After a reasonably successful draft, Arizona Cardinals fans were quickly knocked back down to Earth. Star wideout DeAndre Hopkins will serve a six-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. As of now, he is expected to serve the full suspension, leaving the Cardinals offense without its top option.
The news brings further clarity to Arizona’s strategy on the first two days of the draft. Arizona traded their first-rounder for receiver Marquise Brown before selecting tight end Trey McBride in the second. After last season’s spectacular offensive collapse, the Cardinals will need a smorgasbord of offensive weaponry to replace Hopkins; Arizona’s draft indicates that this is a fact the franchise knows all too well. The Cardinals offense, however, without DeAndre Hopkins, may look very different from what many might expect.
How The Cardinals Offense Might Look Without DeAndre Hopkins
Hollywood’s Role In Cardinals Offense Shouldn’t Be Impacted
Arizona lost one receiver but gained another in Marquise Brown. It’s easy to expect Brown to come in and assume Hopkins’ number one role in this Cardinals offense. Brown certainly has the vertical speed and pre-existing chemistry with workout buddy Kyler Murray to be a plug-and-play star for Arizona. He did exceptionally well in Baltimore, especially in his last season. Despite a run-first scheme and the average passing ability of Lamar Jackson, he eclipsed 1000 yards. In a receiver room with an aging A.J. Green and a relatively inexperienced Rondale Moore, among others, Brown will be the top receiver available to Arizona through the first six games of 2022.
However, the Cardinals will be better served by not allowing Hopkins’ suspension to affect Brown’s integration into his intended role in this offense. Arizona should not use Brown as a placeholder for Hopkins’ X receiver role. Rather, they should allow him to take up the offensive spot that he will have upon Hopkins’ return. Not only should the Cardinals keep Brown in his intended role for his own benefit, but also, Arizona can easily maintain some offensive consistency by replacing Hopkins with a player more suited to replicating his role. While Brown is excellent, Arizona’s X receiver is more of a possession-based, mid-route receiver; Brown is more of a deep-threat burner.
No, the Cardinals should keep Brown in the role he will thrive in, instead using big body receiver A.J. Green to play Hopkins’ role. Green played that same role for the Cincinnati Bengals for a decade. He can do a stand-in job for Arizona after a year in the system already.
Zach Ertz Will Be Top Target In Cardinals Offense
Even with buddy Hollywood Brown around, fans should not be surprised if Kyler’s number one target is not a wide receiver, but rather tight end Zach Ertz. Last season, in an offense that was similarly without Hopkins for much of the year, Ertz was a revelation. Kyler’s mid-season injury did delay it some, but his return saw the flowering of a burgeoning relationship between quarterback and tight end. Ertz was Murray’s top target down the stretch in 2022, consistently impressing where much of Arizona’s receiving corps failed. With a complete off-season to continue developing that chemistry, Cardinals fans should expect to see Ertz shining again.
Furthermore, the projected evolution of Arizona’s offense this season might also increase the offense’s schematic proclivity towards Ertz. Kliff Kingsbury has been vocal about his own role in Arizona’s offensive impotence last year. Yet, if free agency is any indication, then Arizona’s head coach is preparing to field a fluid offensive scheme. Namely, Arizona’s focus on tight end, signing three in free agency and selecting one in the second round, suggests the increased presence of tight end-centric formations. Arizona should be expected to field more 12 personnel looks this season to help in the run game and present a different look in the passing game.
In this system, opposite Maxx Williams or Trey McBride, Ertz is the pure pass catcher that becomes the de facto third option in the passing game. Whether aligned tight to the line or split out into the slot, Ertz is the primary receiving option in a tight end room that faces increased field time in 2022. He will be a top target for Kyler Murray.
Hopkins Is Irreplaceable
Ultimately, the Arizona Cardinals cannot replace DeAndre Hopkins. He is arguably the best receiver in the NFL; his absence will be costly to the Cardinals. This is an offense designed around him and Kyler, predicated both on Hopkins as the number one option, and on the defense’s necessity to pay close attention to him. The best the Cardinals can hope for is to survive the first six games without him, then reap the benefits of his return. He will be missing for six games, but available for the next eleven.
The Cardinals changing their system to try and replace Hopkins’ production would be counter-intuitive. Therefore, the extent of Arizona’s attempts to account for Hopkins’ absence should focus on presenting alternative offensive looks that Hopkins can slide into later. Fundamentally though, as much as he was brought in to help out, the role of Marquise Brown should be projective, developing in a system that will not change when Hopkins returns; it would compromise Arizona down the stretch if Brown’s role had to change mid-season.
A.J. Green will have the undesirable task of replicating DeAndre Hopkins’ role in the Cardinals offense. However, it will fall largely on Brown and Ertz to replicate his production for Arizona. Hopkins’ absence will be detrimental to the Cardinals, but they have time to prepare, as they already have been. Even without their star wideout, Arizona have an enviable offensive arsenal to explore alternative options to Hopkins early in 2022.