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The Immediate and Long-Term Effects of the Cardinals’ Kyler Murray Decision

Arizona is facing a tough choice: The team could take the reigning Heisman Trophy winner with the first pick in the NFL draft, trade that pick away, or do a whole host of other things. Here are all the team’s options, and the ripple effects they could have.

Kyler Murray, Kliff Kingsbury, Steve Keim, and Josh Rosen Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kliff Kingsbury gets it. When the Cardinals’ first-year head coach sat down for the annual coaches’ breakfast on Tuesday at the NFL’s annual league meeting, he was ready for the inevitable bombardment of Kyler Murray questions. When reporters asked Kingsbury if he thought his every comment on the subject would be dissected, he quipped: “I don’t feel that way. I know that [they will].”

Speculation that Arizona would draft Murray with this year’s first overall pick ran rampant during the NFL combine last month. That chatter slowed during the hectic start to free agency, but as the draft comes back into focus, the Cardinals’ plans are once again becoming an object of fascination. Until Arizona confirms its thinking—or more likely, until the no. 1 pick is officially announced—the biggest story surrounding the NFL draft is what Kingsbury, general manager Steve Keim, and the Cardinals brass will do with the first overall pick.

Trying to predict how the Cardinals will use that selection is a fool’s errand, but it is worth examining the options and the ripple effects each might have. Let’s start with the one that many people are treating like a foregone conclusion: The Cardinals are taking Murray no. 1, alternatives be damned. If Arizona wanted to avoid all this Murray speculation, then Keim and team president Michael Bidwill picked the wrong head coach. In October, while he was still coaching at Texas Tech, Kingsbury made an offhand comment about why he thought Kyler Murray deserved to be the no. 1 pick in the draft. Less than three months later, Kingsbury was hired as the head coach of—you guessed it—the team that holds the no. 1 pick in the draft. Even beyond that comment, though, there are plenty of other connection points between the two. Kingsbury is an Air Raid coach who oversaw Baker Mayfield’s early development at Texas Tech, and Murray happens to be the Air Raid quarterback who took over for Mayfield at Oklahoma. Understanding why Kingsbury and Murray would be a match is easy. The question is whether that link, combined with Murray’s potential, is enough to make a team that drafted a QB in the top 10 less than a year ago take Murray no. 1 overall.

On paper, the initial answer is yes. If the Cardinals believe that Murray is the real deal, then spending last season’s 10th overall pick on Josh Rosen—and sending the 15th, 79th, and 152nd picks to the Raiders in the process—shouldn’t prevent them from drafting the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Finding a quality quarterback is the most important piece of building a successful team in the NFL, and the draft capital tied into those three Raiders picks isn’t nearly enough that Arizona should be deterred from going after Murray if he’s their guy. There also isn’t any significant financial downside. Murray’s 2019 cap hit would bring the Cardinals’ collective figure at the position to about $11.3 million. That would rank 23rd in the NFL, just behind the Eagles and ahead of the Browns. In that case the Cardinals would be sacrificing some of the advantage that comes with carrying one cheap, highly drafted starter, but they’d still be paying less at the position than about three-quarters of the league.

An argument against taking Murray, though, is that the price of drafting him isn’t just the 15th, 79th, and 152nd picks. Teams rarely want to be drafting in the top three, but for franchises that already have their QB of the future, a season from hell can have hidden benefits. By trading back from the no. 3 pick to no. 6 last year, the Colts got three additional second-round picks (two in 2018 and one in 2019) from the Jets. One of those turned into Braden Smith, who stepped in as the Colts’ right tackle last season and helped solidify an offensive line that had languished for years.

If the Cardinals decide they don’t want Murray, there should be plenty of lucrative trade options on the table. And considering both that it’s the no. 1 pick and that a team moving up would likely be doing so from outside the top three, the haul for that pick would likely be more significant than what the Colts got last year. The last time a team had to move up at least six spots inside the top 10 for a QB, the trade involved the Eagles sending a third-round pick, a fourth-round pick, the following year’s first-round pick, and a future second-round pick to the Browns for the right to draft Carson Wentz. With that in mind, the Cardinals’ calculus in this situation shouldn’t just be whether they’d rather have Kyler Murray or Josh Rosen. It should be whether they’d rather have Murray, or Rosen and the handful of high-level picks that would be headed their way should they decide to deal the no. 1 selection. Their answer at the end of the day may be Murray, but those additions muddy the waters.

Another factor that goes into this equation is what the Cardinals could recoup for Rosen in a trade. One general manager told Peter King earlier this month that Rosen’s value was “probably a [third-round pick],” but that’s hard to believe. If Rosen were actually available for a third-round pick, then pretty much every team should have already made that deal. The Cardinals have paid his $10.8 million signing bonus, so Rosen’s cost to any other team through the next three seasons would be a combined $6.3 million. That’s cheaper than most backup quarterbacks and for a guy that was a consensus top-10 prospect 11 months ago.

Any argument against dealing for Rosen at a higher price stems from just how terribly he played last season. His 3.53 adjusted net yards per attempt was the 10th-lowest mark this century for a QB with at least 250 pass attempts. The names below him on that list include Andrew Walter, Akili Smith, Ryan Leaf, and David Carr. It’s not pretty. There’s no denying that Rosen’s play in his rookie year drastically hurt his value, and that’s why trading him any time soon doesn’t make much sense. If the Cardinals are trying to salvage as much draft capital as they can for him, the best thing they could do would be to wait. Yes, his value would probably decrease even more if Arizona drafts Murray and loses a bit of leverage, but circumstances change.

When the Eagles traded all those picks to land Wentz in 2016, they held on to Sam Bradford. Then, after Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater went down with a horrible knee injury on the eve of the season, Philadelphia was able to ship Bradford to the Twin Cities in exchange for a first- and a fourth-round pick. The scenario is admittedly different considering Bradford was expected to be the Eagles’ starting QB while Wentz waited in the wings, but there’s also no way that the oft-injured veteran would have been worth that price immediately after the draft. If the Cardinals do wind up drafting Murray, they shouldn’t be in any rush to ship Rosen off at a discount rate. Right now, the argument in Rosen’s favor is that his supporting cast and the scheme in Arizona were so bad last season that no one could have succeeded. Allowing teams to see the QB operate in Kingsbury’s system—even if it’s just in the preseason—would likely give them a more favorable picture of his ability than the final snapshot of his rookie season.

Most of the debate about keeping Rosen vs. drafting Murray has been about value and on-field performance. But with high-profile choices like this, optics also come into play. Arizona is a year removed from hiring a new head coach and trading three picks to move up in the draft and land its franchise quarterback. Steve Wilks has already been fired. If Rosen is traded, that essentially means the Cardinals’ reset in 2018 was a complete waste. Any owner with perspective wouldn’t allow those moves to prevent them from starting over if necessary, and if Keim can convince Bidwill that another clean slate is the answer, then the Cardinals deserve credit for not chasing bad decisions with even worse ones. But if Arizona does draft Murray, then it’s far more likely that the first-year coach with a connection to the quarterback—and not the GM taking the Heisman Trophy winner sitting there with the first pick— is going to get credit for steering the ship back on course.

Just like all the other factors associated with this franchise-altering decision, concerns about selling the move shouldn’t stop the Cardinals from drafting Murray if they believe he’s the NFL’s next great QB. But the outside factors involved with this choice go far beyond Murray’s potential as a prospect. For the second time in two years, the Cardinals have to decide which passer will define their future as a franchise, and this time, that choice is far more complicated.