GLENDALE, Ariz. — When the Arizona Cardinals pulled off one of the most surprising trades of the offseason, landing All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, imaginations across the football world started to run wild.
One of the NFL’s best receivers was pairing with one of the most creative offensive coaches in Kliff Kingsbury, the reigning rookie of the year in quarterback Kyler Murray and a first-ballot Hall of Famer in receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
Oh, the possibilities.
Then early in training camp, Murray made that potential more tangible. Murray was asked whether the Cardinals’ receiving trio of Hopkins, Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk could each have 1,000 yards in 2020.
“Yeah, for sure,” Murray said without hesitation. “I definitely think that’s possible.”
It’s been done before — five times, actually — and it was another Cardinals trio that accomplished the feat most recently. In 2008, Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston each had 1,000 yards, with Breaston reaching the plateau in the final minute of the regular-season finale.
To be done this year, it will take quite a bit of throwing from Murray, who had 3,797 yards last season. Kingsbury said there’s “definitely potential” for Fitzgerald, Hopkins and Kirk to each reach 1,000 yards but “it just depends on how many throws we have.”
Last season, Fitzgerald finished with 804 yards and Kirk had 709 in an offense that hit 400 yards twice in its first nine games. And Hopkins had 1,165 yards for the Houston Texans last season as their No. 1 target.
“Those are three guys that I think on any team can be a No. 1-type player, even Fitz going in Year 17,” Kingsbury said. “He is so effective at getting open, so savvy in his route running, such an intelligent player that he’s going to get his catches and get his yards each and every week.
“We feel like Christian is really an ascending player. He was having a really big year and got banged up a little bit last year. And then Hop, his numbers and production speaks for itself. … If we got into a deal where we’re throwing it a bunch, yeah, I mean, anything could happen.”
Kingsbury also said the Cardinals want to be balanced. That means they’ll strive to run the ball as much as they throw it — or in the case of last season, run more. Contrary to what was expected after hiring Kingsbury, who was known for running a version of the Air Raid offense as coach at Texas Tech, the Cardinals ran the ball 396 times and threw it 355. They also set a franchise record by averaging 5.03 yards per carry.
Left tackle D.J. Humphries thinks the Cardinals can build off last year’s success running the ball in 2020 behind Kenyan Drake, who signed his one-year tender in April. Offensive line coach Sean Kugler has challenged his group to pave the way for an average of six yards per carry or go from a top 10 rushing offense to top five.
But more carries means fewer opportunities for Fitzgerald, Hopkins and Kirk. That doesn’t necessarily preclude the trio from reaching the 1,000 yards each. There are two ways to get there: More yards per catch and more plays per game. Getting those extra yards and more chances doesn’t just fall on the shoulders of Fitzgerald, Hopkins and Kirk. A lot will have to do with Murray and his pre-snap reads.
“That just comes with seeing the defense and getting used to the NFL,” Murray said. “My last year in college, I knew what they were doing before it happened. Last year in high school, same thing. The more you see it, the more it happens, the more you get used to it.
“It’s hard to trick a guy that’s seen a lot of football.”
There are already signs it’s working early in training camp. “You can just tell the step that we’ve [taken as] an offensive unit,” Kirk said. “Efficiently, like the plays are running so much better and it’s a little bit of muscle memory, not having football for seven months.”
While Kingsbury is typically tight-lipped about what his offense will look like, Kirk said he could see the Cardinals starting the year in 11 personnel — one running back and one tight end — meaning the Cardinals would have three receivers on the field at the same time. Last year, Arizona ran 11 personnel the most, on 34.7% of its snaps, followed by 10 personnel (one running back and no tight ends) at 31.8% and then 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends) at 24.5%. Using a 10 or 11 personnel package will give Kingsbury more receiving options and create more mismatches.
Hopkins will be on the field in most situations and a key to his success will be developing rapport with Murray. That comes through reps. Murray has tried to get to know Hopkins, and vice versa, as much as they could during his erratic offseason. The first time they met was in June, when Murray hosted about 20 players in Dallas for a throwing session. Hopkins has said he wants to be “best friends” with Murray.
“As far as relationship goes, we already got a pretty good relationship off the field,” Murray said. “On the field, I think that’s going to continue to grow. He’s a great dude. Obviously, a great football player, one of the best. Him and Larry being able to catch anything throwing their way definitely helps me out but we got a lot of great weapons so I’m excited to get out there and put it to work.”