TEMPE, Ariz. — Four days after the Arizona Cardinals traded their first-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens for wide receiver Marquise Brown, news broke that the NFL had suspended Cards wideout DeAndre Hopkins for the first six games of the 2022 season for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
Dreams of a high-flying offense that lined up Hopkins on one side of quarterback Kyler Murray and Brown on the other were short-lived, and the Cardinals will now be without Hopkins for the first month and a half of the season. The Cardinals will still have 11 games left in the regular season when Hopkins returns, but recent history suggests Arizona needs a strong start to protect itself from a late-season slide after finishing the regular season 3-6 in 2020 and 3-5 in 2021.
To get that kind of start, the Cardinals needed Hopkins. Before a pair of injuries — one to his hamstring and one to his knee — forced Hopkins to miss seven regular-season games in 2021, Hopkins was playing at an elite level, even relative to his usual standards. He had a higher catch percentage and higher averages in yards per target and yards after catch per reception through Week 8 of 2021 than in the first eight seasons of his stellar career. He was down slightly in yards per route, from 2.1 to 2.0.
Without Hopkins on the field, Murray and the Cardinals are just a different team. They struggle to win. Arizona was 8-2 when both Murray and Hopkins were active last season and 1-4, including a blowout loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC wild-card game, when Murray was playing without Hopkins.
Not having Hopkins changes the offense and how defenses play the Cardinals. One hope in trading for Brown was that, should Hopkins go down again, they would have Brown to fill his role. Now that situation is a reality.
Making sure Arizona doesn’t fall apart the way it did last season will be the responsibility of coach Kliff Kingsbury, who admitted at the NFL combine back in March he didn’t adapt to life without Hopkins like he should have.
“I think after doing some reflection, the biggest thing is when we lost Hop, I didn’t do a good job, schematically, of adjusting some things that could have taken some pressure off of Kyler, I think,” Kingsbury said. “You lose a piece like that, you’ve got to find a way to be more creative, I think, and I’ve got to be better at that. But I think we’ve improved each year, offensively. Obviously, didn’t like the way we finished, but we’ve got to continue to be creative and try to put Kyler in positions to be successful and surround him with talent that can make plays.”
How Kingsbury responds over the next four months and then on a weekly basis until Hopkins returns will dictate whether Arizona can make a run to a second consecutive postseason.
But this much is known: Losing Hopkins impacts Murray. Considerably. With Hopkins off the field last season, Murray’s QBR dropped from 62 to 46, his yards per attempt fell from 8.8 to 6.6 and his completion perception dipped to 65% from 72%.
This year, however, Murray will have Brown, the experience of playing without Hopkins and time. Lots of time. Hopkins can participate in offseason practices, training camp and the preseason, but he won’t be allowed around the team beginning in Week 1 and until the start of Week 7. With about four months to prepare, Kingsbury and the Cardinals should have enough time to build a well-conceived game plan.
It helps that Murray has a rapport with Brown. The two were college teammates at Oklahoma in 2017 and 2018, the latter of which saw Brown accumulate 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns on 75 catches.
Murray had wanted more offensive help for years, and he had wanted the Cardinals to pair him with one of his college receivers. He got both of his wishes granted with Brown.
For a few days, it looked like Murray was going to have one of the best one-two combinations in football.
Then Monday’s news hit, and Arizona is back to life without Hopkins as memories of last season come flooding back.