Young Cardinals improve roster, push for playoff spot

ARIZONA CARDINALS (5-10-1)

New faces: WR DeAndre Hopkins, LB Isaiah Simmons, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, RB Eno Benjamin, LB Devon Kennard, LB Evan Weaver, OL Kelvin Beachum, DT Rashard Lawrence, DL Leki Fotu, DL Jordan Phillips, LB De’Vondre Campbell.

Key losses: RB David Johnson, OL A.Q. Shipley, WR Pharoh Cooper, WR Damiere Byrd, LB Joe Walker, LB Cassius Marsh, DL Rodney Gunter.

Strengths: Cardinals should be one of NFL’s fast-paced and intriguing offensive teams. Second-year quarterback Kyler Murray showed promise as rookie and now has true No. 1 receiver in Hopkins, who came to Arizona in trade that sent Johnson to Texans. Hopkins teams with veteran Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk to give Cardinals depth in passing game. Running back Kenyan Drake was impressive after midseason trade from Dolphins. Linebacker Chandler Jones is one of game’s best pass rushers and had career-high 19 sacks last year. Safety Budda Baker made Pro Bowl last year. and cornerback Patrick Peterson is three-time All-Pro.

Weaknesses: Murray needs work on decision making in second year after being sacked league-high 48 times in 2019. While offensive line wasn’t perfect, many sacks happened because Murray held ball too long. Defense was among worst in NFL, but front office took steps to make that side better, adding Simmons with No. 8 overall draft pick and free agents Kennard, Campbell and Phillips. Team is scrambling at cornerback after Robert Alford was lost for season with pectoral injury early in camp. Cardinals hope Kirkpatrick can at least partially fill that role.

Pandemic Development: Cardinals finally have some defensive continuity thanks to Vance Joseph returning for second season as coordinator. His job will be making sure new pieces added through draft and free agency find roles quickly. Coach Kliff Kingsbury would have liked more in-person time with Murray.

Fantasy Player To Watch: Drake, 26, ran for 643 yards and eight touchdowns in just eight games last season. He also caught 28 passes for 171 yards. Double those numbers over full 16-game season and Drake is a top-10 fantasy running back option.

Vegas Says: Win Super Bowl: 50/1. Over/under wins: 7 1/2.

Expectations: NFC West is tough place to be with San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles Rams all harboring high expectations. Cardinals expect to be right in division mix. While offense should be entertaining, team’s playoff hopes likely hinge on whether defense can take big step forward. Cardinals expect to be in contention for playoff spot by December, and anything less would be big disappointment.

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