Arizona Cardinals have problems that J.J. Watt can’t solve

J.J. Watt’s arrival should make the 2021 Arizona Cardinals a better team than they were in 2020. But if Watt were some NFL cheat code or fast pass to the Super Bowl, the Houston Texans wouldn’t be the smoldering crater of a franchise that they are today. Meanwhile, head coach Kliff Kingsbury and general manager Steve Keim have many problems that a legendary defender will not solve. They have to get Kyler Murray’s development back on track, solve some tricky puzzles in free agency, and so forth.

Let’s examine some of the significant issues the Cardinals must tackle if they want Watt’s arrival to do more than transform them from Wild Card also-rans to Wild Card also-rans with a famous guy on defense.

Arizona Cardinals 2021 Offseason: Fixing the offense

Kingsbury had a case of “Chip Kelly Syndrome” last year.

Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles, you may recall, took the NFL by storm in 2014 by going no-huddle and read-option all of the time with Michael Vick and Nick Foles sharing the quarterback duties. Then, the NFL adapted, but Kelly didn’t.

By the end of Kelly’s tenure, the Eagles appeared to be running the same five plays repeatedly, with immobile Sam Bradford ill-suited for the system. Everything that made the 2014 Eagles special disappeared, leaving an offense that would run three no-huddle plays in 45 seconds and punt before the defense could finish its Gatorade.

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Kingsbury’s Cardinals offense got worse as the 2020 season progressed. Murray’s late-season injury was a big part of the problem, but the issues started around Week 12 against the New England Patriots. Opponents had already figured out that Kingsbury liked to line DeAndre Hopkins on the left boundary and force-feed him a dozen short passes every week.

But by late in the season, Kenyan Drake and the running game weren’t clicking. Murray was forced to scramble too often. Third-and-long became a lost cause, and Kingsbury appeared to be coaching scared late in close games. The Cardinals’ offense also just started to look boring late in the year. Most of the funky collegiate screens and option concepts had been replaced by dreary, quasi-predictable play calls.

Potential solutions

Maybe Kingsbury needs to scrap all of the Big-12 stuff once and for all. Perhaps he needs to lean into the spread formations and let his freak flag fly. He definitely needs to move Hopkins around more and figure out if Christian Kirk or someone else can finally supplant Larry Fitzgerald, who showed his age last year.

It would help if the Cardinals developed a coherent pass protection plan for Murray. If Kingsbury wants to spread the field with four wide receivers all the time as he did in 2019, the Cardinals need to upgrade their offensive line. Kingsbury has a lot of self-scouting to do.

Ultimately, Kingsbury’s problems are also Keim’s problems because Kingsbury cannot repair the offense until Keim figures out how to address what amounts to a minor free-agent crisis.

Arizona Cardinals 2021 Offseason: Offensive issues in free agency

Fitzgerald is the Cardinals’ most famous free agent on offense, but he’s not their most important free agent. Drake, right guard J.R. Sweezy, right tackle Kelvin Beachum and tight end Dan Arnold are also free agents. And with some big-name free agents to deal with on the other side of the ball (more on them in a moment), the Cardinals lacked the cap space to keep everyone even before they signed Watt.

Just about every Cardinals’ offensive free agent is replaceable. Fitzgerald averaged 7.3 yards per catch last year. He’ll probably become an executive vice president for the franchise the day he retires, so they would be wise to load up any final contract with incentives he’s unlikely to reach.

Sweezy has never been more than an adequate blocker. Beachum is a fine lineman-for-hire but no star. Drake’s splashy second half after leaving the Miami Dolphins in 2019 didn’t carry over into 2020. He’s precisely the type of running back that smart teams do not sign to long-term deals. Arnold is a journeyman backup tight end who caught 31 passes when Kingsbury suddenly decided he liked using tight ends.

Depth is a problem

The problem is that the Cardinals lack a talent pipeline behind any of their free agents except Fitzgerald. So if they do part ways with most of their offensive free agents, they will have to replace one or two starters on the offensive line, a starting running back, and perhaps a starting tight end. That will leave them with few resources to make needed upgrades elsewhere, like at center.

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With J.J. Watt taking up a chunk of the payroll, the Cardinals can afford only to make modest roster improvements (or avoid significant subtractions) on offense and hope that their pass rush can carry them. Think of it as the 2019 San Francisco 49ers’ formula for success. However, that plan comes with its own set of troubling roster realities.

Arizona Cardinals 2021 Offseason: J.J. Watt and defensive issues in free agency

Imagine J.J. Watt, Haason Reddick, and a healthy Chandler Jones rushing the quarterback from all angles. Patrick Peterson and Budda Baker clean up the spills in the secondary. Isaiah Simmons grows into his role as an all-purpose defender. That’s the kind of defense that can help an inconsistent offense find its way to the playoffs.

Now, for the reality. Reddick is a free agent who looked like a mild bust until his December sack spree in 2020. Jones is 31 and coming off a bicep injury. Peterson is also a free agent, 31 years old, and coming off a season in which he committed 11 defensive holding or pass interference fouls.

J.J. Watt is 31 and two years removed from his last Pro Bowl-caliber season. Simmons looked lost much of last year and may be on Reddick’s four-year development plan.

It gets worse

Starting nose tackle Corey Peters is a 32-year-old free agent. Last year, one of his primary backups was Domata Peko, who is now 36 and a free agent. The Cardinals’ secondary last season was filled out with Dre Kirkpatrick, a 31-year-old free agent, and Jonathan Joseph, a 36-year-old free agent.

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In other words, the Cardinals’ defense is ancient. Many of them make up for it by not being under contract, which means most of them will not be part of the Cardinals’ defense anymore.

Also, the Cardinals released kicker Zane Gonzalez. Finding a kicker and fitting him into the budget is one of those small house-cleaning items that could become an issue when a would-be playoff team starts missing 47-yard field goals.

Depth is also a problem on defense

Let’s assume Reddick gets the franchise tag, Chandler Jones comes back good as new, Simmons develops a bit, and Baker remains one of the game’s best safeties. That’s it. That’s the Cardinals’ defense.

If they sign any other in-house free agents, it will likely be someone on the decline. If they sign someone off the free-agent market, it will probably be a similar player to whomever they let walk. And there’s not much young talent in the queue behind Simmons.

The Cardinals really should not have signed Watt because he doesn’t fit their budget or the franchise’s long-term needs. But if Watt wants to play for your organization and Nuk Hopkins does some recruiting, well, sure, it’s hard to say no.

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J.J. Watt now looks like he’s trapped on a defense with a handful of stars and little else, on a team severely lacking in second-tier talent, with a college-wunderkind coach whose system may not be as innovative as advertised.

It should be all-too-familiar to him.

Arizona Cardinals 2021 Offseason: Pursuing Deshaun Watson

Why not enter the hypothetical Deshaun Watson Sweepstakes? Watson, Nuk, and Watt can turn the Cardinals into the Texizona Cardigans! Texans fans can defect! It would be the perfect ending to the Watson/Jack Easterby/Cal McNair saga.

Watson could join the Arizona Cardinals if:

  • Watt and Hopkins give him the hard sell, giving the Cardinals an edge if trade talks get real.
  • Keim leaves polite voice messages with Easterby and make-believe general manager Nick Caserio.
  • Team Easterby receives a reality check when no one wants to sign with the Texans as free agents.
  • Watson holds out of OTAs, and the franchise’s attempt to cast him as selfish fails to resonate with anyone outside of the Preserve Our Precious Confederate Statues demographic.
  • Easterby panics when he realizes that most trade partners moved on after the draft.
  • Keim then dangles Murray, some future draft picks, and some shiny trinkets (Simmons, perhaps) in front of the Texans at just the right moment.

Acquiring Watson is an incredibly implausible scenario with about a 0.0001% chance of happening. It also traps Murray in Houston, which is cruel. At least Watson is well-established as a quarterback earning stacks of dough. We’re only bringing it up because it’s March, spitballing is fun, and the Watt/Hopkins connection provides an excuse.

Watson would make the Cardinals a playoff team, of course. A healthy, fully developed Murray could do so, too. But the Cardinals are waiting for the Murray/Kingsbury breakthrough in 2021 that they expected to get in 2020. They’ve also proven that they are better at making splashy Watt/Hopkins moves than assembling and paying for a solid roster. Maybe Watt will help their superstars achieve critical mass.

If not, both Keim and Kingsbury will be held accountable.

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