Byron Murphy is the best cornerback that the Arizona Cardinals have. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said as much in the off-season after Murphy impressed in the slot in 2020. Heading into his third season in the NFL, the former Washington Huskies star is well on his way to becoming a cornerstone for his hometown team in Arizona. Murphy was the last man standing in Arizona’s cornerback room this off-season. General manager Steve Keim has dragged together a group of rookies and veterans. However, with doubts about who will pair new no.1 corner Malcolm Butler, there is a conversation that we could see Byron Murphy at outside corner in the upcoming season.
Projecting Byron Murphy at Outside Corner in 2021
Same Spot, Different Day
Byron Murphy has played on the outside for Arizona before. In a rookie year that saw a suspension for Patrick Peterson and a broken leg for Robert Alford, Byron Murphy was tasked with some Hall of Fame-shaped problems. A 108-yard, eight-catch performance from Julio Jones in Week 6 summed up a torrid rookie campaign for Murphy.
In 2020 though, Murphy found a real home in the slot. Essentially a starting role in the modern NFL, Murphy locked down the spot and thrived throughout the year. He sealed the game against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1. Then he showed out against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6. His performances prompted Vance Joseph’s lofty praise after what was a high quality year for the Arizona native.
As a third-year veteran, starting on the outside is a much more reasonable proposition for Murphy. He has established himself within the organization and within the league as an elite player. Fundamentally, he has the speed and technique to be an effective outside cornerback. Despite being slightly undersized, he has shown an ability to play the aggressive press-man coverage that features so heavily in Vance Joseph’s system. His ability and willingness to play the ball is a factor that the Cardinals have lacked in past seasons.
An Open Competition
In 2020, Murphy was entrenched in the slot. The Cardinals never moved Murphy around because they had a concrete outside duo in Peterson and Kirkpatrick. In 2021, they don’t have that luxury. Former New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans starter Malcolm Butler has come in as the supposed top corner, but in training camp, an open competition is ongoing for the spot opposite Butler.
Veteran Robert Alford is expected to be the favorite, but his health will be always be a concern after two years on the sideline. Subsequently, the Cardinals ran with a philosophy of ‘the best ability is availability’ when piecing together this cornerback room in free agency. Veteran bodies such as Darqueze Dennard and Daryl Worley have provided depth, although many fans consider these to be underwhelming signings.
In the draft, the Cardinals took an unexpected approach to the cornerbacks. Yet they picked up two real diamonds later in the process. Rookie duo Marco Wilson and Tay Gowan have really garnered some hype since the draft, attracting attention with their exceptional athletic ability and practice habits. However, slow-playing the pair will be the move, to avoid a repeat of Murphy’s rookie outing.
Yes, there’s an open competition for the No.2 cornerback spot in Cardinals training camp. However, beyond perhaps an unreliable Robert Alford, none have a stronger claim to the spot than Murphy.
Keeping Murphy on the Field in 2021
Murphy is best in the slot for Arizona. He excels in the slot. However, moving Murphy outside should not be considered merely a contingency if the other corners fail to impress in camp.
In 2021, Murphy will play in the slot when the Cardinals deploy a nickel package. In the slot is where Vance Joseph and the Cardinals will get the absolute best out of him. The prevalence of 11-personnel (three receivers, one tight end, one halfback) in the league essentially necessitates the need for a slot corner to be on the field. However, this isn’t always the case. Specifically in the NFC West, the Los Angeles Rams have regularly used a 12 personnel look (two receivers, two tight ends, one halfback). The San Francisco 49ers have seen success in 21 personnel (two receivers, one tight end, two halfbacks). In such games, the Cardinals defense cannot just sit in a base nickel formation.
Limiting Byron Murphy to the slot means that the Cardinals would have to either deploy a nickel package against heavy offensive sets, or risk leaving one of their best coverage players on the sideline. In Arizona’s base 3-4 package, sliding Murphy to the outside would allow the Cardinals to keep arguably their best corner on the field at all times, sliding back inside when Joseph employs a nickel or dime look. If Vance Joseph wants to best utilize Murphy, then he has to find a way to keep him on the field at all times. Playing Byron Murphy at outside corner, as well as nickel, certainly does that.
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