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Arizona Cardinals 2021 Season Preview: Playoffs or off the Kliff?

The Arizona Cardinals preview as a solid team in 2021 that might be at the mercy of an incredibly difficult schedule. Can they overcome that?

The Arizona Cardinals have a lot to prove this year — their 2021 NFL season preview is tough to feel too optimistic about, but it’s purely based on the difficulty of the NFC West. The roster breeds some excitement, but expectations should remain realistic. In 2020, they finished 8-8, outscoring their opponents 410-367. Can head coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray take them to the next level?

Arizona Cardinals 2021 season preview

The Cardinals have an absolutely brutal schedule, ranking as the fourth-hardest in the league. Every team in their division projects to win at least 9.5 games. Arizona hasn’t had much success against their own division for a while, either. They haven’t beaten the Rams in the past four seasons. Winning at least three of those divisional games is imperative for their playoff hopes.

The games outside of their division aren’t much easier. They slide past having to play the Chiefs or Buccaneers, but they’re about the only two talented rosters they don’t face in 2021. They have games against the Titans, Browns, Packers, Colts, and Cowboys. That makes 11 teams projected to win at least 9.5 games.

Offseason additions and losses

The Cardinals certainly weren’t lifeless during the offseason. If this were 2017, three of their additions would have folks wondering whether this team could win the division. The most impactful signing was former three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. Watt is still a productive player when healthy, but since 2015, those days are few and far between. In three of the past five seasons, Watt has failed to play in more than eight games.

A.J. Green is the second name that would have caused a fireworks celebration in 2017. Unfortunately, Green hasn’t had a 700-plus-yard season since that year. He didn’t play in 2019, and he was objectively bad in 2020. Last but not least, Malcolm Butler was the Super Bowl MVP in his rookie season. All of them were in their prime about five years ago. Today, if they bring some flashes of their old selves, that could be enough to make their additions worthwhile.

One great move the Cardinals made was the trade for former Las Vegas Raiders center Rodney Hudson. Arizona’s offensive line hasn’t been pretty recently, and the center position was no exception. Acquiring Hudson is a solid addition, even at age 31.

The Cardinals lost three big contributors from their 2020 team. Although Patrick Peterson suffered a down season in 2020, it’s always tough to see a team legend walk in free agency. The other big loss comes in the way of Haason Reddick leaving for the Detroit Lions. He finally broke out last year, notching 12.5 sacks after finally being used as a primary pass rusher instead of an off-ball linebacker. Kenyan Drake was the team’s best back, but they did what they could to replace him, signing former Steeler James Conner.

2021 NFL Draft

The Cardinals were in a peculiar spot with their 2021 NFL Draft. They had picks in the first two rounds and then five more in the final three. They really needed a legitimate option as a possible CB1, and they did not take the opportunity. Now, it’ll take time to know for sure if they made the right move, but that secondary is scary given they face Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson, and Kyle Shanahan’s offense a total of six times this season.

Arizona selected linebacker Zaven Collins in Round 1. The Tulsa product is a massive inside linebacker with impressive zone-coverage skills and good range. Unfortunately, he was arrested for reckless driving after the minicamp cycle ended.

In Round 2, the Cardinals selected Purdue WR Rondale Moore. The selection made the team’s receiving corps look like the Brady Bunch. There was next to no need for another wide receiver. Moore may be the most electric player from the 2021 NFL Draft with the ball in his hands. However, soft tissue injuries meant the best tape we saw from him came in 2018.

After that, the draft was a bunch of darts thrown in the general direction of the board. Speaking of throwing things, Marco Wilson is more well-known for his fateful shoe toss than his play on the field at Florida.

Still, dart throws aren’t necessarily bad things. Victor Dimukeje, Tay Gowan, James Wiggins, and Michal Menet could fight for a roster spot and potential playing time in the future.

Where do Arizona players rank in PFN’s Top 100?

Which Arizona players rank in the PFN Top 100, and where do they fall?

85) J.J. Watt, DE

Watt is still a solid run defender and still does his job to affect the quarterback. The Houston defense was a train wreck in 2020, so hopefully, he can get the quarterback on the ground a bit more in 2021. If he remains healthy, Watt can blow past his position on the list.

81) Kyler Murray, QB

Arizona’s franchise quarterback is one of the most electric players in the sport. The pint-sized passer has a rocket arm and electric feet. His time as a baseball player made him into the best slider the position has ever seen. He does whatever it takes not to get hit. Despite that, he could still push for a 1,000-yard rushing season.

65) Budda Baker, S

Baker is already one of the top safeties in the NFL. He can do anything you ask of him on the football field. He rushes the passer, plays in the slot, in the box, and on the back end. His All-Pro nod was a bit of a surprise given how great the talent at the position is in the league, but he’s right there in the conversation.

39) Chandler Jones, DE

Jones has consistently been one of the most underrated players in the entire league. Nobody has more sacks in the league since he stepped on the field as a rookie. His 2020 campaign was uneventful, so expect a big bounce back in 2021.

20) DeAndre Hopkins, WR

Hopkins has the best hands in the NFL. The “Hail Murray” should actually be the “Hail Hopkins” if you ask me. He’s produced no matter what level of quarterback play he receives. But what is even more impressive is he’s done it in different ways. The Cardinals offense is more predicated around shorter passes than in Houston.

Cardinals 2021 prediction

It’s no easy task to preview the Cardinals’ 2021 season. They have a demanding schedule and many unknowns, whether due to lack of high-end talent at important positions or injuries. Baker is a staple at safety, but the Cardinals’ cornerbacks are concerning.

Kliff Kingsbury failed up from Texas Tech, but that doesn’t automatically make him a bad NFL head coach. He’s enjoyed success with quarterbacks in the past, and if Murray can continue to develop, Kingsbury will probably keep his job. He also doubles as the offensive coordinator, putting even more on his plate as a coach. He’ll need to find more offensive efficiency because finishing in the bottom third of the league won’t cut it.

Despite the perceived poor play from Peterson in 2020, Arizona’s defense performed incredibly well overall in terms of efficiency. That might be in part because they have an experienced defensive coordinator in Vance Joseph. He may not be having the time of his life anymore, but he’s calling a good defense on Sundays despite lackluster personnel.

Offense

Arizona’s offense certainly appears to have some firepower. Despite that, they were inefficient in 2020. An improved offensive line should help that in 2021.

Defense

Quite frankly, this group of cornerbacks should scare Cardinals fans. Yet, their saving grace could come in the form of an excellent pass rush. After seeing what they accomplished last year, it would be foolish to count them out completely. Still, they must go through a gauntlet of good quarterbacks in 2021.

2021 Cardinals record prediction

Anything above .500 for the Cardinals season should be viewed as a massive win given their brutal schedule preview. In the end, this looks like a team that will hang in there and battle for 17 games but eventually end up being an 8-9 team.

Dalton Miller is the Lead NFL Analyst at Pro Football Network. You can read more of his work here and follow him @daltonbmiller on Twitter and Twitch

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