2019 Arizona Cardinals Fantasy Football Preview
The Arizona Cardinals decided to part ways with the defensive-minded Steve Wilks after just one season and step into the 21st Century of offensive innovation by hiring Air Raid guru and former Texas Tech head coach, Kliff Kingsbury.
The 39-year-old coach was let go from Texas Tech and entered coaching free agency on November 26th. Most knew he wouldn’t last long on the market. According to Gil Brandt of NFL.com, Kingsbury's phone had been "ringing off the hook" because his "superb knowledge of [fast-paced, college-style offenses] is in high demand" among pro organizations. Instead of diving into the NFL right away, he decided to remain in college and take the vacant offensive coordinator job at Southern California (USC). Kingsbury and USC seemed like a match made in college football heaven.
"He is a brilliant offensive mind and is on the cutting edge of the game today," said USC HC Clay Helton when Kingsbury was hired. "His offenses have consistently been at the top of the college football statistical rankings. With the talent on our team, along with his leadership and coaching, I truly believe that we can take our offense to new heights."
That marriage was quickly annulled when the Cardinals came knocking at Kingsbury’s door with an offer he could not reject. Then on January 9th, the Ryan Gosling look-alike accepted the job to become their head coach. Some may say Kingsbury is unqualified to be a NFL head coach, and it’s tough to argue that point. However, he was able to observe the talent and develop the likes of Case Keenum, Johnny Manziel, Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes, from relatively unknown two and three-stars to a long NFL career, two Heisman Trophies and one NFL Most Valuable Player award.
Overall, the Cardinals decided to follow in the footsteps of other NFL franchises by going all-in on offense, in an effort to find the next Sean McVay -- and there’s no one with a higher offensive upside than Kliff Kingsbury.
"We wanted someone with a great offensive mind."
- Arizona Cardinals President, Michael Bidwell
Kliff Kingsbury has played and coached under the Air Raid offense since his days of playing quarterback at Texas Tech under The Godfather of the Air Raid, Mike Leach. After a short stint in the NFL, he joined the Houston coaching staff as an offensive quality control coach, and then offensive coordinator under Kevin Sumlin, another Air Raid artist. The young and upcoming coach then followed Sumlin to Texas A&M, where he orchestrated a juggernaut offense that led to a Heisman Trophy for redshirt freshman, Johnny Manziel. The team averaged 44.5 points per game, which attracted the eyes of college programs around the country. His meteoric rise ended with Kingsbury accepting the Texas Tech head coaching job at the ripe age of 33. There, his offense consistently scored in the 40 point range, while utilizing two and three-star prospects in the competitive recruiting hotbed of Texas.
From a schematic standpoint, a former player under Kingsbury at Houston and current Washington State offensive quality control coach, Drew Hollingshead said it best:
“I think the best way to describe our offense is probably that it’s not just an offense. It truly is a philosophy. It’s the simplicity. We don’t have a ton of concepts,” Hollingshead said. “But we believe in being able to rep everything we do, every single day and being better at running it than the defense is at stopping it. Also encompassing that is the way we practice; how it’s structured and the drills that each position group does that directly relate to our offense.”
The real question is how the offense will translate to the NFL. We saw an innovative college coach like Chip Kelly get figured out real quick. Will Kingsbury be able to adapt on a week-to-week basis and have the flexibility to game plan against the ever evolving defenses of the NFL? Well, Chris Brown (@SmartFootball), one of the X's and O's geniuses of Twitter had this to say about Kingsbury’s eagerness to adapt:
“… while Leach famously just runs the same small handful of plays week in, week out, year after year, Kingsbury’s week-to-week approach is much more influenced by his time in the NFL, particularly with the Patriots. Specifically, while in spring and the early part of fall camp, he will focus on the core or base plays. During the season, he adds a lot of opponent specific concepts, plays, formations, motions and shifts; while Leach is just trying to out-execute everyone with simplicity, Kingsbury wants the benefit of the high volume of reps that Leach and the other Air Raiders have by mastering the core concepts, while also making the specific, weekly tweaks, wrinkles and just plain new plays that exploit matchups and keep opponents off balance. … All of this isn’t to say his offense will succeed in the NFL, but I do think it will be interesting to follow how he blends the college Air Raid with a more NFL inspired ‘game plan approach.'”
As Brown said, it’s not a layup that just because he adds these weekly wrinkles that it’s all going to workout in the NFL. However, his eagerness to adapt and add wrinkles based on opposing defenses is a step in the right direction.
Kingsbury will utilize the basic Air Raid concepts such as 'Four Verticals,' 'Y-Cross,' 'Mesh,' and 'Y-Stick,' while also using RPOs and one of the most complex screen games in all of football. Although this would have helped former Cardinals' QB Josh Rosen, Kingsbury selected the electric Kyler Murray No. 1 overall -- a player who won the Heisman in Lincoln Riley's Air Raid offense. Kingsbury and Murray are a match-made in football heaven and the two are set to break scoreboards in the desert.
“If you watch any of (Kingsbury’s) years at Tech, you’ll see all those base concepts but also some very unique ways of getting the ball to his best players,” Hollingshead said. Though the tunnel screen is a staple concept for Air Raid offenses, Kingsbury has shown a wide variety of screens with several layers of deception added to them. His screen package at Texas Tech was already more extensive than a lot of NFL teams’. If you look at someone such as Josh McDaniels in New England, who’s about as creative in that department as they come, that’s who Kingsbury emulates.
After labeling Kyler Murray so “dominant a football player” that he’d “take him with the first pick,” new Cardinals HC Kliff Kingsbury kept his word. Murray led off the 2019 NFL Draft, landing in the ideal “Air Raid” system for him to be a Day One Fantasy Force. Murray is fresh off setting the NCAA ablaze with 4,361 passing yards, 42 TDs, 7 Ints to go with 1,001 rushing yards and 12 TDs inside Lincoln Riley‘s Oklahoma Air Raid. Additionally the team added speedy weaponry to an already stacked cabinet, giving Murray a deep stable of targets. Though the line is highly suspect, Murray has all the ingredients for a stellar rookie-year.
Kingsbury’s long been infatuated with Murray, giving the pick a fatalistic feel. The new HC had previously gushed, “He’s a freak…I’ve followed him since he was a sophomore in high school…I’ve never seen one better in high school. Just think the world of him and what he can do on the football field.”
Plus, Kingsbury added the perfect weaponry to make his “Air Raid” an NFL reality. UMass standout Andy Isabella, their 62nd pick, brings elite 4.31 speed and exceptional quicks to the table. Additionally, the massive 6’5″ Hakeem Butler (pick 103) blazes a 4.48, and can win contested balls.
Nevermind the Cardinals already boasted an All-Pro pass-catching back in David Johnson, who’s rapidly reclaiming his Top-10 Overall Fantasy Value, as well as the ageless Larry Fitzgerald and surging Christian Kirk.
Simply put: Murray has the arm and accuracy to spray at all levels of the field, and the system and weapons to capitalize. Combined with elite rushing upside, Murray slides into my Top-10 QBs, with the upside to rise inside a competitive QB1 class with strong camp performances. For more, click here.
In just about every season where Kingsbury has called the shots, he has produced an alpha No. 1 wideout, with a very solid No. 2. As mentioned below, Christian Kirk looks like he's primed for a big time season. He possesses similar traits of the receivers who blew up in this system and should be Rosen's prime target. Although Larry Fitzgerald will still get his fair share of targets in this offense, Kirk is the one who is dripping in Penny Stock potential due to his quickness off the line of scrimmage and YAC. In the draft, the Cardinals selected speedster Andy Isabella and the beastly Hakeem Butler -- both of which will make noise as rookies.
As noted above, WR screens are also a staple of the Air Raid -- especially tunnel screens. If the cornerback is playing off of the receiver, the quarterback quickly checks into a screen to get the ball to the perimeter as soon as possible, allowing the receiver to make a play in space. Having YAC monsters such as Kirk, Isabella, Fitz and Butler will only make life easier for Murray.
2019 Outlook – Christian Kirk Primed for a Year-Two Explosion
As noted above, the receivers and quarterback need to absolutely be on the same page to make this offense run effectively. Most importantly, Kingsbury needs to address the lack of elite talent on the perimeter. Sure, Larry Fitzgerald is a legend, but he will be 36 and entering his final season this year. Then, there’s Christian Kirk, who should benefit most from this offense due to his incredible athleticism and skill-set. Either way, the Cardinals’ need to address this need in the draft and in free agency. To execute the quick game, Kingsbury leaned on quick-twitch receivers such as Keke Coutee and Jakeem Grant to get open and make plays after the catch to move the sticks.
With Fitz likely to be his consistent self and not make a major week-to-week fantasy impact, Christian Kirk is a receiver who we think has the potential to be a legitimate fantasy Penny Stock in this offense. Kirk’s game in college was mostly based on yardage after the catch, turning shallow crossers into long gains. He’s not necessarily explosive downfield (4.47 40), but his footwork, positive route running and plus-hands will make him a key target in this quick-hitting attack.
When looking at Kirk’s NFL.com draft profile, it was noted that he’s “impressive on whip routes,” and is “quick in and out of breaks with sharp turns.” He was also described as playing “with strong, natural hands as a pass-catcher.” These attributes seem like the perfect fit in what Kingsbury will want to do with both Rosen and the Cardinals’ offense. It also doesn’t hurt that he can learn from one of the best to ever do it, in Larry Fitzgerald.
With Murray's pinpoint accuracy and incredible deep ball, Kirk, Fitz, Isabella, and Butler should all be fed early and often.
Outside of one outlier season by Tech's Jace Amaro, Kingsbury has never utilized his tight end. With the team running four and five wide sets, he's never been forced to use the tight end spot. In fact, Amaro was more of a bigger receiver who could consistently line up in the slot and create mismatches. Luckily for the Cardinals, Ricky Seals-Jones has similar size and can present matchup problems.
2019 Outlook – Can RSJ buck the anti-TE trend?
The tight end spot is not a position that typically excels in Kliff’s offense. Outside of Jace Amaro’s outlier 106-1352-7 junior season, the position simply does not get targeted. Tight ends in Kingsbury’s offense were only targeted 4.6 percent of the time, compared to 78.1 percent to receivers and 17 percent to running backs.
Luckily for Ricky Seals-Jones, he is more in the mold of Amaro (big wide receiver) than your standard three-down tight end. In fact, he was recruited by Kingsbury and played under Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M starting in 2013. With almost identical measurables to Amaro, Seals-Jones should be utilized similarly in this offense. Standing at 6-foot-5, 243 lbs, he may be used more out wide to create mismatches.
Although RSJ has the Air Raid connection, it will be tough to call him a Penny Stock right now before Kingsbury talks about how he’ll be utilized in his offense. Outside of Amaro, no tight end has been a blip on Kingsbury’s radar.
Summary: As shown above, when Kingsbury has NFL talent at the running back position on the roster, he has no issue using a workhorse. However, due to a lack of recruiting at that position in the competitive state of Texas, it didn't happen often at Texas Tech. Outside of the few years where he had Deandre Washington, he typically used a committee. But with David Johnson in the backfield as the offense's most dynamic playmaker, one should expect him to be the bell-cow of this offense. Look for DJ to revert back to his fantasy cheat-code ways under Kingsbury.
The 2018 Cardinals offense was abysmal under offensive Mike McCoy, so abysmal that they had to axe him mid-season and roll with Byron Leftwich as their play-caller. The blend of horrific play-calling, a rookie quarterback thrown into the fire too soon and a shitty offensive line led to a tumultuous fantasy season for David Johnson. Although DJ finished as the RB11, it was more so based on his ability to make something out of nothing — which should change under the one of the more creative offensive minds, Kliff Kingsbury. As Washington State QCC Drew Hollingshead told us, Kingsbury will not only utilize Johnson’s strength, speed and vision in the run game, but he’ll also find creative ways to deploy his elite receiving skill-set in the pass game to resurrect his fantasy career.
One of the more interesting (and maddening) tidbits about last season is that the Cards rushed DJ up the middle and into the heart of the opposing defense a whopping 156 times. For a little perspective, Ezekiel Elliott had the second most carries up the middle with only 89. Even with how brainless McCoy proved to be, Johnson was still a fantasy factor at times throughout the 2018 season.
With McCoy gone, Kingsbury calling the shots and the addition of Broncos’ OL coach Sean Kugler, the run game should be much more effective in 2019. As noted, Kingsbury will find ways to get DJ to the perimeter in the run game and also find creative mismatches in the pass game. There will be no more “three-yards and a cloud of dust” in Arizona, which makes Johnson a no-brainer bounce-back candidate for 2019.
David Johnson is back in our top 10 overall and needs to be a first round staple.
Overall, the Cardinals made the ultimate low-risk, high-reward move when they decided to target and then hire Kliff Kingsbury. The 39-year-old coach will find ways to put points on the scoreboard using his ever adaptive playbook. Chris Brown of Smart Football gave the best NFL endorsement of Kingsbury’s offense, “… while Leach famously just runs the same small handful of plays week in, week out, year after year, Kingsbury’s week-to-week approach is much more influenced by his time in the NFL, particularly with the Patriots.”
It all starts with 'The Chosen One,' Kyler Murray. Murray dominated in his lone year as a starter at Oklahoma, running a very similar offense to Kingsbury's. Murray and Kingsbury will be on the same wavelength when it comes to the Air Raid, which will give him a headstart over the average rookie quarterback. Kingsbury will let Murray run around, while also giving him simple and quick reads to get the ball out of his hand quickly.
A player who is going to benefit most and should be in for a monster sophomore season is Christian Kirk. The second year wideout possesses the skill-set that fits in most perfectly in this scheme -- it also doesn’t hurt that he played under Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M. His ability to get open underneath and makes plays after the catch is a must-have in this system. Then there's old reliable Larry Fitzgerald, along with the two talented rookies in Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler. Receiver was a position of weakness heading into the draft and the Cardinals made a point to surround their No. 1 overall pick with talent.
Let's be clear about one thing... Kingsbury will revive David Johnson. He's going to put him in a place to succeed and it'll no longer be three yards and a cloud of dust for the talented back. He'll be utilized in the passing game and Kingsbury will most certainly get DJ to the edge. The thought of DJ in this offense has already made us place him back into the top 10 of our Big Board.
“I think people are going to be surprised by the amount that we do run the ball; it’s a big part of this offense in addition to the screen game,” Kugler said. “It’s not just throwing it every down, and there’s going to be a lot of physicality in this offense.”
Copyright 2019, Roto Street Journal