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Kyler And Company: Several Second-Year Cardinals Making Strides

Byron Murphy, Zach Allen joined Murray as difference-makers against 49ers

CB Byron Murphy celebrates after a game-sealing pass breakup against the 49ers.
CB Byron Murphy celebrates after a game-sealing pass breakup against the 49ers.

Kyler Murray looked like a more confident and decisive quarterback in the first game of his second year on Sunday, the sort of progress that was discussed ad nauseum this offseason.

While his maturation is most important to the Cardinals' success, Murray is not the only member of the 2019 draft class that looks more at ease in Year 2.

Cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. had back-to-back pass breakups on San Francisco's final drive to clinch the win. Defensive end Zach Allen had a sack and two quarterback pressures, and center Lamont Gaillard filled in capably when Mason Cole left the game with a hamstring injury.

The Cardinals had a big draft class in 2019 – wide receiver Andy Isabella, safety Jalen Thompson and wide receiver KeeSean Johnson are among the others – and after inconsistency as rookies, the group could play a key role for this year's team.

"All those guys came back a year older, a year wiser, a year more confident," coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "They were thrown to the wolves last year, put in situations that were tough for any rookie to just be thrown in there and expected to play at a high level and play a lot of snaps. They've all come back with some battle wounds, and they're better for it. I've been really impressed with that group."

When the 2019 class arrived, it joined a Cardinals team that went 3-13 with a disastrous negative-200 point-differential the year prior. Murray said the draft picks banded together quickly and spoke of turning around the team's fortunes.

"We wanted to come in and start something new, start something special," Murray said.

Murray seems to be on a star trajectory after an Offensive Rookie of the Year debut, while safety Jalen Thompson – who is currently on injured reserve with an ankle injury – also had a promising first season.

If Sunday is any indication, Murphy and Allen could soon join them as integral cogs.

"All of our second-year players have taken huge strides," defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. "Zach Allen played really well on Sunday. He's a fast, twitchy defensive lineman. He's not a 300-pounder, so his best trait is his speed, and you could see it on Sunday: he won with speed, he won with quickness. And when a quarterback breaks a pocket, he has the speed to track quarterbacks down.

"And to watch Murphy, after last year playing the most snaps of any rookie in the whole league, and taking some good and some bad, he's obviously learned from it. He's a different player now when you watch him play on Sundays. He's more relaxed. His football IQ is higher. He made a fourth-down stop he wouldn't have made last year."

Gaillard sat his entire rookie year and was a backup heading into the opener, but ended up playing 46 snaps against the 49ers. He had some struggles in the run-blocking department, according to Pro Football Focus, but earned a sterling 83.2 grade in pass protection.

"I hadn't played for a whole year, so I knew that if Sunday was going to be my chance, that I had to take full advantage of it," Gaillard said. "When I got in, it felt good."

At 23, Murray is the youngest starting quarterback in the NFL, while Murphy and Thompson are full-time starters at 22, but's important to them to never let youth be a crutch.

"We kind of pride ourselves on holding ourselves accountable and being able to play well come Sunday at a young age," Murray said.

Murray's presence makes the 2019 draft class immensely valuable already, and if others ascend, the Cardinals will have several key pieces on rookie contracts for the next three years.

There are plenty of veterans essential to the Cardinals' trajectory, but the group that arrived with Kingsbury feels ownership in creating happier times for the franchise.

"When we came in, we were like, 'Yo, we've got to do something different. If not, we're going to be the same culture, the same team,'" Gaillard said. "It's really showed, and we hope to keep moving that way."

Images of the Cardinals practicing at the Dignity Health Training Center on Wednesday, presented by Hyundai.