.

(For more on Isabella, check out this article by Dynasty Nerds writer Gilbert Bennett, who makes a vehement argument for Isabella’s extraordinary value as a dynasty prospect.)

Somewhere Between Breakout & Stash:

Chase Edmonds – Let’s keep this one short and simple: The Cardinals are going to run a metric ton of plays. David Johnson can “do it all” as a running back, but he’s also a human being who will get fatigued. That means as a baseline that Edmonds, a sneaky good backup with excellent hands, will end up with more work in 2019 than he saw as a rookie. It’s certainly within his range of outcomes that Edmonds’ floor is that of a serviceable flex play, even if David Johnson stays healthy all season. And yet Edmonds could easily end up significantly more valuable than that.

Kingsbury has shown a history of utilizing multiple backs to split the load. The one year he employed a true workhorse was in 2015 during Deandre Washington’s senior season. But even in that year, backup RB Justin Stockton racked up over 700 scrimmage yards and 11 total TD.

There’s every reason to believe that Chase Edmonds can offer a significant return on his current price, which is highly affordable at 197 overall (RB 62). Of course, if David Johnson misses any time with an injury, Edmonds will have a chance to outperform his ADP by a country mile.

Stashes:

Hakeem Butler & Andy Isabella Training Camp

Hakeem Butler – Draft Twitter and Dynasty Twitter were in love with Butler in the lengthy lead-up to April’s NFL draft. In the final weeks before the festivities in Nashville, reports began emerging that NFL scouts did not value him on a level commensurate to his buzz online among observers. When the draft finally began, NFL executives proved those reports true by letting Butler dwindle on the board overnight after day 2 of the draft.

The Cardinals ended his slide immediately on day 3, snagging him with the first pick in the 4th round. But even though Butler’s talent is tantalizing in many ways, dynasty owners should temper expectations for him in year one.

Granted, Butler has some extraordinary metrics (97th percentile speed score and college YPR, 96th percentile catch radius), but his route refinement concerns and frequent drops are no secret, and they will have the potential to impact his stock, making him more likely to learn under the mentorship of Larry Fitzgerald this season in hopes of setting up a potential breakout in 2020.

Of course, it remains possible that Butler could excel out of the gate in the NFL, but there seem to be enough complications involved to likely keep him planted on fantasy benches (or taxi squads) this fall.

Caleb Wilson – The conundrum of being a tight end in a Kliff Kingsbury offense was detailed above, but if Kingsbury wants to use Wilson as a humongous wide receiver, Wilson has flashed that sort of receiving potential, leading UCLA last year in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns (60/965/4).

Wilson’s 4.56 in the 40 is a 95th percentile time for tight ends, and he has other metrics on his resumé that pop, including a 91st percentile college dominator rating, 87th percentile speed score, and 86th percentile college yards per reception.

In fact, Wilson ran faster at the combine than 3rd-round running backs Damien Harris, David Montgomery, and Devin Singletary. Comparing Wilson’s 40 time to wide receivers, he ran faster than Jalen Hurd, Riley Ridley, Kelvin Harmon, and new Cardinals teammate KeeSean Johnson, among others. Somewhat predictably then, in relation to his position group, the only tight end who ran faster than Wilson was Noah Fant, meaning that Wilson beat dynasty darlings like Irv Smith, T.J. Hockensen, Dawson Knox, and the rest of the tight end field by a relatively significant margin.

The fact that Wilson was actually drafted with the last “Mr. Irrelevant” pick is noteworthy, because his agent almost certainly would have encouraged him to sign almost anywhere except Arizona, considering Kingsbury’s history with the tight end position. But that’s all the more reason to think that Kingsbury may believe Wilson can function as some sort of Freak Show enormous wide receiver who can be a red zone threat and seam stretcher down the middle. If Wilson can fill that role, he could end up having legitimate value down the line.

(For a deeper dive on Wilson, check out the fantastic profile article published by Dynasty Nerds writer Josh Robbins last month; the article goes into greater detail about Wilson’s potential as a prospect, and it is most definitely worth a read if you missed it back in May.)

Summary:

The end takeaway here is that the Arizona Cardinals offense should win the hearts of fantasy owners in 2019. It may or may not end up translating into actual winning football on the field, but that’s for Cardinals fans to worry about. For dynasty owners, the #2-3YearWindow looks bright.

Thank you for reading! Follow me on Twitter @DynastyTools for more dynasty content and discussion.

Postscript side note: Since you’re officially an über nerd if you read this far (and I use that term reverentially), a fantastic book about the Air Raid offense is S.C. Gwynne’s The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football, which was released in 2017. The book is primarily about Hal Mumme, the primary innovator associated with the early days of the Air Raid. Washington State head coach (and passing guru) Mike Leach was on Mumme’s staff for years and coached Kingsbury at Texas Tech during Kingsbury’s playing days. The book is highly readable (or a great listen as an audiobook), and it should be on any football nerd’s reading list.

Acknowledgments: All cited game stats in this article from research at Sports Reference.


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