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You've Got Mail: Championship Game Week

Topics include 2022 opponents, free agents-to-be, and Budda's approach

Conner Mailbag

The NFL is on to its championship games after an exhilarating weekend of divisional games. I am on to another mailbag. As always, you can send in a question for a future mailbag here.

From Bob Kitsos:

"Hi Darren. Enjoy the mailbag. It's a fun and informative read. Your thoughts on the 17-game schedule this season and the Cardinals' 2022 schedule (looks tough)? Also, what specific areas does the team need to drill down on this offseason?"

The 17-game season is what it is. I would've preferred to keep it at 16, but there is a lot more money in 17 games (and likely 18 somewhere down the road) and this was inevitable. As for next year's opponents, yes, it looks tough for now. But who knows what can happen? The Bucs and Brady come to mind -- I believe he keeps playing, but what will that roster look like? What will the Rams roster look like? Heck, we don't even know what the Cardinals will look like. With specific areas about the Cards, not sure what exactly what you are asking -- they need to figure out their free agents, of course. They had done a little better with the pre-snap penalties thing until the end, and they need to try to figure out why the team has faded down the stretch two years in a row. Further evolution of Kyler Murray is also a must.

From Jesse L:

"With the key impending free agents, who do you view as most likely to return? I know you mentioned that Christian Kirk would like to return. It seems like there are no 'locks' to be back. And do you see any obvious cap casualties? Jordan Phillips and Devon Kennard seem to make sense from a contract vs. performance standpoint, but I also don't know how the dead money would work."

Once we get to this point, I don't know if I see a lock, from the simple standpoint that locks are guys you need to make sure are under contract before now. The reality is, unless a guy is really excited about an offer, he might as well wait to see what the market will bear. Yes, that brings with it a certain amount of risk, because the Cardinals could decide to move on, but for some of these guys, this is their best/only chance at a big deal. I think they find a way to keep Conner and McCoy. Beyond that, it'll be about money. As for cap "casualties," remember it isn't so much that it's a cap casualty as much as the team doesn't want to pay the salary for which a player is contracted for. So yes, I could see them looking at Philips and Kennard. They asked Pugh to take a pay cut last year; I don't know if that would be considered again (or if Pugh would even consider such a thing again.)

From Vincent B:

"Hey Darren! After Budda Baker's scary collision with Cam Akers and especially because he just became a father, do you think this will impact his yet so fearless style of play in terms of being a little bit more cautious when attacking opponents or do you think he will just continue his fearlessness (which I really admire)? Thanks for your great articles including the mailbag and greetings from Germany!"

It's an interesting concept, but no, knowing Baker the way I do, I do not believe it'll change him. That dude is just wired to go hard like he does. It's all he knows.

From Cindy Dobbins:

"Do you see a way we can keep Ertz, Edmonds, Conner, Williams, Kirk and Chandler Jones? Do we look at Haason Reddick to come back? Thanks for the mailbag."

Do I see a way? Yes, there is a way. Do I think all those guys are retained? No. There are going to options for most of them, and in the end, choices will have to be made, by the team and by the players. As for Reddick, I wouldn't close that door. If Jones leaves, the Cardinals will need an edge rusher badly, and they know Reddick (and he knows them.) Would be a fascinating turn of events if Haason were to return.

From Grant Anderson:

"The fact Kyler doesn't run as much has been pointed out but I have a bigger area of concern. It seems our downturn start when Kyler gets hurt. Year One was because he didn't run and wasn't ready to turn into Russell Wilson, Year Two he ran less but wasn't really there yet to carry it mostly on his arm, then he got hurt and while he played he just wasn't effective. This year he got hurt and missed games and let's be honest the offense and he were never in sync. I'm OK if he isn't running as much but he just can't be so out of sync when he comes back. Do you think it's more playcalling to protect him or more him getting into his own head missing wide open receivers time and time again after the injury?"

OK, I'm confused to what you are asking. Your whole post was about injuries and running but at the end you talk about playcalls or his inaccuracy? He ran more in his second year than his rookie year, less this year. Yes, his injury made a difference in 2020. I don't think it did this year, unless there is a mental component I am not seeing (and if that is so, he needs to find out how to get past that.) I don't think his injury had anything to do with 2021; he played well against the Bears and he was OK against the Rams in the next game back, save for two bad interceptions -- which were not injury-related. I do think the running component is the part of his game that the Cardinals need to take a hard look at this offseason. He is dynamic with the threat of his running. How can they fold that into the gameplan and still have Kyler feel comfortable that he isn't risking his season every time he runs it?

From Rob Ert:

"May not be so much a question, more of a statement. I haven't heard you comment on Kliff Kingsbury and his end-of-season issues, but I'm tired of hearing all the other all-knowing. It is true that the team had issues the end of the last two years. They also had many major players out. That's neither here nor there, but Kyler Murray was out for games and when he came back he really wasn't the same. A good example from another team was Seattle and Wilson. He was out about four weeks and it took them about four or five weeks to right themselves. That was about the time of the playoff game for the Cardinals. I could be wrong, but they needed time. Also, Kyler looked like he was in major panic mode thru the first half of the playoff game. My only question is why isn't Kingsbury getting the benefit of the doubt? I feel 11 wins for a team most felt would be lucky to get 7 or 8 is a pretty good season, don't you? Sorry for the rambling, just don't feel Kingsbury should take majority of blame. Thanks for your patience."

Let start with the Kyler part of this, which I partially addressed earlier. I don't know if he was rusty when he returned, but he played the last six regular-season games, so there was no excuse from the injury when it came to the playoff game. And injuries happen -- it still doesn't make a lot of sense why the Cardinals fell off like they did. In terms of Kingsbury, he's going to get blame because he is the head coach. That's how this works. There may be things out of his control, but when you are the boss, the buck stops there. I don't think people were predicting an 8-win team; I saw an 11-win team if they had everything go right, and when they started 7-0 and 10-2, I adjusted up (and felt I had been clearly wrong.) When you start like that, finishing the way they did makes a difference.

From Sebas Q:

"Don't you ever wonder how some teams miss out on such a good player on the draft? I get it's a player that turned out incredible in two or three years because he needed development. But for example, Justin Jefferson. He has been stellar since Day 1 and was in the bottom half of the first round. How do teams just miss him? Surely players who are good from Day 1 can be recognized immediately. I do understand draft needs but many receivers went before him for example. Just odd to me."

I know the Cardinals liked Jefferson, because his college coach was on staff (Jerry Sullivan, who raved about him.) But yeah, needs matter. The reality is, when you are trying to figure out if a 21- or 22-year-old is going to be really good on the professional level, there are always unknowns. Remember Aaron Curry? You don't? Let me refresh your memory -- he was the pass rusher everyone thought was the guaranteed "can't-miss, pick him and he will be good for a decade" in 2009. The Seahawks took him, and .... yeah. With Jefferson, for instance, yeah, I don't necessarily understand why he went behind, for instance, Reagor, but again, teams have ways they look at players. There is a reason why good players go later in the first round, or later in the draft, or why bad players get picked in the first round. This is high level guesstimating. That's all. Every single team has players it missed on/should've picked. Every single year.

From Jason Futrell:

"First time mailbagger here. Can you think of another QB who had bad first postseason start who was able to turn it around. I'm just hoping that game doesn't stick with Kyler and he is able to rebound. Love the mailbag and thanks Darren for always bringing me back to reality."

Here's a guy who struggled his first three playoff games. Not saying this means Kyler ends up great, but yes, it's happened.


From Jason Beckum:

"As a fan I would like to know is there any hope with what we can look forward to in 2022. Over past several years our draft classes don't produce. If you compare our rookies amongst there draft class we are a failure. Do we not have the proper people and support in place to teach? Since Kingsbury has been here we have only won nine home games in three years. The team seems to run out of everything midyear. Within the division we seem to be the bullied although we have some wins, Kyler is running around the playground scared. What changes are going to happen to give the fans some hope?"

I get the frustration, and the way the playoff game went left a major sour taste. But this thing about being bullied in the division I don't understand; they went 4-2 in the regular season and the two losses, they didn't particularly play well and still were within a TD of both. I'd have to go back and look, but it feels sometimes like there have been more negative vibes after an 11-win season than there were after this team won three games and had the worst record in the league in 2018. If you legit have zero hope at this point, I don't know what to say (other than I feel like it's a pure emotional reaction and not based in reality.) Kyler needs to improve but this is nowhere near the Anderson/Kolb/Skelton seasons. The defense lost its consistency, but it isn't exactly worse than some of the playoff defenses I saw this weekend. Yes, Kliff Kingsbury needs to find a way for his team to finish stronger, and we will see how the roster-building goes in the offseason. But there is hope because it's the NFL. Hope is built-in, especially when you have a physically gifted QB.

From Thomas Krepelka:

"In recent draft history, there is a disconnect between the college scouting department, the GM, and the coaching staff. Players drafted for positions they aren't ready for: Reddick, Simmons, Collins. Players drafted based on one specific skillset: Isabella (but the list of WRs drafted and not producing is long and not distinguished). Or draft picks rated higher than the Cardinals drafted, but then aren't really ready (especially true of OL). Does the scouting department grade players out (draft eligible players, not pro scouting) on an objective scale, and then it's up to the coaching staff to mold those talents to a scheme, or are the scouts grading the players on a biased scale as to how those players would fit within a scheme. Have a great day sir, thank you for the opportunity to interact in this format."

When the Cardinals come together for draft meetings, the whole point is to filter them through a "Cardinals lens" to see if what they do makes sense with what the Cardinals are trying to do. Yes, they ultimately also have an objective grade, but the grade that is carried into the draft/on the draft board is how they see him with the current Cardinals. Coaches are part of that process.

From Jake W:

"Currently sitting here watching the Bengals vs Titans game. You can say it's sloppy offensively. But you can also argue its a blood bath defensively. Either way, the big takeaway im feeling at the moment is the recognition of just how unprepared the Cardinals were. Its always said how playoff games are turned up in intensity, it's true. I'm watching it. It doesn't matter who AZ played, they were going to get embarrassed, because the effort and energy I'm watching is staggering compared to what our team displayed. I get you need to be careful of character busts, but two of the best players in Cards history, Tyrann Mathieu and Daryl Washington, were "character Q" guys. And we see they went opposite directions in their careers, but ultimately on-field, they were both spectacular for us. That's what we need."

Well, yeah. Every team needs talented players. I can also tell you the Cardinals were set back somewhat when Washington washed out because they were counting on him and he let them down. Yes, the Cardinals were missing intensity against the Rams. I think the Rams are also pretty good, as we saw, especially in the first half, against the Bucs. (I'm also going to say that Titans-Bengals was less about intensity as much as not-a-great-QB against a good-QB-who-had-no-offensive-line.)

From Noah S:

"Hey Darren. I always read the mailbag but have never said anything. I've been thinking about free agency and I hope we can re-sign some of our guys. I think Edmonds, Conner, Kirk, McCoy, and Maxx all need to be on the team next year. I'm not so sure about Ertz though. I know he was our top target after Hop went down but I honestly just don't think we NEED him. We were rolling early in the season with Maxx, who was having a career year. Maxx brings good blocking too, something that I think Ertz isn't bad at, but not very good at either. I'd just rather save money by letting Ertz go and put that towards a solid No. 2 guy at receiver. On the other side of the ball, I love Chandler Jones and have been a huge fan of him since we signed him. I'd hate to see him go but if I really think about it, it might make sense for the team. I do think if we let him go we'll definitely need another top tier pass rusher. I would like to see Haason Reddick back, I just don't know if he would want to. And then we need another good corner and maybe a defensive lineman. What do you think?"

It's always about the money, obviously. And depending on what the market might be -- especially for running back -- it's hard to really know what's realistic. They need at least one of those tight ends. They need Conner, in my opinion. They need to keep McCoy. They need at least one proven pass rusher, whether that is Jones or finding someone elsewhere. I do think they need another good receiver (and that might be two if Kirk leaves, unless they see Moore becoming the No. 3.) It's hard to know what they will chase until we know who is leaving for sure.

From Clayton Lam:

"Is Kyler Murray capable of helping bring the Cardinals to a future Super Bowl?"

Personally, I believe that yes, Kyler can be a Super Bowl quarterback. But I will say I believe he has to grow more in some areas to get there.

From Larry Phillips:

"Hi Darren. Several of Steve Keim's draft picks have been disappointments and have been called out. However, two recent draft disappointments have flown under the radar and I hear no mention of them by the media of not getting the job done. They are defensive tackles Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence. I cannot remember either one of them making a big play the entire season. I know in a 3-4 defense the linebackers are set up to make most of the plays but this didn't stop Corey Peters, Jordan Phillips (when healthy), Zach Allen, and of course J.J .Watt from making plays. Our run defense was awful and these two play a part in that. If we come back with them in the rotation, will we get any different results?"

I would guess that yes, the Cardinals are hoping that both can improve on their play next season, particularly Fotu, who seemed to struggle more. Lawrence I thought was OK when he was in there but he again was dealing with injuries. There is no question that the lines on both sides of the ball wanted to finish stronger than they did. Given the numbers, I'll be surprised if they move on from both already.

From Chris Minton:

"First off, kudos to Drew Stanton for being a voice of reason to some of us pissed off and possibly panicked fans on the Red Sea Report. Things probably aren't as bad as we think, even though Monday night was an embarrassment. Having said that, does it feel to you like this team fails to truly self-scout? It's been frequently mentioned on various team podcasts that the Cardinals, in the last two seasons, fail to adjust to the adjustment, leading to them fading down the stretch. With multiple players and coaches saying multiple times after multiple bad games that they simply have to play better, it seems they don't believe they need to make any adjustments. It comes off a bit like hubris, and it would explain why the slides continue to happen. The team starts hot, everything thinks the system is fine, opponents adjust to the system, the team fades, everyone still thinks the system is fine, wash rinse repeat. Do you think that's the case?"

I can't know if that's the case because I'm not in the rooms, I'm not in their heads, and frankly, we all know that sometimes when a coach or player says something, it's the easily available cliche rather than what they really think or believe. I don't think it's about not making adjustments, but again, there is no way for me to know for sure. I'll say this: There are too many smart football people to all think that.

From Scott McDonald:

"Been waiting for the offseason to ask: Assuming players don't get new jerseys every game (please tell me if they do) does the equipment staff have to take an inventory of which jerseys are missing when players trade jerseys post game? Thanks!"

Players don't necessarily get new jerseys every game; they get two of each uniform, unless wear and tear has made it so one of the uniforms needs replacement. In the offseason, players are allowed to purchase extra jerseys for trades for the coming season (or if they might want to keep a jersey if they set a record), and if more are needed in-season, they can be bought then too.

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