The Cardinals are off to a promising start in 2020 with a 5-2 record heading into their bye. They sit a half-game behind the Seahawks in the NFC West and are in the thick of the playoff race.
Before the stretch run beckons, azcardinals.com checked in with four national analysts to get their thoughts on the team.
Q: What kind of expectations did you have for the Cardinals when the season began, and have they been adjusted after the 5-2 start?
Dan Orlovsky, former QB/ESPN analyst: "I said this before the season: that they would be a team that nobody wanted to play every week. They were just going to be a difficult game every week because Kyler Murray is such a special player, and their offense is so diverse. And then the defense maybe nationally people don't think as a group is any good, but when you actually watch the tape and look at the names, it's like, 'Oh, he's a good player, and he's a good player.' There are individual names that are good players, and the defense has been the surprising unit. … My expectations were that they were going to be a team that was difficult to face every week. I did not think, like, 'Is this a playoff football team?' I was like, 'I don't think they are there yet,' but they are closer to being a playoff team than I thought, and I think that's because of the growth of Kliff (Kingsbury)."
Aaron Schatz, Editor-In-Chief for FootballOutsiders.com: "I think my projection was that they would be a little bit above average, and they have been a little bit better than that so far. I think we thought they would be competing for a playoff spot but probably not the division title, and I think that's kind of what (they've done). Record-wise they are more competing for the division title than I expected, but this is about where I expected them to be. They are a good team in a tough division."
Mike Sando, Senior NFL Writer for The Athletic: "I thought the Cardinals could push to be around the .500 range, but now that they are 2-0 within the division, with victories over the 49ers and Seahawks, we can bump up those expectations. The NFC East is worse than anticipated, so that will give teams from the NFC West a boost also."
Steven Ruiz, Lead NFL Writer at USA Today’s For The Win: "I thought they were probably like a fringe wild card team. … They've met expectations, which was always going to be hard to do, because after the DeAndre Hopkins trade, everyone has these expectations for Kyler Murray. They were comparing him to Lamar Jackson and Pat Mahomes, in that he could break out in his second year and be an MVP candidate. They haven't quite met those expectations – last week was really the first week where we were like 'This offense is starting to look like we thought it would look like,' especially the passing game. The running game has been productive, but the passing game kind of looked disjointed over the first month-and-a-half of the season. But if it continues on, the things we saw against Seattle, I think this is a team that could exceed even my expectations of being a fringe wild card contender and maybe make a run at this division."
Q: What are your impressions of Kyler Murray? Is he close to stardom?
Orlovsky: "Oh, Kyler's at stardom. He's must-see television every time he plays. There is no one else in the league that is as jaw-dropping as a runner and as explosive as a runner, but also as good as a thrower. Lamar is probably a better runner, especially long speed. Their playmaking is kind of similar, but Kyler is a better thrower of the football than Lamar, when it comes to pure throwing. Lamar is really good at that, but Kyler is better. Kyler started this season off so hot. His first couple of games were so strong and then he hit that two-game stretch where he didn't play super great. I think it was Carolina and (Detroit). We were talking about it on NFL Live, and he was going through the experience of when teams decide to play zone coverage, and understanding that when you play against zone coverage, you have to throw into windows and not against people. That was a little bit of a two-game learning curve for him. These last couple of weeks, he's been much more like himself, and then having the opportunity to play on national television Sunday the way he did, that was huge. I think Kyler is a star. He's one-of-one in the NFL right now."
Schatz: "Yeah, I think so. Their offensive pass rating is not as good as I would have expected it to be. They are only 15th. But obviously Murray has great value as a runner. And when it comes to some stats, he's pretty strong. He's got a positive completion percentage above expectation, based on the type of throw he's making. They go deep a lot, so it's harder when you go deep to connect than it is when you go short. Isn't he a star kind of already? They used him to promote the Sunday night game, right?"
Sando: "With Kyler Murray, we are seeing him justify the high early marks he received when 50 coaches and evaluators placed him atop Tier 3 in my annual QB Tiers survey. I'd expect him to push into the second tier after this season, which means, yes, he is close to stardom. There are still some questions about how consistent he can become as a passer if/when teams keep him in the pocket. That can be a tough final hurdle for quarterbacks to clear, and one that is still important, in my opinion, even as the game evolves. That is the one area where his size could work against him, forcing him to adapt the way Russell Wilson has adapted. Can he do that? I don't know, but so far he seems right on track."
Ruiz: "Yeah. Especially based off what I saw Sunday night. I think it's been kind of rough for him – in the first month the offense wasn't really cohesive. It was a bit disjointed. I think the passing game is getting a little bit better. I think Kliff is doing a better job of letting Kyler throw downfield on early downs and not putting him in third-and-long situations, which are tough for any quarterback, and especially so for such a young quarterback. Kyler only had one year as a starter in college. Last year was basically only his second year as a full-time starter at a major level. So I'm not surprised that it may have taken a bit longer than some of the people that were talking MVP before the season, but I really think in the second half, we're going to start to see Kyler look like a bonafide top-10 quarterback."
Q: What do you think could hold the Cardinals back the rest of the way?
Orlovsky: "I think the other teams in the NFC West, especially San Francisco and the Rams, can decide that you know what? We're going to dominate the line of scrimmage and pound the football, and we'll keep two possessions out of your quarterback's hand, while also still scoring. There is a difference between owning the football and dominating the game, both in time and score. I don't know if the Cardinals defense is good enough when those two teams decide to play a little bit of bloodier-nose football, if they can be as committed and good enough at stopping the run, yet as efficient offensively to utilize seven possessions instead of nine or ten."
Schatz: "The weakness of the team – it's interesting, because there aren't a lot of weaknesses. There are a lot of places where they are good but not great. They have a lot of good but not great stats, and not a lot of great stats. There is nowhere where they are just outstanding. They're good enough to win some (of the remaining games) but not all of them. That's why I wouldn't expect them (to win the division). Looking at our latest playoff odds report, Arizona makes the playoffs 66 percent of the time, and they win the division 26 percent of the time. That goes pretty much with what I think. I think it would be really tough for them to win the division over Seattle and the Rams, but they have a good chance of making the playoffs in a wild card spot."
Sando: "Explosive play-making in the pass game and overall defensive talent could hold back the Cardinals. Arizona ranks 31st, ahead of only the Jets, in percentage of passes gaining more than 15 yards. Does that matter ultimately when the QB can create gains with his legs, and so many passes are short ones that are subbing for running plays? On defense, losing Chandler Jones hurts. They were able to produce protection breakdowns for Seattle at critical times the other night, which helped overcome that."
Ruiz: "I think the secondary. I think that was the concern going into the season, and I don't think they've alleviated those concerns at all. It's harder for them because of the Chandler Jones injury. That's going to affect the pass-rush, obviously, and there's such a symbiotic relationship between coverage and pass rush. Chandler going down makes their job even harder, and I don't know if they were up to the task to begin with. And now the task is so much harder. That's my biggest concern going forward."
Q: What is the team's biggest strength?
Orlovsky: "I'd say both red zone offense and red zone defense. Red zone offense because Kyler can be used as a runner. A lot of teams in the NFL are more often than not pretty good 20 (yard-line) to 20. Can you be really, really good when the points on the scoreboard are directly affected? They are really good at red zone offense, and they've become a stingy red zone defense, and that's because they are really good communicating. You saw it on the Budda Baker pick. That's all because of communication."
Schatz: "It's the running game, definitely, but also I did a piece for ESPN a couple weeks ago – their offensive line is surprisingly strong. They lead the league in average yards before contact, they are currently first in pass-block win rate and second in run-block win rate, and in Sports Info Solutions' numbers, they have four of the five Cardinals offensive linemen among the top-40 linemen in the league in their total points earned metric. That's a not very well-known group of players who are playing really well."
Sando: "Having a young QB with ability lifts up everyone in the organization."
Ruiz: "Having a star quarterback. Kyler is developing into that star quarterback this season, and when you have a guy like that, it gives you such a bigger margin for error. Like you saw on Sunday, they made those mistakes and made some coaching mistakes. They didn't capitalize on some opportunities they had, and it didn't matter because they had Kyler. His unique skillset allowed those late drives to happen. He just unlocks so much for that offense and for the team as a whole."
Q: How would you handicap the NFC West?
Orlovsky: "I'd say the Rams stand out. I took the Rams to win the division before the season started, just because I think they are the most complete football team. ... I said this (Tuesday): the common theme of all the NFC West teams is one, they've all got great coaching, two, all of their quarterbacks are playing good football, but the differentiator is the Rams have at least some form of a defense. Seattle right now doesn't. San Francisco is just so banged up, but they might be getting healthier. Arizona, if their defense continues to buckle down in crucial situations, they're going to be really, really difficult to play against. I could convince anybody that any team in that division is going to win. I truly feel confident saying that. I can't do that in any other division."
Schatz: "We've got Seattle 38%, the Rams 27, Arizona 26 and the 49ers 9 (to win the NFC West). The deal is, the 49ers and the Rams, their schedules get much harder going forward. Arizona's schedule gets a little harder, and Seattle's schedule gets even less a little bit harder. There's not much change to Seattle's. We have the entire division having a winning record 38% of the time, but the entire division making the playoffs only 5% of the time because New Orleans and Tampa Bay are so good."
Sando: "The NFC West is tough to handicap. All the teams are good but flawed. I default to the team with the best QB (Seattle) but think the Seahawks will have a hard time sweeping any season series in the division."
Ruiz: "I would probably put Seattle as the top team in that division, and I think I would go Rams over the Cardinals at this point, though I feel like the Cardinals, Rams and 49ers are stuck in a group just below Seattle. But Arizona has the best point-differential in the division. Maybe what we saw against Seattle, that's what we'll see going forward. And if that's the case – the defense playing well and the offense starting to click in both phases, the passing game and the running game – I would not be surprised if the Cardinals are right there by the Seahawks by December."
Q: Does anything else stand out to you about the Cardinals?
Orlovsky: "I think Kliff has grown as a coach. I think he's grown in understanding the NFL isn't college, so to speak. Understanding how sometimes going too fast isn't great. You've seen him pull back his tempo a bit. You've seen him in situational football commit to the run, which I think a lot of people didn't necessarily anticipate would be the case. They thought it would be, 'Let's throw it 65 times a game' type thing. I think his growth in understanding how connected football is has been really impressive."
Schatz: "I'm probably in agreement that Chase Edmonds has been better than Kenyan Drake. Yeah, Edmonds has been really good compared to Drake, as a receiver especially. Edmonds has a lot of value as a receiver. And I was fascinated before the season about how they were going to use Isaiah Simmons, and the answer is they weren't going to use Isaiah Simmons. I can tell you Budda Baker has been pretty awesome, but you know that. We have a stat called defeats. Defeats count up three things: tackle for loss, turnovers and plays that prevent a third- or fourth-down conversion. In other words, big defensive plays. Budda Baker is tied for the league lead with 16, the highest among defensive backs. He's tied with Devin White, Lavonte David and T.J. Watt."
Ruiz: "I think the defensive scheme has been better than a lot of people expected going into the season. There were a lot of question marks about Vance Joseph, and I think he's answered those. Especially on Sunday night. He was dealing with personnel deficiencies, and he was still matching wits with the Seahawks and giving Russell Wilson problems late. And I'd also say DeAndre Hopkins, how he's been able to seamlessly join this offense and be just as productive as he was in Houston. I think a lot of credit has to go to Kliff there, taking a star player and using him in the right way."
Images of the Cardinals cheerleaders during the "Sunday Night Football" matchup against Seattle at State Farm Stadium.