The Arizona Cardinals made the shocking decision to release former All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins on Friday afternoon. With Arizona unable to trade their star playmaker, they decided to cut bait now instead of prolonging the process. We dive into whether that means the Cardinals plan to tank in 2023.
Are the Arizona Cardinals Tanking in 2023?
After enjoying one winning season in three years with Arizona, Hopkins wasn’t shy about his desire to be traded this offseason. He was willing to restructure his contract if he needed to and even went so far as to spell out which quarterbacks he’d like to play with and outline the caliber of defense and management of what his next team would have.
Alas, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported that Arizona opted to release Hopkins after unsuccessfully shopping him all offseason. His $19 million unguaranteed salary figure was “prohibitive” for contenders since that number would’ve still been a factor in a reworked deal.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport clarified the Cardinals made the move prior to June 1 so they could incur his entire $22.6 million dead cap hit on their 2023 books and not spill over into 2024.
We don’t know whether new Cardinals general manager Monti Ossenfort swung and missed on any opportunity to get compensation back for Hopkins. Releasing Hopkins now saved the team $7.38 million in cap space this season and $14.9 million next season. Moving on from Hopkins after June 1 would’ve spread his dead cap more into 2024 but also may have netted Arizona a draft pick.
Regardless of whether there was ever an opportunity to trade Hopkins, the Cardinals have clearly waived their white flag for the 2023 season. This should’ve been the expected route by the end of the 2022 season. Arizona had little to show on their roster despite being relatively capped out entering the offseason.
Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill said quarterback Kyler Murray won’t be rushed back from his torn ACL. Even if he’s ready by midseason as expected, the Cardinals could be well on their way to bottoming out. Backup quarterback Colt McCoy is also rehabbing an unspecified injury that will “limit him in the offseason.”
First-year head coach Jonathan Gannon will face the 12th-hardest schedule this season, and that’s before factoring in any improvement from a healthier Los Angeles Rams team. Already down Murray and Hopkins, the team is also facing a trade request from star safety Budda Baker. Everything about this Cardinals’ offseason has projected a rebuilding situation.
The Cardinals signed only one external free agent worth more than a minimum salary, and that was linebacker Kyzir White. Defensive lineman Zach Allen, 26 years old, and 25-year-old cornerback Byron Murphy departed in free agency.
After Arizona traded down from the third overall pick in order to land the Houston Texans’ 2024 first-round pick, the Cardinals could be in a position with rare draft capital in next year’s class. If Murray doesn’t prove to be a franchise QB this season, Arizona could be able to replace him without moving additional assets. And if the Cardinals are bad despite Murray showing the “growth” that former general manager Steve Keim mentioned he needs, Arizona can invest in Murray further.
There’s no upside in the Cardinals trying to rush Murray back and competing in 2023. Losing Hopkins hurts, especially as he was still producing as a No. 1 wide receiver in 2022, but the rest of the roster is quite bad and somehow expensive.
Arizona already telegraphed their decision to tank and rebuild when they opted against drafting Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. with the No. 3 overall selection, as taking on future picks is rarely the strategy of a team trying to win right away.
That doesn’t mean internal development won’t be important.
Murray has to grow as a leader and a player. Marquise Brown is fighting for a long-term deal. A quality pass rusher and cornerback has to be identified and developed for Gannon to have any chance of surviving the next few seasons.
But wins aren’t the priority in 2023 with a roster that is arguably the worst in the NFL. With any luck, the Cardinals can become a team on the rise in 2024 if Murray recovers and improves, and the team can allocate their draft picks to revamping the roster around him.