What strange, scary days we’re experiencing right now. Wherever you’re reading this, I hope you’re healthy and safe. And to the medical professionals on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, thank you. Thank you so, SO much. You’re heroes.
Me? I’m just a guy who makes a living spewing sports takes. Kinda trivial in times like these, eh? Then again, sports chatter can be a welcome distraction, especially when the world feels like it’s spinning off its axis.
Of course, COVID-19 has sidelined real, live sporting competition across the world for weeks. And here in America, we lost one of the most alluring and electrifying events on the annual sports calendar: March Madness. I’m still bummed out. It’s truly unparalleled entertainment, a drama that’s absolutely unpredictable and unmissable. The NCAA tournament delivers every year.
And every year, we piggyback off of the tourney’s signature subplot — the Cinderella team — by forecasting the NFL equivalent for the coming football season. And there’s been a direct correlation to gridiron success. I identify the NFL’s Cinderella team in the spring … and that team goes on to make waves in the fall. Seriously — check the receipts!
I was mocked for giving Jacksonville the glass slipper back in March of 2017. Ten months later, the Jaguars were in the AFC Championship Game.
So, which franchise has that magical feel this time around? Which roster has the right ingredients for a breakthrough campaign in 2020? Well, before I make my selection, I want to reiterate one thing I underscore every year in this exercise:
This is NOT an official playoff prediction. Not yet, at least.
The 2020 NFL Draft is still two weeks away, so a major component of roster reconstruction has yet to transpire. And a whole lot can play out in the coming offseason months. Unfortunately, fluky injuries occur. As do surprise cuts. And contract squabbles. And a bunch of other unforeseen factors — especially this offseason, with a global pandemic putting everything in flux — that annually impact competition during the season. So, per usual, I’ll be making my official, written-in-pen playoff predix right before the 2020 campaign kicks off. What I intend to do here is single out a team football fans need to stop sleeping on. Immediately. Because the group is about to make some noise, and if you don’t reserve a seat on the bandwagon now, you’ll be lucky to nab a standing-room-only spot in the fall.
With that out of the way, which team earns this fortuitous distinction in the year 2020? Well, it’s always tough to find a true surprise squad. I love the Chargers to bounce back from a 5-11 debacle, but that feels too obvious. Whether quarterbacked by my guy Tyrod Taylor or someone else, the Bolts boast plenty of talent on both sides of the football. No, I must dig deeper. How about a bottom-feeding franchise picking in the top 10 of the NFL draft for a second straight year? How about the last-place team from a power-loaded division? Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, your 2020 NFL Cinderella team is …
The Arizona Cardinals!
Get on board now and thank me later, America.
Let’s start with the most recent development, the most shocking trade in recent memory. I just cannot stop thinking about Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins heist. Steve Keim acquired a bona fide superstar — a first-team All-Pro receiver three years running — and all it cost him was David Johnson, a second-round selection and a swap of fourth-rounders. What??? That’s highway robbery. And it’s an absolute dream for the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Kyler Murray immediately lived up to the hype as the No. 1 overall pick in 2019. With rare arm talent and electric scamperability, the 2018 Heisman Trophy winner lifted the Cardinals‘ offense from the doldrums to respectability. Arizona ranked dead last in Football Outsiders’ offensive efficiency metric in 2018. Last year? The Cards shot up to 13th. The attack got better as the season went on, too, with Murray and first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury getting increasingly comfortable at the NFL level. Consequently, since the end of last season, many envisioned Murray taking a big step forward in Year 2. But now, with Hopkins in tow? It seems like Murray could take a Lamar Jackson-sized step forward. Yes, the 22-year-old Murray suddenly feels like a dark-horse MVP candidate.
Wide receivers have never been more prominent in NFL offenses. And at this moment, Hopkins has a good argument for being the best of the best at the position. Not to disparage Michael Thomas, who just set the single-season record for receptions with 149, or Julio Jones, who just posted his sixth straight season of 1,300-plus yards — both of them have definite standing in this debate. But so does Hopkins. Choose your nugget of domination. Nuk’s squarely in his prime at age 27. In a related note, only one receiver in NFL history boasts more receiving yards before his 28th birthday than Hopkins: Randy Moss. Over the past six seasons, Hopkins has posted an average annual stat line of 97 catches for 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns. And don’t forget: He played more than half of those games with a clown car of crummy quarterbacks. Imagine the sweet music he’ll make with Kingsbury calling the plays and Murray delivering the football.
Hopkins gives Murray a true WR1, but he’s not Arizona’s one WR. Larry Fitzgerald is one of the greatest receivers to ever play this game, and he still has gas in the tank at age 36. Meanwhile, 23-year-old Christian Kirk has flashed a ton of playmaking ability in his first two NFL seasons. This is a real Big Three at receiver. And Arizona’s aerial attack is complemented by a legit playmaker in the ground game.
Last year’s midseason trade for Kenyan Drake — which only cost a conditional sixth-round pick — was another stroke of genius by Keim and Co. In eight games with the Cardinals, Drake scored eight touchdowns, rushing for 643 yards at a robust 5.2 per carry. With Drake transition-tagged and Johnson now in Houston, the explosive 26-year-old back could really go off in 2020. He’s exactly the kind of running threat Murray needs to keep defenses honest.
The biggest question mark with Arizona’s offense is clearly the line. But A) Murray’s elite athleticism and escapability mitigates that issue; and B) the Cardinals can scoop up a plug-and-play tackle with the No. 8 overall pick.
Bottom line: I think this Cardinals offense is going to be piping hot — the kind of prolific, point-scoring operation that’ll give Arizona the chance to beat any team at any time.
So, what about the other side of the ball?
Well, Chandler Jones and Patrick Peterson just made the NFL’s All-Decade Team — and neither one is showing any signs of slowing down. Jones got my AP vote for Defensive Player of the Year last season, having posted 19 sacks and eight forced fumbles — both career highs. And many NFL receivers will still tell you that Peterson is the best corner in the league. That’s a pretty solid duo, giving the Cards an elite player in pass rush and pass coverage. And don’t sleep on the talent of S Budda Baker, LB Jordan Hicks and CB Byron Murphy. The Arizona defense will make plays and get the ball back to what I believe will be a sizzling offense.
If you watched closely last year, you know the Cardinals were more competitive than their 5-10-1 record would indicate. In Week 16, they waxed the Seahawks 27-13 — in Seattle! — piling up a whopping 253 rushing yards in the process. They lost two games to the eventual NFC Champion 49ers by a combined 13 points. So don’t tell me they can’t hang in the NFC West.
The Kliff and Kyler combo was already primed for takeoff … and then Keim pulled a rabbit out of his hat by acquiring Hopkins — the move that pushes this team over the top into full-blown relevance.
The slipper fits. The Cardinals are Cinderella, and their 2020 season is going to be a show you won’t want to miss.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.