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If the Arizona Cardinals are going to take that vital next step en route to the NFL post season, they’ll need their young core players to help get them there. For too long, this has been a franchise overly dependent on band aid free agents and mega trades as opposed to homegrown additions via the NFL Draft.
If Sunday’s 31-19 victory over Jacksonville is any indication, that trend may be slowly coming to an end for the Arizona Cardinals.
The team’s pivotal, and very much necessary road victory was fueled by the likes of recent second round selections Christian Kirk and Byron Murphy. Both players entered 2021 needing strong campaigns given their draft status combined with their upcoming contract situations.
Each has responded, looking less like a misfire and more like an essential piece to a suddenly undefeated Cardinal squad.
Byron Murphy, the 33rd overall pick back in 2019, had his best game as a pro Sunday securing a career high two inceptions which included a nifty pick-six off Jag’s QB Trevor Lawrence.
“That’s always my goal to make a play for the defense,” said Murphy after the win. “I’m trying to go out there and dance and have fun.”
Sunday morning for Murphy looked like a lot of fun, as he spent the post game presser reminiscing about a similar performance he had in the Pac-12 title game.
The Cardinals famously downplayed their need for a true “number one” cornerback following the free agent departure of Patrick Peterson. Murphy, who had been up and down to begin his NFL career, reshaped his body in the offseason with the intent to transition from the slot to outside cover man.
Through three games this season, the former Washington standout has more than delivered for a Cardinal team desperate for youth and athleticism at corner. At only 23 years of age, Murphy is solidifying himself as a staple in a suddenly loaded crop of young, promising Cardinal DBs.
On the flip side, fellow second round pick (2018) Christian Kirk is currently enjoying a career season and that continued Sunday against the Jaguars. Kirk finished his day with 104 receiving yards on seven catches, many of which were in pivotal moments for an otherwise inconsistent Cardinal passing game.
The Cardinal offense was a dreaded 1-9 on third downs but a perfect 2-2 on fourth downs, one of which was converted by Kirk.
Explosive plays have never been foreign for the former Aggie, rather a lack of consistency at the pro level. Last season Kirk managed to reach 427 receiving yards through the first eight games, but finished with a meager 194 yards to end the season.
Through three games to begin 2021, Kirk is on pace for a near 1350 yard campaign.
Let’s hope Kirk’s disappearing act is a thing of the past for the Cardinals. The element of a pure speedster underneath is a far cry from what Kingsbury has had at his disposal through his first two seasons.
Kirk’s ascension coincides nicely with both his transition to the slot as well as his impending free agent status next March. While Murphy figures to be in the Cardinals’ plans long term, Kirk may very well be a luxury too expensive for his hometown team.
While remaining in the present, the Cardinals will happily take the uptick in play from the Saguaro High School tandem that did all they could to lead their Redbirds to victory on Sunday.
Establishing a culture of winning will do wonders for the young talent on this Cardinal team. It is what every organization strives for and a large reason why Arizona’s two prior periods of recent success were quickly halted. Those teams were largely built through free agency, led by aging stars (Warner, James, Palmer, Freeney) nearing their football end.
The future appears to be bright, but what about the remainder of 2021?
The reality is, while the Cardinals remain unbeaten, they are still faced with the challenge that is the NFC West. That’s where the sudden winning pedigree of Kirk, Murphy and company will be tested at it’s highest level.
The star studded plays we saw Sunday against Jacksonville will need to translate in-division if Arizona hopes to end their five year playoff drought.
And it starts next week at LA.
- For the first time since 2015, the Arizona Cardinals are 3-0 to begin a season. While this team still has obvious areas to improve upon, it’s evident they also have a chance to be special. Unlike prior years, this version of the Arizona Cardinals can beat you in so many ways which is what all great teams are capable of.
- Kyler Murray played a rather pedestrian game for his early MVP standards, however did just enough to help the Cardinals pull away. While you would prefer he limit his turnovers, the Pro Bowl QB is simply too dynamic in nearly ever other facet that you’re forced to live with the occasional hiccup. The Cardinals’ need Murray’s greatness, turnovers and all, if they hope to knock off their in-divisional rivals.
- There’s no way around the fact that the decision to attempt a record setting 68-yard field goal before the end of the half was a poor one by head coach Kliff Kingsbury. The Cardinals are more than fortunate the 109 yard touchdown return did not come back to haunt them. Thankfully it remains a nifty factoid on an otherwise forgettable game for the Jaguars.
- After a shaky performance against Minnesota, the Cardinal offensive line had a quality outing on Sunday. Allowing a mere one QB hit on the afternoon, the unit (still sans RT Kelvin Beachum), was in control from start to finish. Murray seemingly had all day to throw and the run game was in peak form once the fourth quarter hit.
- While Christian Kirk remains more than steady to begin the season, his new running mate in A.J. Green is slowly reaffirming his status as a legitimate receiving threat. The ex-Bengal had a banner Sunday against Jacksonville, snatching 5 catches for a team high 112 yards. The eye popping stat, however, was Green’s sparkling yards-per-catch of 22.4. With Hopkins still nicked up (ribs), the Cardinals are fortunate to have Green emerging at the right time.
- For another week, the Cardinal front seven was exposed in the run game, this time against Jaguar tandem James Robinson and Carlos Hyde. As a team, Jacksonville ran for 159 yards on only 29 carries. Jordan Hicks remains effective in spats, but the team would be wise to better utilize first round rookie Zaven Collins against the run. His physical presence up the middle is sorely lacking and the Cardinals need to see what they have in the former Tulsa product.
- J.J. Watt, while still sackless on the season, was far more active Sunday than in previous weeks. With several hits in the backfield, including one that led to a Jaguar turnover, perhaps Watt is finally returning to form following his training camp injury.
- Running backs Chase Edmonds and James Conner saw an increased workload against the Jaguars, with both players netting 11 touches in the run game. Conner in particular was effective running late when Jacksonville was forced to load the box. His two touchdowns were the first “non-Kyler” rushing TDs of the season.
- Marco Wilson, after missing a large stretch of practice this week, did in fact play and start for the Cardinals. The fourth round rookie corner has made an imprint through the first three weeks to the point where you forget he’s only 22 years old. For all the heat the Cardinals took for their lack of experience in the secondary, Wilson is making GM Steve Keim look like a genius for trading up for the former Florida Gator.
- Dating back to last season, Chandler Jones is sackless in six of his last eight games. Markus Golden, meanwhile, has a sack in each of his last two outings.
- The Cardinals are a 6-point underdog for their Week 4 road game against the LA Rams.
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