It’s early August, which means it’s time once again to argue about fantasy football. Who should you take with the no. 1 pick? Which offenses and players will surprise you? Which draft picks will completely tear your office apart? Welcome to “Make the Case,” a series in which Ringer staffers will answer the most pressing fantasy questions heading into the 2019 season. We’ll help you game your way to a championship—or at least avoid drafting like Dave Gettleman.
The 2018 Cardinals were a fantasy football wasteland. Arizona scored a putrid 14.1 points per game under offensive coordinators Mike McCoy and Byron Leftwich, who replaced McCoy midseason. The immortal Larry Fitzgerald finished 28th among wide receivers in standard scoring. Superhuman running back David Johnson averaged 3.6 yards per carry and finished with just 940 yards rushing on the season. This offense was so unwatchable that if you’d made me choose between taking in a Cardinals game or undergoing voluntary dental surgery, I would’ve needed a second to think about it.
Arizona’s horrid offensive showing cost pretty much every major figure in the organization his job. Head coach Steve Wilks was fired in late December. McCoy didn’t make it to Halloween. Quarterback Josh Rosen, who was picked 10th in the 2018 draft, was shipped to Miami in exchange for the 62nd pick in the 2019 draft.
After rough seasons, NFL teams tend to overcorrect: Quiet coaches are exchanged for boisterous ones, defensive-minded coaches are replaced by offense-first wizards, and so on. The Cardinals are no exception. This offseason, Arizona’s hires ran in direct contrast with the more conservative plan we saw from Wilks and Co. The Cardinals brought in former Texas Tech coach and Air Raid disciple Kliff Kingsbury as their head coach. The statuesque Rosen was replaced by dual threat and first pick Kyler Murray. Arizona ran zero plays in 10 personnel last season as the team favored bunched-up three-receiver sets. This season, Kingsbury’s base offense may feature four wideouts spread from sideline to sideline. The 2019 Cardinals offense won’t resemble last year’s version in any way. Hell, it may not resemble any offense the league has ever seen. And with that novelty comes fantasy opportunity.
There’s risk in betting big on an offensive system—and quarterback—with no NFL track record, but Kingsbury’s scheme should feature several aspects that yield great fantasy results. The first component is pace. Arizona ran just 56.4 plays per game last season, which ranked 31st in the league. During Kingsbury’s six seasons at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders averaged 82.6 plays per game, the highest rate in college football over that span. In May, Johnson told the team’s website that the Cardinals were hoping to run 90 to 95 plays per game—which would absolutely shatter the NFL record. That’s not happening, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Arizona lead the league in that metric if the offense has some success. The fantasy appeal of a fast-paced offense is obvious (more plays equals more opportunities for points), but running a high volume of plays at a lightning-quick pace also means more plays for the opposing offense. Which means more points allowed. Which necessitates more scoring. You get the idea.
Then there’s the Murray factor. Murray’s potential—in both fantasy and reality—within Kingsbury’s offense requires no projection. Murray lit the college football world on fire in Oklahoma’s Air Raid scheme. The 2018 Heisman winner averaged an absurd 11.6 yards per attempt last season, which led all of FBS, while also throwing 42 touchdown passes and rushing for more than 1,000 yards. And given Kingsbury’s history, this offense could throw more often than any other team in the league this season. Kingsbury’s quarterbacks at Texas Tech were regularly near the top of college football in pass attempts (in 2016, Patrick Mahomes threw the ball 591 times, the third-highest mark in the country). Last season, Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing attempts with 675, and Pittsburgh’s 67.39 passing percentage finished second in the league behind Green Bay (67.54). With Murray and Kingsbury in the fold, it wouldn’t be outlandish to think that the Cardinals could crack 700 attempts and a 70 percent passing rate this fall—both of which would be NFL records.
The chances will be there for Murray. The question is whether he’ll be efficient enough to create fantasy gold from them. Rookie quarterbacks are far from a sure thing, but every so often, one comes along who hits the ground at full speed. Baker Mayfield threw 19 touchdown passes in his eight games with Freddie Kitchens as the Browns offensive coordinator last season. Imagine that over a full season. Cam Newton finished third among fantasy scoring for QBs as a rookie in 2011. Some guys are just … different, and Murray has all the makings of an instant star. I try not to be swayed by training camp videos, but look at the two throws in this clip:
Murray is an unbelievable athlete, but his accuracy and arm talent shouldn’t go overlooked. That combination can lead to some staggering numbers, even as a rookie. And while most first-year quarterbacks spend training camp learning how to walk without falling down, Fitzgerald told Kurt Warner earlier this week that Murray came into camp looking like a five-year veteran. “I’ve never seen a quarterback come in so quickly and be able to command an offense,” Fitzgerald said. “I mean, from Day 1, he’s out there checking the different plays, sliding the line, different protections, getting us in screens when blitzes are coming. His understanding of the offense is crazy.”
There’s also a lot to like about the supporting cast that Arizona has built around its QB. Fitzgerald may be 35, but he’s a season removed from catching 109 passes for 1,156 yards in 2017. He’s also the perfect mentor for a wide receiver group whose next three options are all under 24 years old. Second-year man Christian Kirk profiles as an ideal slot receiver in Kingsbury’s scheme (which is similar to the one he played in at Texas A&M). Rookie speedster Andy Isabella (drafted with the pick that Arizona received in the Rosen trade) will give the Cardinals a field-stretching option from the slot. Fellow rookie Hakeem Butler somehow slipped all the way to the fourth round, but the guy finished with 1,318 receiving yards during his final year at Iowa State and doesn’t move like a traditional 6-foot-5, 227-pound receiver.
Arizona’s biggest issue in 2018 was its offensive line. Rosen’s sack rate last year was 10.8 percent—the second-highest mark in the league behind Deshaun Watson at 10.9 percent. But the line should be better in 2019. Injuries decimated that group last year: Arizona had 47.8 adjusted games lost by its offensive line in 2018, by far the highest mark in the league. Having Justin Pugh and D.J. Humphries back healthy, along with adding former Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert in a trade, should already be a boon for this group. But Kingsbury’s scheme will also do some of the heavy lifting. As Establish the Run’s Evan Silva pointed out last month, Texas Tech had the fourth-lowest sack rate in FBS over the past five seasons, and no one would confuse that program for an offensive lineman factory. Plus, Murray’s pocket mobility should provide some relief even if the offensive line does stumble a bit.
Listen—Murray’s fantasy potential isn’t a secret. He’s currently being taken 12th among QBs in drafts, ahead of guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady. And if you have to grab Murray in the 10th round, that means leaving promising players like Keke Coutee and Curtis Samuel on the board. He’s far from free. But if Murray outperforms his positional ADP by half a dozen spots, there’s still value there, and that’s precisely how I feel about David Johnson. Johnson’s current ADP is eighth overall and the no. 6 running back. He’ll require a first-round pick in virtually every draft. But most analysts have him at the bottom of the top running back tier or out of it entirely. He’ll likely still be on the board at no. 5, after Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, and Alvin Kamara are gone. I think that’s a mistake.
Arizona may be the most pass-happy team in the NFL next season, but even if Johnson’s rushing workload isn’t massive, his efficiency could skyrocket. The Cardinals will almost certainly lead the NFL in the number of three- and four-receiver sets they use next season, and getting those types of advantageous box numbers has paid dividends for other running backs. In 2018, Todd Gurley—who led all running backs in fantasy scoring last year—faced eight or more defenders in the box just 8.2 percent of the time, the third-lowest rate in the league. It’s no coincidence that the Rams also led the NFL in their usage of 11 personnel on running plays (77 percent of the time). The Dolphins finished seventh in that metric, at 62 percent, and Kenyan Drake ranked just behind Gurley in rate of facing eight or more box defenders in the box. With all the space likely to be generated by Kingsbury’s scheme, Johnson should be able to rip off consistent gains whenever he gets the ball.
Johnson is an exceptionally talented runner, but his best trait may be his receiving skills. There’s a difference between running backs who catch passes and running backs who are true receiving threats. Johnson is definitely the latter. In 2016, Johnson had 487 air yards, which shattered the previous decade high for running backs by 200 yards (according to Pro Football Focus). Johnson can do real damage as a route runner and vertical threat, and it sounds like Kingsbury intends to use him that way. “He’s a big back, and when you split him out and put him in space like that, he looks like a true receiver. So that’s a unique combination,” Kingsbury told the team’s website in March. “You get a linebacker on him, you should feel comfortable he’s going to win that one.” McCaffrey led all running backs last season with 124 targets and 107 receptions. If the Cardinals pass as often as I think they could, and Johnson receives a large chunk of those throws, then 150 targets and 120 catches isn’t off the table. That type of target share with a high-efficiency season on the ground could easily lead to more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage.
Even as the no. 6-ranked running back, that type of production compared with ADP can make Johnson a league winner. The same goes for Murray. The hype around Arizona’s offense means that neither of these guys will be very cheap, but if the Cardinals hit their ceiling on offense under Kingsbury, both of them could still be bargains that leave you counting your money in December.