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We’re Not Ready to Bury the Kyler Murray–Cardinals Theories Just Yet

Sure, Kliff Kingsbury said Tuesday that Josh Rosen was “our guy.” But after Murray signed on with the Arizona head coach’s agent this week, we can’t forget about the previous comments Kingsbury made about the dual-sport star.

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Prophecies are often mistaken for coincidences, and this seems to be the fate of the Arizona Cardinals. In October, then–Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury was talking up an opponent, as coaches often do, when he said Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray was so good that he’d take him first overall in the NFL draft if he had the chance. Just a few months later, Kingsbury was hired as Cardinals head coach. Suddenly Kingsbury did have the first pick in the draft.

There’s one snag: The Cardinals already have a quarterback. Arizona traded up five spots to take UCLA’s Josh Rosen no. 10 overall last April, planting them firmly outside the quarterback market. In most scenarios that would be the end of the story. Kingsbury’s words were nothing more than a bewildering coincidence—until this week, which has made his interview look like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On Monday, Murray, the Heisman-winning quarterback, who was drafted by the Oakland Athletics last year, officially announced he was going to focus on being an NFL QB (and, implicitly, not play baseball, probably).

One day later, on Tuesday, Murray hired agent Erik Burkhardt—the same agent that represents Kingsbury. Suddenly there was a lot of smoke and only a few possible sources of fire:

  • It’s another coincidence (he’s clearly a good agent).
  • Kyler and his family chose Kingsbury’s agent to raise the odds of him getting drafted first overall.
  • While Murray was deciding between baseball and football (and shopping around for an NFL agent) he received word from someone that he had a good chance to be the first overall pick if he chose football.

However Murray and Kingsbury came to have the same agent, it’s certainly inviting speculation that the team will take Murray and trade Rosen. The Cardinals are clearly sensitive to the rumor mill. The team responded on its official Twitter account …

… and the Cardinals website also pasted the story across its official team website.

Teams make these kinds of statements all the time, and often these promises are trusted, betrayed, and then forgotten. Ted Leonsis, the owner of the Washington Wizards, traded Otto Porter Jr. less than two weeks after saying the team would not trade Otto Porter Jr. The Clippers traded Blake Griffin six months after they made a pitch to him in free agency that included raising his jersey into the rafters while employees wore shirts with his face next to Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Abraham Lincoln.

The point is that things change, and the statements by Kingsbury and team president Michael Bidwill reflected that. Given the opportunity to throw water on these fires, both men kept a few embers burning.

“I get that we have the first pick and there are going to be a million scenarios, and over the next three months they are going to come up,” Kingsbury said this week. “But Josh is our guy. Kyler is a tremendous player … I said [I’d take him no. 1], being very complimentary of him before we played an opponent. I understand the soundbite, but like I said, there will be tons of scenarios that come up before we get to the draft.”

That’s not a no. It’s actually the most honest, reasonable answer Kingsbury could give without undermining Rosen or boxing himself into overcommitting. As Kingsbury said, there are a million scenarios that could happen between now and the draft, but let’s run through four potential scenarios and read the tea leaves.

Door no. 1: Arizona takes Nick Bosa (or whomever the highest player on their board is) no. 1.

This is the most boring option, but also the most plausible. In this scenario, everything signaling Murray to the Cardinals was a strange series of coincidences, including Murray choosing Burkhardt because … he is good at his job. Burkhardt represented Johnny Manziel before the 2014 draft and last year’s no. 5 overall pick Bradley Chubb. He also just pulled the most impressive agent-ing in recent memory by getting Kingsbury from a college offensive coordinator–in-waiting to NFL head coach in a matter of weeks.

Door no. 2: Arizona takes Kyler Murray no. 1 overall, then trades Josh Rosen.

Here, the Cardinals feel that Murray is a better fit for Kingsbury’s offense than Rosen. Kingsbury is a disciple of the Air Raid offense, which is more of a philosophy (or a religion) than a playbook. Rosen has good footwork, can process quickly, and passes the ball well, but his arm is about league average and he’s one of the least mobile quarterbacks in football. It’s extremely rare for a GM to pull the plug on a potential franchise quarterback drafted in the top 10 after just one year, but GM Steve Keim may feel the pressure to buy himself more time, and the team may not be able to pass up on a once-in-a-generation athlete like Kyler.

If the Cardinals do shop Rosen, a few teams figure to be interested, starting with the Giants and Jaguars, then possibly the Dolphins and Raiders, and if you squint, New England and Washington, too. In this scenario, the Cardinals flip Rosen for a smattering of first- and second-rounders that they use to rebuild their offensive line.

Door no. 3: Arizona keeps Rosen and trades down.

Rosen was not the issue in 2018. It was everything around him. The Cardinals had the third-worst offense in DVOA history, and that is a talent and coaching problem, not a rookie QB problem. The Cardinals were the worst pass-blocking team in the league last year, according to Pro Football Focus grading. Rosen was sacked on more than 10 percent of his dropbacks, the fifth most in the league, and pressured on more than 40 percent of his dropbacks, third most in the league. That offensive line is the top priority this offseason and the team could conceivably replace both guards and both tackles this offseason.

Door no. 4: Arizona trades down and trades Rosen and drafts Kyler.

This would be blowing up the team and starting anew by having their cake and eating it too. In this scenario, the Cardinals admit that they have many holes on their roster and they need to add draft capital by trading down and acquiring more picks. But they would also be admitting they feel Murray is a better fit for the team than Rosen, and that questions about Murray’s height are easier to account for than Rosen’s lack of mobility. In the process, the team gets a haul of picks for Rosen while trading down with the comfort that they can still draft Murray, who most draft experts have as the third QB off the board after Drew Lock and Dwayne Haskins.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly suggested the Cardinals could draft Joey Bosa.