Cardinals, Kingsbury will have to shake things up to get through DeAndre Hopkins' suspension
As excited as Marquise “Hollywood” Brown is about reuniting with his college quarterback, Kyler Murray, he sounded just as thrilled about getting to play alongside fellow wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins upon being traded from the Ravens to the Cardinals last week.
“I’m very excited because I get to learn from him,” Brown said during his introductory news conference. “He’s DeAndre Hopkins. He’s going to command that attention. I’ve been in an offense where I've been getting all the attention. I’ve been getting the cloud coverages. I’m excited to get some one-on-one matchups and spread the field out.”
Yeah, that’s going to have to wait.
Following Monday’s major news that Hopkins will be suspended without pay for the first six games of the upcoming 2022 season for violating the NFL’s Performance Enhancing Drugs Policy, Brown can expect to see plenty more bracket coverage from a cornerback with help from a safety over the top in Arizona. Defenders will be looking to squeeze him out of pass-play opportunities at every turn while Hopkins is out of the lineup.
That alone puts a major damper on the plans coach Kliff Kingsbury has for Brown, a vertical threat with uncanny speed who was supposed to create mismatches and give Murray a different kind of weapon opposite Hopkins.
As General Manager Steve Keim noted after making the trade by sending Arizona’s first-round pick (No.23 overall) to Baltimore in exchange for Brown and a third-round pick, “He’s a fierce competitor, especially for a slighter receiver. He’s competitive as hell and he competes in a crowd. You see him make acrobatic catches and his speed is 0 to 60 and second to none.”
The Cardinals will still get to see that, but they might not be able to fully utilize it and get the most out of Brown until Week 7 when Hopkins can start playing. And even then, there’s no guarantee Hopkins will be his normal All-Pro self. It’s unrealistic to think the layoff won’t have a negative impact upon his return.
Look back to the 2019 season when perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson got hit with a six-game suspension for violating the league’s PED policy. He was about the same age as Hopkins is now and he struggled with getting his legs under him for weeks. He looked slow, out of place and both he and the team paid for it.
That’s not to suggest Hopkins can’t or won’t overcome the prolonged absence. Maybe he will. Until last season, he had only missed two regular-season games in his career. But he missed seven games in 2021 due to injury, including a torn MCL in his knee that required surgery. He’s still rehabbing his way back from that mishap, which forced him to also miss Arizona’s putrid 34-11 loss to the Rams in the NFC Wild Card round.
The real question now is how do Keim, Kingsbury, Murray and the Cardinals move on from here and what will it take for the team not to fall apart during the first six weeks of the season? Cardinals fans are obsessed with how this franchise has suffered back-to-back, second-half collapses the past two seasons, but they better be just as concerned about how things start this year.
Kingsbury admitted he didn’t do nearly a good enough job last year when Hopkins was sidelined. He wasn’t as creative as he should have been, he said, and he didn’t design the best game plans or play calls to account for the team missing its best wideout.
But he’s got plenty of time now to figure things out. Since he and Keim have probably known about Hopkins’ suspension for several weeks, they’ve both had ample hours to already give it some thought. So, what are they going to do?
It probably starts with expanding Brown’s role immediately. Eventually, the man who set career highs last season with 91 receptions for 1,008 yards will slide back into the No. 2 role where he belongs. But Kingsbury needs to make sure they get all they can out of Brown right out of the chute. That means taking a good number of deep shots down the field, but also getting Brown as many targets as possible, wherever he lines up.
It also means veteran A.J. Green, brought back on another one-year deal at age 33, must do exactly what he promised earlier this offseason and do his very best to get on the same page with Murray at all costs. The communication wasn’t good enough between the two a year ago, Green confessed, and it showed at times, particularly in the close loss at home to the Packers.
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But it doesn’t stop there. Veteran tight end Zach Ertz proved to be a security blanket of sorts for Murray upon his midseason trade from Philadelphia. In just 11 games, he tied the Cardinals’ single-season record for catches by a tight end (54), but projected over a full season, he’s talented enough to flirt with 90 catches, 900 receiving yards and seven to nine touchdowns.
Arizona might need it, too. And then there’s second-year receiver Rondale Moore, who was used more like a gadget player as a rookie. Moore’s role is certain to expand, but in what way? Kingsbury said last week he expects the speedy product out of Purdue to step into Christian Kirk’s old role, which if true, means a boatload of opportunities.
Moore might be used primarily out of the slot receiver position, Kingsbury said, but he also will get plenty of work on the outside, especially with Hopkins out of sight for the first six weeks. In many ways, Moore might end up being the wild card in the whole reshuffling of things without Hopkins. That’s a lot of pressure, but it’s necessary.
So is getting rookie tight end Trey McBride, the Cardinals’ surprising second-round pick out of Colorado State, up to speed sooner than maybe the team would have liked. Another way to counter the absence of Hopkins would be to rely a little more on the running game featuring James Conner. McBride no doubt will be asked to anchor one side of the offensive line opposite Ertz in “12 personnel” packages, something Kingsbury has been eager to utilize more often anyway.
But for a guy who hauled in 90 passes for 1,121 yards in college last season, the Cardinals would be foolish not to also take advantage of McBride’s sure hands and impressive route running. Especially with fellow tight end Maxx Williams still nursing his way back from ACL surgery.
Although the Cardinals also have wide receiver Antoine Wesley to consider and they just added four undrafted rookie free agent receivers to the mix on Monday, might they possibly reconsider trying to trade wideout Andy Isabella in the wake of the Hopkins suspension? It’s not as if they couldn’t still use another pair of hands and another fast receiver who can stretch the field.
There’s also the Dez Bryant angle. Though he hasn’t played in three out of the past four seasons, the former Cowboys star insists he can help the Cardinals on the field and in the locker room. He’s only 33, but difficult to believe Arizona has any serious interest and it’s doubtful he could provide any real help.
The Cardinals only need to survive six weeks without Hopkins. Until then, he still will be able to work out with the team, attend offseason activities and training camp and even be allowed to play in preseason games, although Kingsbury might be better served by getting other pass-catchers more reps.
ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky, the former NFL quarterback, went so far as to suggest the Cardinals should trade Hopkins to the Packers for a package of draft picks. Noting Hopkins is due to make $19.4 million in 2023 and will carry a cap hit of $30.7 million that year, Orlovsky said Arizona can unload that hefty salary situation to clear more money to re-sign both Murray and Brown while helping to facilitate Green Bay’s obvious need for another receiver.
“If I was Green Bay,” Orlovsky said Monday, “I would be calling Arizona to see what would it cost me to get DeAndre Hopkins and if I was Arizona, I would be thinking long and hard about making that deal.”
It seems far-fetched, but is it worth considering? Hopkins, after all, will have wound up missed at least 14 games since last season and although he’s been known for always being available, that’s clearly no longer a reputation he can carry.
“I apologize to Cardinals fans, my teammates, and the entire Cardinals organization,” Hopkins said in a statement released Monday night via Twitter. “I never want to let my team down.”
Have an opinion on the Arizona Cardinals? Reach McManaman at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac. Listen to him live on Fox Sports 910-AM every Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 on Calling All Sports with Roc and Manuch.