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Exit Interview: Arizona Cardinals

The Kliff-Kyler duo won’t make the postseason in year one, but this offense has shown plenty of promise for the future. We can’t say the same about the other side of the ball …

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It’s getting later in the season, and for many NFL teams the playoffs are in sight. But some squads are already looking to next year. As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Up next is the Arizona Cardinals, who were shellacked by the Rams on Sunday, 34-7, to be eliminated from playoff contention.

What Went Right

The Kyler Murray–and–Kliff Kingsbury pairing entered the year as the NFL’s biggest experiment. After a rocky start, that duo is showing a ton of promise.

In the first four weeks the Cardinals accumulated an 0-3-1 record, with the offense near the bottom of the league in DVOA. Then the team found its groove, and entered Week 13 as the eighth-best offense. Arizona has scored at least 25 points in six of its past eight games, and Murray has thrown 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions in that span. And the Cardinals haven’t been feasting on cupcake opponents, either: Two of these games came against the 10-2 49ers, with Kyler and Co. putting up a combined 51 points on a team that has given up an average of 15 per game this season. The only team to put up more points on the Niners than the Cardinals did in either of their two games against the crew is the Seahawks (who put up 27), and Seattle needed an overtime and a defensive score to get there.

Murray has shown the passing touch and skill—along with excellent mobility—that made him the top overall pick. Despite a 5-foot-10 frame, he has the arm strength to make the type of off-balance throws that demonstrate special potential:

Simply put, the Cardinals’ Air Raid–based offense is good, even against the league’s best defenses. It’ll be fascinating to see how Kingsbury’s scheme evolves and how Kyler’s game progresses in the next few seasons.

What Went Wrong

Arizona’s offense nearly laid an egg against the Rams on Sunday, but most of its problems this season have come on the other side of the ball. Coordinator Vance Joseph’s defense has been completely lost, allowing the most passing yards in the league and the ninth-most rushing yards. Only the tanking Dolphins have given up more points.

In particular, the coverage unit has been a disaster. The defense is ranked 28th in passing defense by DVOA and has been comically incapable of covering tight ends:

On Sunday, the Cardinals allowed the Rams’ backup tight end to accumulate more than 100 yards receiving … in the first half. Tyler Higbee had never once eclipsed the century mark in his previous 62 career games. Tight ends are afterthoughts in most offenses, but Arizona gets destroyed by them nearly every week. It’s not just an Achilles’ heel for the team, it’s an embarrassment.

The Cardinals ripped their offense down to the studs this offseason and rebuilt it with an exciting quarterback-and-head-coaching duo. They’ll likely need to take a similar approach to revamp this moribund defense.

Free Agency

The Cardinals will have plenty of juggling to do when free agency opens, with a number of key contributors in line for new deals.

On offense, two starters will be unrestricted free agents: left tackle D.J. Humphries and center A.Q. Shipley. Humphries, the Cardinals’ first-rounder in 2015, has been somewhere between average and good in his five seasons, and is making $9.6 million on his fifth-year option. He’s not someone the team must extend, but they’d be hard-pressed to find an upgrade. Shipley, meanwhile, has exhibited a similar level of play in four years in Arizona. He’s another player the team could keep, but shouldn’t break the bank for. Larry Fitzgerald is also a free agent, but the question there is more about whether he’ll hang up the cleats rather than whether the Cardinals will re-sign him.

Running back Kenyan Drake, whom the team traded for at the deadline, is on the last year of his deal. Deciding whether to keep him will cause a headache. While Drake has provided a jolt of energy for the offense (he’s averaging 4.5 yards per carry and 83.5 scrimmage yards per game), David Johnson carries a $14.3 million cap hit next year that the team can’t easily get out of. Running backs are being pushed to the margins of the league—are the Cardinals really about to commit major money to two of them?

On the other side of the ball, defensive end Rodney Gunter thought he would be an in-demand free agent last year but ended up re-signing with the Cardinals on a one-year deal. Linebacker Terrell Suggs could also leave—and even if he doesn’t, the 37-year-old vet is not a long-term pass-rushing answer for the team.

The Cardinals are projected to have $74 million in space next year, seventh most in the league. That’ll give them plenty of flexibility to figure all this out.

The Draft

The Cardinals have all their picks until the fifth round, after which a number of previous transactions make their late-day draft options pretty messy. They’ll have a top-10 pick in the first round to make their biggest splash. And this time around, they won’t be targeting a quarterback.

The biggest need is the secondary, and there are a number of promising defensive backs who could be top-10 talents, including Ohio State corner Jeff Okudah, Clemson safety Isaiah Simmons, LSU safety Grant Delpit, and LSU corner Kristian Fulton. If Arizona looks elsewhere, Georgia’s Andrew Thomas could help bolster their offensive line, which was another weak point.