The Cardinals pulled off the trade coup to end all trade coups on Monday, acquiring superstar receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth-round pick from the Texans in exchange for a second- and fourth-round pick in 2021 and running back David Johnson. The move effectively kills two birds with one stone for the Cardinals—bad phrasing, sorry—by ridding the team of Johnson’s bloated $10.2 million salary in 2020 while filling a huge need for head coach and play-caller Kliff Kingsbury by giving reigning Rookie of the Year Kyler Murray an elite outside pass catcher. It’s mind-boggling how far ahead the Cardinals appear to be coming out in this deal, and the trade will make an already ascending offense one of the most explosive and fun groups to watch this season.
Kingsbury’s Air Raid–style scheme produced flashes of brilliance in 2019, with the Cardinals finishing 16th in points per game (22.6), 13th in offensive DVOA, and seventh in weighted DVOA (which weights more heavily for how the unit performed late in the year). That’s an impressive performance considering Arizona finished dead last in all three categories in 2018. No team improved on offense more than the Cardinals in 2019―but Kingsbury’s group went through plenty of growing pains last season, too. Part of those struggles were due to an overreliance on replacement-level receivers in Damiere Byrd, Pharoh Cooper, and rookie KeeSean Johnson to fill out the team’s primary three- and four-wide receiver sets (the Cardinals ran four-wide sets 27 percent of the time in 2019, far more than the next closest team in the Seahawks, who went four-wide on just 10 percent of plays). Hopkins helps solve that problem as a plug-and-play superstar, and his presence should augment the effectiveness of the team’s other receivers, especially third-year pro Christian Kirk and aging future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald.
Hopkins is, by the way, a pretty damn good likeness to a young Fitzgerald as a big, physical, and reliable chains-mover and touchdown-maker. Their stats through their first seven seasons, respectively, are shockingly similar, too.
The 27-year-old veteran was tied for Pro Football Focus’s fourth-highest-graded receiver last year, reeling in 104 passes for 1,165 yards and seven touchdowns in 15 games. And while there could be some concern that Hopkins ends up joining the list of receivers who struggle during their first season with a new team, the former Texan has always produced even with terrible quarterbacking situations, having performed at a high level with the likes of Ryan Mallett, Tom Savage and Brock Osweiler. He’s a sure-handed contested-catch master who runs sharp routes, beats up on cornerbacks, wins in high-leverage situations, and tilts defensive coverages his way. Murray isn’t a terrible quarterback, though―he won Rookie of the Year honors after passing for 3,722 yards and 20 touchdowns―and Hopkins is a pass catcher Murray can turn to when he needs someone to make a play with the game on the line. And while he isn’t a deep-ball specialist, Hopkins could help unlock Murray’s deep game even further in 2020 because he forces opposing defenses to focus their attention on stopping him. Murray finished in the no. 1 spot in Johnny Kinsley’s Deep Ball project in 2019, charting out as the most accurate passer on throws of 36 to 40 yards, 41-plus yards, and on deep passes (21-plus yards) under pressure. With Hopkins in the mix, Murray’s arrow is pointed way, way up.
Another piece of hidden value from Monday’s trade is that it gives Arizona incredible flexibility in the upcoming draft, giving GM Steve Keim and company the luxury of taking a “best player available” approach with the eighth pick. Instead of being pigeonholed into taking one of the draft’s top receivers at that spot (before today, plenty of mock drafts had the Cardinals taking Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb or Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy there), the Cardinals can use that pick to, say, bolster a porous offensive line that frequently left Murray almost constantly under siege (Arizona finished 26th in Football Outsiders’s adjusted sack rate). Blue-chip tackles like Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, Louisville’s Mekhi Becton, Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr., or Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs could go a long way toward Kingsbury unleashing the ideal version of his college-style offense.
Of course, the trade affects more than just the Cardinals’ passing game. While Hopkins’s and Johnson’s salaries effectively cancel each other out in 2020 (Hopkins is due $12.5 million this year), Arizona is no longer faced with paying their backup running back top-tier money. The team transition tagged Kenyan Drake on Monday, too, giving the Cardinals the right to match any offers Drake might get on the open market. At the right price, it makes sense for Drake to reprise his role as the team’s lead runner. After arriving in the desert via midseason trade, the former Dolphin started eight games and rushed for 643 yards and eight touchdowns on 123 carries, proving to be the perfect fit for the team’s wide-open attack. Arizona’s underrated ground game finished behind only Baltimore in run DVOA last year, and these moves give the team a good chance to have continued success in that area next year.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but Cardinals general manager Steve Keim appears to have learned a valuable lesson from the team’s disastrous 2018 season. After hiring Steve Wilks to replace Bruce Arians (who retired), the team took UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen with the 10th pick as the heir apparent to Carson Palmer (who also retired), but the seemingly arbitrary pairing of a defensive-minded head coach and a developmental rookie signal-caller did not go well. Lacking any semblance of a support system or a forward-thinking play-caller, Rosen bombed, the team finished 3-13, Wilks was fired, and Arizona hit the reset button after earning the top overall pick in the draft. Keim hired Kingsbury as head coach, then used the first pick of last year’s draft to take Murray, a college Air Raid–star (subsequently trading Rosen to the Dolphins). Sunk costs notwithstanding, Arizona now has what seems to be a coherent plan: building around both its wunderkind coach’s scheme and its pint-sized quarterback’s skill set. Hopkins gives Kingsbury and Murray a massive, massive boost, and should drastically accelerate the team’s timeline toward contention. His addition also makes the Cardinals must-see TV in 2020.