Football Outsiders is a data-driven football site that doesn't adhere to typical narratives about teams.
Last year, it stood out because of its optimism regarding the Cardinals, projecting the team to win 8.1 games when most others expected less.
While many believe the Cardinals will surpass last year's 8-8 record in 2021, Football Outsiders is again going against the grain. The analytics site projects the team to finish below .500 this year, pegging the Cardinals at an average of 7.9 wins in their one million simulations of the 17-game season.
There are two major reasons that account for the lower projection: The offensive decline from 2019 to 2020, and the expectation of defensive regression in 2021.
The Cardinals finished No. 13 in offensive DVOA in 2019, but dropped to No. 19 in 2020 despite a year of experience under the belt of quarterback Kyler Murray and coach Kliff Kingsbury.
While Murray will be edging closer to his prime in 2021, Football Outsiders editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz isn't sold on a breakout campaign. The offense is projected to finish No. 16 in the NFL this year.
"Now that Josh Allen had a big Year 3 jump last year, everybody is going to be looking for quarterbacks to have big Year 3 jumps," said Schatz, whose Football Outsiders Almanac is available on Amazon. "But they're not that common. Usually the jump is between Year 1 and Year 2. So I wouldn't go into this year simply thinking: Well, Kyler Murray is in Year 3, therefore there is going to be a jump."
The offense played well early in the season, but as noted by author Vincent Verhei in the Cardinals chapter of the book, struggled mightily after the second Seahawks game. Murray injured his shoulder in that contest, which both he and Kingsbury have acknowledged affected the offense down the stretch.
Verhei, though, believes defensive adjustments, a run game drop-off and the lack of downfield passing were bigger culprits.
"I'm sure it didn't help he was less than 100 percent, but I think there was more going on than that," Verhei said.
The Cardinals made a sizable jump on defense a year ago, improving from No. 23 in the NFL to No. 10 in DVOA. It's not easy to sustain that type of turnaround, and the projection has the group dropping back down to No. 19 in the league.
There are also concerns about Watt and high-profile pass-rushing counterpart Chandler Jones.
"Prime J.J. Watt and prime Chandler Jones –that's what Cardinals fans have in their heads," Schatz said. "They are guys in their early-30s who've had worrying injury histories."
Schatz and Verhei agree that the defense has a wider range of outcomes than the offense based on the health and production of Jones, Watt and veteran cornerback Malcolm Butler.
"I'd guess they have a little bit more variance because of the top defensive guys being a little older and possibly regaining their youth," Schatz said. "They could be better than we're projecting."
The Cardinals are again in an extremely tough division, as the Seahawks, Rams and 49ers are all ranked in the top-10 in DVOA heading into the season.
The Cardinals are given a 31.9 percent chance to make the playoffs and a 2.6 percent chance to make the Super Bowl.
With Kingsbury heading into his third season, Schatz believes the expectation in Arizona will be a postseason berth, even if his projections aren't confident in it happening.
"It probably is playoffs or bust," Schatz said. "They don't need the top seed for the season to look good, but I think they need to make the playoffs for the season to look like a success."
Images of the Cardinals' defensive linemen heading into training camp.