Cardinals are team to watch, NFL power rankings and more

Every year, there’s a surprise team in the NFL. This year, look out for the Arizona Cardinals.

The Arizona Cardinals heisted DeAndre Hopkins from the Houston Texans in March.

Acquiring the three-time All-Pro is only the start of what should be a fun year for the formidable Cards.

Arizona has languished since 2015, when the Cardinals reached the NFC Championship Game. Since then, the team has gone without a winning season.

However, general manager Steve Keim jumpstarted the turnaround last year with the hiring of Kliff Kingsbury, despite his losing record in the Big 12 with Texas Tech. A few months later, Keim did the previously unthinkable, moving on from first-round quarterback Josh Rosen after only one season to take another in Kyler Murray with the No. 1 overall pick.

Keim’s gambles have paid off. Murray won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2019, throwing for 3,722 yards and 20 touchdowns despite a porous front wall. Kingsbury also proved effective despite a 5-10-1 record, showcasing diverse schemes and an understanding of pass-blocking concepts at the pro level.

Now, entering their second year, the duo of Kingsbury and Murray are buoyed by help across the roster.

Arizona added defensive tackle Jordan Phillips in free agency on a three-year deal. Phillips, formerly with the Buffalo Bills, led all AFC interior defensive linemen last year with 9.5 sacks. In the draft, the Cardinals landed Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons at No. 8 overall, a player many believed was a top-five talent.

Paired with free-agent signing De’Vondre Campbell, Keim essentially remade the middle of his front seven.

While concerns remain along the offensive line and at safety, the Cardinals stand to be a factor in the NFC playoff race. The offense can trot out receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk and Hopkins in 11 personnel alongside running back Kenyan Drake and tight end Maxx Williams. The defense is anchored by Simmons and Phillips in addition to edge rusher Chandler Jones, and cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Byron Murphy.

Arizona isn’t ready for the Super Bowl, but with the expanded playoff format? January football isn’t out of the question.

Skeptics will argue a jump from five wins to 10 is large, and while it is, look at the NFL’s recent past. There’s always a team or two able to make the leap, including last year’s San Francisco 49ers. San Francisco was picking No. 2 overall behind the Cardinals in April 2019. Only 10 months later, the Niners were minutes from winning the Super Bowl.

Again, the Cardinals don’t yet have the requisite talent to find themselves in Tampa come February. The growth curve is too steep, even with the influx of top-tier talent.

But for fans in the desert, hope is real for a team that only a year ago, was seemingly wandering the sands of irrelevancy.

Power rankings

Top 10 current NFL head coaches

1. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
2. Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs
3. Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints
4. John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens
5. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers
6. Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks
7. Bruce Arians, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
8. Ron Rivera, Washington Redskins
9. Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams
10. Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers

Quotable

“I’m not sure our organization should be talking about pumping in crowd noise. I think we had a small issue with that a little while ago.”

– Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, cracking a joke about potential fake noise in stadiums

With the 2020 season potentially being without fans for part or all of the campaign, the notion of artificial noise has been floated as an option. Of course, this would make the TV experience more authentic while also giving the players a sense of normalcy.

For Ryan and the Falcons, what once was serious is now a laughing matter. In 2016, the team was fined and docked a fifth-round choice after the league found them guilty of pumping in noise a few years prior.

At least this time, Atlanta can crank the volume with pride.

Podcast

Random stat

In the 1979 AFC Divisionals, Vernon Perry of the Houston Oilers set an NFL postseason record with four interceptions.

Perry also blocked a field goal, helping the injury-riddled Oilers stun the heavily-favored San Diego Chargers, 17-14.

Info learned this week

1. Dalvin Cook has the CBA and history against him

Dalvin Cook wants a fair extension from the Minnesota Vikings prior to the final year of his rookie deal. He’ll be lucky to receive one.

In recent years, only the elite backs have been given big contracts. Christian McCaffrey was the latest example, signing for four years and $64 million ($38M guaranteed) with the Carolina Panthers. However, McCaffrey is also the most versatile weapon in football, doubling as a receiver with 223 receptions over the past two seasons.

Before McCaffrey, it was Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley. All of them have been considered the best back in football at a given time. While Cook is terrific, he’s never approached that mantle.

Cook’s situation is more akin to Melvin Gordon. Both have an injury history and are notable talents, but not All-Pro performers.

Last year, it was Gordon holding out from the Los Angeles Chargers, demanding a new pact. He never got it, and ended up settling for a two-year, $16 million deal from the Broncos in the offseason.

The other problem? The new Collective Bargaining Agreement. If Cook skips one day of training camp, he won’t accrue a year towards free agency, per the new CBA. The leverage once enjoyed by players in years past is gone. Cook could decide it’s worth the risk to hold out anyway, but then he needs to strike a deal or set himself back considerably.

Lastly, Cook and his representation is smart for floating the “reasonable extension” talk. They understand the best option isn’t going nuclear. It’s sitting down with general manager Rick Spielman and getting a good chunk of guaranteed money on a contract Minnesota can cut ties with on the back end.

Minnesota gets long-term flexibility on a position known for players steeply declining, and Cook gets generational wealth.

2. NFL making Juneteenth company holiday has significant impact

On Friday, commissioner Roger Goodell wrote a memo to all 32 clubs. June 19, known as Juneteenth, is now an NFL holiday.

For those unaware, June 19, 1865 was the official end of slavery in the United States.

Also last week, the NFL announced a $250 million fund over 10 years to assist programs which work to end systematic oppression of black people and racial injustice within the United States. While we’re talking about a massive financial commitment, the acknowledgment of Juneteenth shouldn’t be undersold.

The NFL is a bellwether for myriad Americans. If the league is making June 19th a sacred day, many other companies will likely follow suit. As importantly, Goodell is showing the players — who are 70 percent black — the NFL is not only giving monetary support but emotional and thoughtful backing as well.

Good on the NFL for this move.

3. Maxx Crosby is setting sights on a big encore performance

Who does Maxx Crosby play for? What position?

The casual NFL fan may not know Crosby starred at defensive end for the then-Oakland Raiders as a rookie in 2019, notching 10 sacks. A fourth-round pick from Eastern Michigan, Crosby outshined the No. 4 overall pick, Clelin Ferrell.

Going into his second season, Crosby is talking a bit more. On the Adam Lefkoe Show, the 22-year-old guaranteed a sack of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, noting how close he was a season ago. While some may see the talk as bluster, it should be seen for what it truly is. Confidence.

Las Vegas desperately needs a defensive identity. For years, the Raiders have languished without a discernible strength on that side, save for Khalil Mack coming off the left side. The secondary has been suspect, the pass-rush lacking since the arrival of head coach Jon Gruden.

Crosby is clearly a terrific player. If he becomes a leader and a lightning rod for energy in the locker room? All the better.

4. Philip Rivers is an underrated AFC x-factor

Does Philip Rivers have one more great year in him? The 38-year-old thinks so.

Last week, Rivers was adamant his best days aren’t behind him. Despite throwing 22 touchdowns against 21 interceptions last season with the Chargers, Rivers believes he can propel the Indianapolis Colts back to the playoffs after going 7-9 last year.

History says Rivers is fighting an uphill battle. Few quarterbacks lose arm strength and start increasing their interception totals, only to turn it around.

However, there’s reason for optimism. Few players are more statuesque than Rivers, and after getting pounded behind bad lines in Los Angeles, he’ll be protected well in Indianapolis. Additionally, head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni are terrific offensive minds who worked with Rivers in San Diego.

If Rivers is right and he can turn back time for 16+ games, the Colts are one of the more intriguing teams in the AFC. If he can’t, they’ll be looking for a fourth starting quarterback in as many years come 2021.

5. O’Brien says he’ll kneel with Texans players

Bill O’Brien has taken his whacks in this space over the years, but he deserves credit this week.

The Houston Texans head coach told reporters Friday he’ll kneel with players should they protest during the national anthem this season. He’s the first head coach to make such a statement, and it might open up for more to come forward and do the same.

Don’t underestimate the power of O’Brien’s words. He’s a coach on a team in Texas, not a state known for its progressive ideals. He’ll undoubtedly be met with jeers from some fans, in a fanbase already frustrated with him for football reasons.

The 2020 NFL season is going to be unlike anything we’ve seen for a variety of reasons. And while we’ve seen demonstrations before, the potential for mass protests from both coaches and players will certainly be atop the list.

History lesson

The NFL is entering its 101th season this fall. Incredibly, a quarter of the league’s teams predate 1935.

The Green Bay Packers were founded a year prior to the NFL’s start in 1920 (known then as the American Pro Football Association). However, Green Bay joined in 1921, finding the Decatur Staleys and Chicago Cardinals among the other squads. The Staleys relocated to Chicago and became the Bears in 1922.

In 1925, the New York Giants came to be under the ownership of Wellington Mara. Fun fact about Mara? When you see “THE DUKE” on footballs today, it’s because he worked on the initial contract with Wilson in 1941, and the company honored him with the moniker, due to Duke Wellington.

Back to the other teams. In the early ’30s, the Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Braves and Portsmouth Spartans all came about. The Eagles obviously stuck as is, the Spartans moved to Detroit and rebranded as the Lions in ’34, the Pirates became the Steelers in 1940, and the Braves renamed the Redskins after one season in ’33 and moved to D.C. in ’37.

Parting shot

One month from today, the deadline comes for these 15 players on the franchise or transition tag:

  • Kenyan Drake, RB, Arizona Cardinals
  • Matthew Judon, EDGE, Baltimore Ravens
  • A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
  • Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
  • Justin Simmons, S, Denver Broncos
  • Yannick Ngakoue, EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • Chris Jones, DT, Kansas City Chiefs
  • Hunter Henry, TE, Los Angeles Chargers
  • Anthony Harris, S, Minnesota Vikings
  • Joe Thuney, G, New England Patriots
  • Leonard Williams, DT, New York Giants
  • Bud Dupree, EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Shaquil Barrett, EDGE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
  • Brandon Scherff, G, Washington Redskins

Of course, the main storyline will center on the Cowboys and whether they sign Prescott. If they fail to — and that remains an unlikely outcome — Prescott could conceivably become an unrestricted free agent as a 27-year-old.

We’ve already gone over the Jones and Ngakoue situations in recent columns, so another player here to watch? Derrick Henry.

Tennessee general manager Jon Robinson paid Ryan Tannehill after a half-season of production. Henry is coming off a historic stretch of football, and one backed up by consistent play in prior years. However, Robinson will undoubtedly weigh much of what is outlined with Cook above: running back, production versus future output, etc.

Henry is an elite player, but will the Titans pay him like Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell? Tough to do for a bruiser who has racked up an obscene amount of carries dating back to high school.

Then again, few teams are as run-heavy as Tennessee. Without Henry, the offense doesn’t work.

A tough, tough call for Robinson and the Titans.

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