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Fantasy coaching & coordinator breakdown: ARZ

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(FTN’s Derek Brown and Matt Jones are going team-by-team to look at the coaching tendencies of every team and how that matters for fantasy football in 2021. Follow the whole coaching/coordinators series.)

A critical point projecting players for fantasy football is forecasting their roles and the overall context of the team philosophies on both sides of the ball. Entering my second year of this series, we’re going to explore the nuts and bolts of each team to give you actionable takeaways for your fantasy football leagues and best ball drafts. Each of these writeups will be filled to the brim with stunning data visuals from FTN’s own Matt Jones. The series heads to the desert to see if Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray can set the league on fire in 2021. 

NFC West – Arizona Cardinals

Arizona Head Coach – Kliff Kingsbury

(ARI HC/OC 2019-Present, Texas Tech HC 2013-2018)

In Kliff Kingsbury’s second season with Arizona, we got a glimpse of the point-scoring heat he can bring to the Arizona desert. The Cardinals improved to .500, improving from 21st to 6th in total yards and 16th to 13th in total points scored. Before Kyler Murray injured his shoulder in Week 11, the team was on pace to finish top-five in scoring with 29.5 points per game. After Murray’s injury, they slipped to 20.5 points per game which would have ranked 28th last year. With more players added to the cupboard this offseason and a fully healthy Murray to start 2021, the Cardinals could make waves this year. 

Cardinals Offensive Coordinator – Kliff Kingsbury

Despite showing improvement last year on a per-drive basis, Kingsbury’s offense has hovered around league average. Since 2019 the Cardinals have scored 0.1 points per drive above the NFL average and finished 0.45 yards per drive below the NFL mean. This year Arizona must show they can take a step forward for a full 17 games. 

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Cardinals – Pace/Pass Rate/Personnel 

One of Kingsbury’s claims to fame that has not disappointed has been the offensive pace. Since 2019, the Cardinals have ranked inside the top nine in the NFL in all game scripts. In 2019 they were the fourth-fastest team in close games, but they bumped that up to first in 2020. Arizona will again challenge Dallas for the most plays run this year. 

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Last year, oddly enough, when Kyler Murray was healthy, the Cardinals were a run-heavy team. In Weeks 1-10, Arizona rushed at the fifth-highest rate (42%) when trailing, the sixth highest (48%) in close games, and the ninth highest (49%) when playing with a lead. After Murray’s injury the Cardinals transitioned to more passing despite the shoulder injury with the 12th-highest passing rate (60%) in neutral environments. Over his final six full games, Murray’s rushing declined from 9.7 attempts per game to 7.3. This year we could see Arizona’s passing rate climb into the 58-60% range. 

Last year, the Cardinals executed 96% of their plays from 11 personnel (46%, 28th), 12 personnel (30%, first) or 10 personnel (20%). Arizona’s offseason moves could prompt some of this usage to shift. The Cardinals lost tight end Dan Arnold and now have only Maxx Williams, Demetrius Harris, Darrell Daniels, Ian Bunting, Cary Angeline, Bernhard Seikovits and Ross Travis on the roster. With this collection of no-names at tight end, we could see fewer multiple-TE looks in favor of more four-wide sets. The front office drafted Rondale Moore and signed A.J. Green so the three- and four-receiver looks could push even higher. 

Cardinals – Offensive Scheme

Kingsbury has made good use of Murray’s legs in their offensive scheme. Over the last two seasons, they’ve been a whopping 40% above the NFL average in RPO rate. In 2020 Murray led the NFL in RPO passing attempts (121) and RPO passing yards (1,107). His 43 RPO rushing attempts ranked second to only Lamar Jackson. Murray’s RPO usage accounted for 21.6% of his overall passing attempts and 32.3% of his total rushing attempts. With an offense built around this, even though there have been rumors of Murray running less, it’s hard to see his numbers on the ground taking a sharp dip.

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Kingsbury’s usage of play-action has been evident in creating space for his players to operate. Murray was 10th in play-action drop back rate (29.9%) last season. Murray still needs to take a step forward in his passing accuracy in this facet. In 2020 Murray ranked 21st in play-action adjusted completion rate. Murray’s improvement in this area could be one of the keys to unlocking another level of efficiency for this offense. 

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Like with play-action passing, Murray needs to further hone his deep passing precision. Since 2019, the Cardinals have dialed up deep throws on 11.3-11.5% of Murray’s dropbacks. On these throws of 20-plus yards, Murray has finished 17th (among all quarterbacks with 20 or more deep attempts) in back-to-back seasons, but his deep adjusted completion rate crept up slightly from 44.6% to 45.3% in 2020. Arizona added fresher legs in the offseason with Moore and Green. Green isn’t young by NFL standards, but he still should be an upgrade over Larry Fitzgerald

The Cardinals flipped their red-zone philosophy from 2019 to 2020. In Kingsbury’s first season, they threw the ball on 56% (13th) of their plays inside the 20, but last year that flipped to 57% rushing (seventh highest). The red zone targets should return with improved pass-catchers across the board, and more multiple-receiver sets incoming. 

Fantasy Football Takeaways

Before Kyler Murray’s injury, he was on pace to break fantasy football. Murray was a top-five fantasy quarterback in each of his first nine games and top-five an astounding 77.7% of those contests. Over the last five seasons only Christian McCaffrey can boast a similar (30.1) fantasy points per game as Murray (30.1) posted over that stretch. With a passing rate that could be on the rise and his Konami code intact, Murray has QB1 overall upside. 

Last year Kenyan Drake (RB28) and Chase Edmonds (RB30) both finished as top-36 fantasy running backs, but their paths to get there were quite different. Drake finished fourth in the NFL in red-zone rushing attempts (56) and third in attempts inside the 5-yard line (21). With 10 rushing scores and nearly 1,000 rushing yards (955), Drake was the early-down grinder component to this backfield that James Conner looks to assume. Edmonds, however, was eighth in targets (65) among running backs and 10th in routes run (305). His production was based upon his passing-game role, as he saw only 13.9% of the rushing attempts inside the 20 and one carry inside the 5. It’s difficult to project Edmonds’ role changing in this offense. With Conner’s addition and Rondale Moore on the team, his short-area targets could take a tumble. It won’t be surprising if Conner and Edmonds’ ADPs flip the closer we get to Week 1. 

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This passing offense will run through the receiver position again this season. Under Kingsbury, Arizona has ranked first and sixth in target share to the wide receiver position. DeAndre Hopkins will resume his target hog role after ranking fourth among all wide receivers in target share (29.5%) last season. Hopkins could sneak back into the top three fantasy wide receiver realm this year. In 2020, Hopkins was the WR5 in fantasy points per game, and despite his voluminous role, he was used sparingly in the red zone tied for 31st (13) in red-zone targets. If the Cardinals pass more near the goal line this year, Hopkins could be the main beneficiary. 

Green, Christian Kirk and Moore will fight for targets behind Hopkins. Last season, Kirk was the team’s deep threat, leading the squad in deep targets (19) immediately ahead of Hopkins (15). With Green face planting as a deep target last year with the Bengals, he’ll likely operate in the short and intermediate portions of the field. Kirk could contend with Moore for the deep role this year. Moore was used exclusively around the line of scrimmage in college, which will benefit Murray, who was seventh in screen attempts (70) last season. Moore could also offer this team something as a deep threat with his electric speed. He saw only 24 targets of 20 or more yards down the field during his collegiate career, but he piled up a 104.2 passer rating downfield. 

The biggest takeaway from the Arizona tight end room is their 29th-ranked target share (12.5%) to the position could decline even further this season. Maxx Williams‘ biggest contributions will come as a blocker this season. The Cardinals don’t have a tight end on the roster that will draw significant work through the air. 

Cardinals Defensive Coordinator – Vance Joseph

(ARI DC 2019-Present, DEN HC 2017-2018)

The Cardinals’ defense improved in 2020 in their second year under Vance Joseph. Their total defensive DVOA improved from 20th to 10th. The run defense took a slight dip from sixth to 14th in DVOA, but a bounceback is in the cards. This offseason, the team lost Haason Reddick but brought in J.J. Watt. Watt’s calling card is rushing the passer, but he’s still a top-shelf run defender at this stage of his career. 

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The pass rush also got an overhaul with Reddick exiting and Watt’s arrival. The team brought in Zaven Collins in the draft to address the loss of Reddick. Last year Collins ranked 33rd amongst all collegiate linebackers in total sacks, quarterback hits, and pressures (16). For a defense that likes to bring the heat, the addition of Collins was a must. In 2020 Joseph blitzed at the fourth-highest rate (39.4%) in the NFL, and opposing quarterbacks felt it with the eighth-highest pressure rate (25.9%). 

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The secondary could be in rough shape for the Cardinals. Arizona lost Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick this offseason and replaced them with Malcolm Butler and Darqueze Dennard. Robert Alford is currently listed as a starter on the outside, but he hasn’t been healthy enough to see NFL action since 2018. It’s impossible to know what Alford has left in the tank. Butler has had his ups and downs, as has Dennard. Arizona could quickly become a pass funnel for opposing offenses with a pair of rookies in Tay Gowan and Marco Wilson behind Byron Murphy

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