The Arizona Cardinals were one of the NFL's most improved teams in 2020. But at the end of the day, the Cardinals still fell one game short of their first postseason trip in five years. Arizona's postseason failure doesn't take away the gains Kyler Murray and this team took in 2020, improving the offensive points per game from 22.6 (16th in NFL) to 25.6 (13th) and their points allowed per game from 27.6 (28th) to 22.9 (12th) -- a key factor in their win total improving from five in 2019 to eight in 2020.
Regardless of the Cardinals' gains, the team still needs to be tinkered with if it wishes to make the playoffs next year. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury needs to evolve an offense that doesn't rely heavily on Murray playing well in order to succeed -- which includes his situational play-calling. The Cardinals defense was much improved this season, despite struggles against the run (25th in yards per carry allowed) and the subpar cornerback play that allowed opponents to throw at will.
The Cardinals have improved every year under Kingsbury and Murray, setting the franchise up for a make-or-break year three. Arizona has five picks in the 2021 draft (one in each of the first three rounds) and $24,814,420 in available cap space (per Over The Cap).
Arizona has some maneuvering to do if the Cardinals are going to make a postseason trip in 2021. Here's a four-step process on how the Cardinals can make a playoff run in a brutal NFC West.
Step 1: Find a new No. 1 RB
With Kenyan Drake set to hit free agency, this is an opportunity for the Cardinals to change things up at running back. Drake had 955 yards rushing and 10 rushing touchdowns this season, likely pricing himself out of Arizona even though his numbers don't tell the whole story. Drake was just 42nd in the NFL (out of 51 qualified runners) in average rushing yards after contact at 1.7 -- behind Frank Gore, Todd Gurley and Giovani Bernard -- and 30th in average rushing yards before contact at 2.3. Basically, he was a product of Kingsbury's scheme rather than a spark in the Cardinals offense.
This is the Cardinals' chance to get Murray some more help and not rely on his legs to win football games, which is where taking a running back in the first round may pay huge dividends. If none of the corners the Cardinals like are on the board at No. 16, Clemson running back Travis Etienne will be. With explosive speed and excellent pass catching out of the backfield, Etienne is the dual-threat back that can put Arizona's offense into the top five in the NFL -- and make the Cardinals the best unit in the division.
Step 2: Add more pass catchers
Outside of DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona's pass catchers were inconsistent and not reliable enough to score enough points and make up for coaching and quarterback errors. Larry Fitzgerald is contemplating his future (he will be 38 next season) and is coming off a career low in catches, yards, touchdowns and yards per catch. Whether Fitzgerald returns or not, the Cardinals need help in the slot and another pass catcher for Murray to rely on.
Christian Kirk will be back, but he's inconsistent as well. Kirk has six consecutive games where he didn't tally more than four catches and was held without a touchdown in his final seven games played. The Cardinals need a deep-ball receiver that can stretch the field and free up Hopkins at the "X." Breshad Perriman or Nelson Agholor could provide that deep-ball target in free agency this offense lacked in 2020.
Arizona also needs help at tight end, despite the red zone reliability of Dan Arnold -- who is a perfect No. 2 tight end. The Cardinals need a major upgrade over Maxx Williams -- basically a tight end that can become a consistent force for Murray in the offense. Arizona doesn't have to spend a lot here and can address the position in the draft, but Gerald Everett and Jared Cook are intriguing options in free agency. Per Sharp Football Stats, the Cardinals were third in the NFL in the usage of "12 personnel" on 30% of their offensive plays -- so a No. 1 tight end is necessary.
Step 3: Revamp the CB position
The Cardinals were not good in coverage in 2020, a major reason why Arizona is watching playoff games at home this week. Arizona was 15th in the NFL in opponents passer rating allowed at 91.5, certainly an improvement from 2019 when Cardinals cornerbacks allowed a 117.9 passer rating on targeted passes and 75.5% of on-target passes to be caught (per Pro Football Focus) -- last in the NFL.
Patrick Peterson and Byron Murphy allowed a combined seven touchdowns this past season and opposing quarterbacks completed 66.3% of their passes intended toward them. Peterson, once one of the league's elite cornerbacks, will be 31 this year -- and a free agent -- while his game has deteriorated the past few years. Getting help at cornerback is a need for the Cardinals defense.
The Cardinals could target a cornerback with the 16th pick in the draft (Caleb Farley or Jaycee Horn), retain Peterson and find a free agent to pair next to him. Kevin King or Jimmy Smith could be intriguing options to improve Arizona's coverage numbers.
Step 4: Evolve as an offense
The Cardinals put up a lot of yards this season, finishing sixth in the NFL in that category. A lot of those yards came up empty because of questionable play-calling in the red zone by Kingsbury and poor decisions by Murray in the second half of the season. The Cardinals finished just 21st in the league in third-down conversion rate (39.6%) for the season and converted just half of their red zone scoring opportunities over the final three games (tied for 22nd in the NFL), showing the situational football this team lacked throughout the year.
Murray was 39 of 62 (62.9%) with 18 touchdowns to two interceptions in the red zone this season (95.4 rating) and finished with nine rushing touchdowns. So what can Arizona do to improve situational football next year? This falls on Kingsbury not relying as much on the zone-read and trying to get Murray open in space inside the 20-yard line. The quick throws work, but a condensed field in the red zone allows defenders to zero in on the ball carrier and make a play.
Murray completed just 55.6% of his passes on third down with seven touchdowns and six interceptions. He had seven touchdowns and eight interceptions when facing a down and distance of 10-plus yards. Kingsbury has to get more creative in that area and not strictly rely on the air raid and zone-read on every possession. That's his next step as a head coach.