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 and O 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. Rosen should make a year-two leap under the 'QB whisperer,' as Kingsbury will allow for Rosen to make simple reads to get into an early groove. Kingsbury will adapt his playbook and scheme to the player.
“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.
The Air Raid begins with the quarterback position, and ends with the quarterback position. As noted above, Kingsbury has developed Manziel, Mayfield and Mahomes from three-star recruits into all-world quarterbacks. Not to mention he also developed three-star Davis Webb into a third round pick for the Giants.
At the time of this article being written, Josh Rosen is the Cardinals’ current franchise quarterback, so we’ll put the Kyler Murray rumors aside and roll with what he’ll do for Rosen’s development.
Rosen had a very tough rookie season. He was thrown into the fire early on when Sam Bradford’s season ended and endured the horrific Mike McCoy, before Byron Leftwich took over as the team’s play-caller. Even though the rookie looked a little better, he still ended up with a disgusting 26.6 QBR to go along with an 11:14 TD:INT ratio.
Enter the QB whisperer.
What makes Kingsbury a perfect coach for Rosen’s skill-set is that a majority of his passing scheme is based on quick throws. Rosen entered the league as a quarterback with polished, above-average footwork and a sharp mind to process quick throws. Kingsbury is going to implement a lot of quick horizontal throws (shallow crossers) and screens that will make things much easier for Rosen and get him comfortable in the offense -- along with protecting the Cards’ struggling offensive line by getting the ball out of Rosen’s hands quickly.
Kingsbury’s quick attack should get Rosen into a groove early on, which will hopefully morph into accurate throws. If you watch any past Texas Tech games, you’ll see that a lot of the throws are based on perfect timing and leading the receiver so he can catch the ball in stride and create yardage after the catch. If Rosen is able to improve his accuracy in the short passing game, then he’ll be able to be successful in this offense.
As noted by the guys at The Draft Network, Kingsbury does a great job of molding his scheme around his quarterback’s skill-set. He engineered Keenum’s record-breaking passing career at Houston before utilizing Manziel’s dual-threat abilities to turn him into a 3,700 yard passer and a 1,400 yard rusher in 2012. Then, he molded Mahomes into what he is today by using his rocket arm to throw the ball all over the field. He challenged Mahomes to make every throw, turning him into a first round pick and eventual league MVP. Assuming Rosen is the quarterback, Kingsbury will tailor his offense to Rosen and be sure to highlight his positives, rather than forcing Rosen to fit into a system that he used for Mahomes or Manziel.
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 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.
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.
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.
Here’s hoping that Rosen can continue to be accurate on short passes and feed Kirk, Fitz and whoever else lines up on the perimeter.
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.
When most football fans think of the Air Raid, they think of an offense that throws the rock 50-plus times per game. It’s tough to argue that notion. However, that simply won’t work in the NFL. For the most part, Kingsbury took over a team with a bare offensive cupboard -- except at running back, where David Johnson is coming off a very disappointing season and faces the biggest schematic question mark in this offense.
The issue with Kingsbury’s ground game was more based on the lack of being able to pull top running back talent into the school. DeAndre Washington was the lone NFL talent at that he was able to recruit to Lubbock, and Washington was able to put up 1,492 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground, while also grabbing 41 balls for 385 yards and two more scores through the air. As noted above, Kingsbury does an excellent job of adapting his scheme to his players and he knows what he has in Johnson.
“We’ve got to get him his touches and get him going and make him comfortable in what we do,” Kingsbury said of Johnson during the Kingsbury Chronicle Podcast on Feb. 5. “He’s going to have a major role. There’s no doubt.”
Fortunately for Kingsbury and the running game, he made a home run hire when he was able to hire away former Broncos’ and Steelers’ offensive line coach, Sean Kugler. Just last season, Kugler’s offensive line paved the way for rookie Phillip Lindsay, en-route to a 1,034 yard season. He also schemed up the Steelers’ offensive line from 2010 to 2013, where Rashard Mendenhall was able to crack 1,000 yards on the ground.
After lining up in the slot only 7 percent of the time last year (compared to 20 percent in 2016), the hope and expectation would be to see DJ return to his versatile self. Although he obviously won’t be directly involved, Mike Leach believes that Johnson will go back to being the focal point of the Cardinals’ offense:
“They almost always have the most touches,” Leach said. “They’re the closest to the quarterback, they’re the easiest to get the ball to. You get it in the air and on the ground. You need a versatile guy. He’s got to be able to block and he’s got to be able to catch and he’s got to be able to rush the ball. You just want to get the ball in their hands. They’re the best athlete on the field, generally.”
Let’s hope Johnson returns to his cheat code self under Kingsbury.
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 Josh Rosen (if he’s still the team’s franchise quarterback after draft day), and Kingsbury’s ability to build his offense around his players’ strengths and weaknesses is what should give Cardinals’ fans optimism. He’s going to give Rosen simple reads and tailor the offense around what he does best -- which is being accurate on short and intermediate passes.
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.
But from a fantasy standpoint, we really only care about the revival of David Johnson. Will the ground attack be up to NFL standards? Will the rookie head coach be creative and line DJ up around the formation? Johnson could either bust hard once again, or be a second round steal who wins you your respective league.
“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