Kyler Murray went from NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2019 to a young quarterback who was clearly progressing in his maturation process in 2020, but the Cardinals fell short of the playoffs, and his productivity tailed off toward the end of the regular season.
Now, he has a better offensive front and an exciting second-round pick at receiver as he enters his third season in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense that’s tailor-made for him.
The fate of the Cardinals is firmly in Murray’s hands. Let’s explore everything about his environment with Kingsbury’s team and what Murray needs to do to take the next step as a quarterback.
How Murray has improved since he was a prospect
These positive developments in a quarterback’s game are noteworthy because they indicate the distinct possibility of future growth.
Here’s a snippet of what I wrote about Murray before the draft, and my stylistic comparison for him was Steve Young:
Young was an ultra-efficient, frightening dual-threat quarterback at the collegiate level who could win from inside the pocket and could erupt with his legs thanks to high-level athleticism. That is Murray to a T … Young could take over a game with pinpoint accuracy or as a scrambler in the NFL. Murray only showed it for one year in college, but I truly believe he has “take over the game” type skills as a refined passer and runner. Young was pretty unique. So is Murray.
And, given his age and newness to the NFL, Murray was featured in this exact same series a year ago. Here’s what I wrote about how he improved from his days at Oklahoma during his rookie season in 2019.
Murray did take over some games as a rookie, an impressive feat for someone who only started one season in college. He also had a few stinkers but mostly played steady football. Each game featured a small collection of jaw-dropping throws, particularly down the field. He certainly made his fair share of rookie mistakes too by way of misreading coverages. He finished with the fourth-highest grade in my season-long evaluation of all the plays of first- and second-year quarterbacks (out of 17 who played). He had two “D” outings, a pair of “D+” games, and three “A-” contests. After a slow start, he played consistent football until back-to-back “D” games popped up near the end of the year.
In Year 2, Murray took a step forward in a few key areas with the Cardinals, most namely his ability to avoid sacks. He chopped his sack rate nearly in half from 8.1% as a rookie to 4.6% in 2020. That’s huge. His adjusted completion percentage increased from 74.4% in 2019 to 76.5%. Not a gigantic bump. But it was enough to be noticeable on the field throughout the course of the season.
As explained in my Next Step piece for Justin Herbert, clean-pocket play has good predictive powers. And Murray went from a 94.2 passer rating from a clean pocket as a rookie to 104.2 in 2020.
And with Murray, his athleticism and Mario-like scrambling capabilities can’t be ignored. Impressively, he increased his yards-per-carry efficiency (from 5.8 to 6.2) while carrying the ball 40 more times in 2020 than he did as a rookie. Better avoiding big negative plays, better ball placement, and more effectiveness as a runner — Murray improved in important areas in his second season.
As has been the case during the first two years of the Kingsbury era, the Cardinals went big-game hunting this offseason, but this year it was mostly to find pieces on the defensive side of the ball.
However, one crucial and at this point overlooked transaction directly affects Murray — the trade to acquire longtime Raiders star center Rodney Hudson. Last year, full-time center Mason Cole allowed the second-most quarterback pressures on the team (23). Hudson does turn 32 in July but has been an elite center for years. Centers aren’t typically needle-movers. Hudson is. And the upgrade from Cole should be significant.
Gone from 2020’s squadron are Kenyan Drake and Dan Arnold, but the rest of the skill-position group is intact, and there’s a fun dynamic in the receiver group with A.J. Green, who’s clearly in the twilight of his career and soon-to-be 21-year-old rocket Rondale Moore. Both Green and Moore have been a staple on injured lists. If healthy, Moore has first-round talent, and Arizona snagged him in Round 2.
In short — Murray has a very formidable pass-catching contingent, especially considering Larry Fitzpatrick’s presence, Christian Kirk, KeeSean Johnson, and superstar DeAndre Hopkins out wide.
Short and sweet here — Kingsbury drafted Murray to play in his spread, Air Raid system, and he’s played in that attack ever since his freshman season at Texas A&M (before the transfer to Oklahoma) in 2015.
There should be no trace of a learning curve at this juncture for Murray operating Kingsbury’s offense.
Improving his weaknesses
Like with Herbert, Murray was better under pressure — relative to his contemporaries — than from a clean pocket in 2020. And what applies to Herbert of course applies to Murray, too. His clean-pocket play needs to improve in 2021, as the under-pressure mastery isn’t easy to sustain each season.
While Murray has proven to be a skilled deep-ball thrower, and the fact that the Air Raid does prominently feature a variety of screens, it’s unsurprising that Murray has been disappointing at the intermediate level to start his NFL career.
According to Pro Football Focus, his adjusted completion percentage (63%), touchdown rate (6.4%) and especially passer rating (72.0) were lower than league average. On tosses between 10 to 19 yards in 2020, NFL quarterbacks averaged a rating of 97.6. And 10 of Murray’s 12 interceptions came in that yardage range. Yikes.
Making a stride in the area that’s the bread and butter for many high-end quarterbacks will be integral in Murray going from good to great in 2021.
Lastly, he has yet to figure out the Rams. The weaknesses on the interior of his offensive line combined with the presence of Aaron Donald has had a lot to do with that. In four career games against Los Angeles, Murray has completed under 59% of his throws with five touchdowns, four interceptions, and a tiny 5.94 yards-per-attempt average along with 11 sacks.
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Strengthening his strengths
Directly aligning with the Air Raid system, Murray is a deft long-ball passer. His rating on throws 20-plus yards down the field was nearly 30 points higher than league average. He threw nine touchdowns with no interceptions on those deep shots. He was three percentage points higher than league average (45% vs. 42%) when it came to throwing on-target deep balls in 2020.
If that continues — and the presence of Hopkins absolutely helps — the Cardinals will remain one of the more explosive offenses in football.
And for as much as some people want a young quarterback to rein in his running after a few years in the NFL, I’m advocating even more of it from Murray, because he’s that dynamic with his legs and is very aware of what he needs to do the avoid the crushing hit. He’s tremendously sudden and smart with the ball in his hands.
He needs to be an extension of the classic run game and extend plays with his legs before uncorking long balls down the field. That’s his game, and it’s what we now see from many of the game’s elite young quarterbacks. Keep all that up, Kyler.
But he does need to find the proper balance between tapping into his rushing talent and not being overly reliant on his legs. Because despite that being a fun part of his game, and it carrying gigantic value in terms of playbook diversity in the red zone, throwing the football will always be a more efficient way to move the football.
Murray took a noticeable step in Year 2. Do I think he still was a little disappointing as a former No. 1 overall pick in a cozy scheme with Hopkins as his No. 1 receiver? Yes. But it is important to keep in mind Murray only started for one season at Oklahoma.
I cannot overstate how huge the acquisition of Hudson is at center. He’ll be the quarterback of the offensive line and is an absolute force as a pass protector. The rest of the offensive line is mostly solid but unspectacular, and with Murray’s athleticism, its current quality is completely fine.
I don’t see Murray suddenly becoming precise at the intermediate level like most of the league’s best passers, but there’s no reason to believe he’ll regress as a long-ball thrower, and the addition of Moore will boost Murray’s volume statistics on high-percentage throws.
The Cardinals look ready to win now, and they’ll be a legitimate playoff contender in a deep NFC. As for Murray, I believe he’ll continue to improve although this year it’ll be more gradual than what he showed from his rookie year to his second season in the NFL. And where will that leave him? He’ll be viewed as a consensus top 10 quarterback in the NFL with most understanding he’s not in the top 7 or top 5 conversation.