If you told most NFL fans that their favorite team had started the year winless and one of their losses included an epic 21-point comeback by the hapless New York Giants, they would be distraught. For the Arizona Cardinals, however, this is all part of the plan.
When General Manager Monti Ossenfort was hired by Arizona, he was dealt a tough hand. The few talented players he did have on the team were all aging and his starting quarterback was going to miss roughly half of the next season recovering from a torn ACL.
Instead of making the mistake many other GMs would have made — splurging in free agency, finding the best bridge quarterback possible, and trying to grind out a decent season — Ossenfort made the right moves of acquiring future picks, sacrificing today, and planning for a brighter future.
The job isn’t finished though. Kyler Murray’s return looms and if the Cardinals truly want to position themselves to be the best team possible in 2024 and beyond, there’s work to be done.
The Cardinals Are Losing, And Why That’s A Good Thing
Why Commit to the Tank so Aggressively?
NFL teams underrate how valuable the first overall pick in the draft can be. In most years you are left with one of three terrific options. Selecting a quarterback first overall, selecting an elite prospect at one of the premium positions (wide receiver, edge rusher, offensive tackle), or trading back down, in which case you will receive a number of valuable draft picks in return. All of these options give your franchise a great chance at becoming a contender quickly.
The 2024 class offers the best of these options, an elite quarterback prospect in USC’s Caleb Williams. Williams is the best quarterback prospect we have seen since Trevor Lawrence and he will be unattainable for the 31 teams who do not own the first overall pick.
The Cardinals should avoid the mistake the New York Jets made in 2020 when they won a meaningless game against the Los Angeles Rams and fell to the second-overall pick of the draft. That win cost them drafting Trevor Lawrence and instead, they selected first-round bust Zach Wilson.
What about Kyler Murray?
Since the 2011 CBA change came into effect, the vast majority of quarterbacks to appear in the Super Bowl were either elite or on their rookie contracts. Once Kyler Murray was extended, he made it so either his level of play needed to jump substantially or the Cardinals were going to need to go on a heater in the draft, surrounding the quarterback with an immense amount of talent.
Murray is also a limited player. His height makes it so throwing over the middle of the field, the most efficient area to throw the ball, a major challenge. His play style has led to a number of injuries later in the season that have hampered his mobility. Lastly, the Cardinals had to put a study clause into his contract because even his own employer didn’t believe in his commitment to the game. This is not the making of a franchise quarterback.
Trading Murray this offseason will net the team additional draft picks to add to their war chest but will leave the franchise with a $46M dead cap hit. The other option is to trade Murray with a post-June 1st designation, which will leave the team with only a $13M dead cap hit, spreading out the remains cap charges into 2025.
What Should Be Done?
Tanking in the NFL should largely be done by the front office. The players have too much incentive to compete with their livelihood attached to their performance on the field and most won’t be here to reap the potential rewards of drafting a franchise quarterback.
Coaches are hard-wired to compete and as the beginning of the season has shown, this staff is getting everything they can out of their limited resources.
It’s time for Ossenfort to deplete his team even more. Kyler Murray, despite his flaws, is still a middle-of-the-pack starting quarterback in this league and he is expected to return roughly around Week 8 to 10. The Cardinals need to be winless when he returns because Murray will be fighting for his job.
This means they’re unlikely to be contributors as soon as next season. The day three picks and cap savings that will come back will be assets saved for when this team is ready to compete and it will make winning that much harder on the current staff.
This is how the front office can ensure the ultimate goal is still achieved, while not asking the coaches and players to do something they’re unwilling to.
Being Aggressive is the Solution
We’ve now seen multiple teams in recent years push all their chips in to win a Super Bowl. The Rams were successful with this idea and the 49ers are in the midst of a strong championship window in part because they traded draft picks for players like Christian McCaffrey.
It’s now time for the opposite idea to be accepted. The Cardinals are the perfect candidate to tank, but they need to keep reducing the on-field talent, or risk making the same mistakes that have haunted other franchises.
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