Late Friday night, an AFC general manager was offering his thoughts on potential landing spots for newly released wideout DeAndre Hopkins when he asked a question that could ultimately reshape the Arizona Cardinals franchise.
“What do you think they do with [Kyler] Murray?”
On its face, it would normally seem like an odd question to ask about a 25-year old quarterback who just signed a 5-year, $230.5 million extension one season ago. Even with Murray suffering a season-ending ACL tear in December, the logical path for a quarterback with his talent would seem to be typical: Get Murray healthy; get him back on the field; get back to the plan that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. The only complication to that logic is that plans can change quickly in this league — especially when the general manager who selected Murray (Steve Keim) and the head coach plucked specifically to develop the quarterback (Kliff Kingsbury) are both gone. Now you can add Murray's No. 1 wideout to that mix, with Hopkins getting his release on Friday.
When it comes to Murray’s most powerful advocates in Arizona’s building, the herd has thinned considerably. Hence, a general manager in the AFC wondering if Murray might be the next big divorce in Arizona.
Getting back to the whole idea of logical paths, it's worth focusing on the timing of Hopkins' release and what it means for Arizona's options moving forward. First and foremost, it takes another talented player off the field and pushes the 2023 season even further into rebuild territory. The Cardinals are already facing at least some portion of the schedule without their star quarterback, although it remains to be seen whether it's just a few games or half a season (or more). Regardless of that timeline, there's little argument that Arizona is facing a steep uphill battle, and it just got more difficult. Perhaps to the point that the franchise could be headed toward the top of the 2024 NFL Draft, where two generational quarterbacks — USC's Caleb Williams and UNC's Drake Maye — are expected to be waiting next offseason.
We’ll get to that in a second. But first, consider the timing of the Hopkins release. Arizona cut him one week before it could have taken advantage of the NFL’s financial calendar and spread out his $22.6 million dead cap charge over two seasons. Had Hopkins been jettisoned after June 1, the Cardinals could have eaten $11.3 million in dead cap space in 2023 and another $11.3 million in 2024. The upside of that move would have allowed Arizona to pluck additional free agents in the coming months or be a considerable player in the trade market all the way into the November deadline.
Rather than taking that flexibility, the Cardinals instead chose to release Hopkins on Friday and absorb his entire cap hit in 2023. So not only did they lose a valuable player on the depth chart, but they also surrendered some immediate cap flexibility. And in the process, they look more like a rebuilding team than ever before.
That financial decision is what drove the AFC general manager’s question on Friday night, largely because it opens up a deeper pool of options with Murray’s future. Armed with two first-round picks in the 2024 draft (including the Houston Texans’ selection via a trade) and facing a tough season ahead with Murray’s ACL recovery, it’s conceivable that Arizona will either be in position to draft Williams or Maye, or have the draft ammunition to move into that spot. If that happens and the new regime sees either of those quarterbacks as a better option moving forward, the question then becomes whether the franchise can find a trade partner for Murray next offseason (which seems unlikely given his contract) or is willing to simply cut him. In either scenario, the $81.5 million dead cap charge is monstrous.
That’s where the Hopkins release timing becomes more interesting. Because the franchise added more space to the 2024 cap by eating Hopkins’ entire charge in 2023, pushing flexibility into next offseason. If the Cardinals either traded or cut Murray 2024, they could split the dead cap hit by designating the maneuver as a post-June 1 move, thereby splitting his charge over the 2024 and 2025 seasons. It certainly wouldn’t come without significant pain, with $48.3 million hammering the 2024 cap and $33.2 million hitting in 2025.
Those numbers seem to make a Murray move highly unlikely, but we’ve seen teams like the Los Angeles Rams (with Jared Goff), Philadelphia Eagles (Carson Wentz) and Green Bay Packers (Aaron Rodgers) all eat cap hits after big contract extensions. For the Rams and Eagles, the moves ultimately helped turn them into Super Bowl contenders. It’s not out of question that Arizona sees the drafting of Williams or Maye in the same light next offseason.
For now, it’s little more than food for thought. Murray could return from his torn ACL in 2023, play lights out and win new advocates in the revamped front office and coaching staff. That certainly would be the easier path for the franchise to digest. But there’s little arguing now that almost anything is in play when it comes to his future. Especially if the Cardinals struggle to the point of looking like a tanking team in 2023.
Should that materialize, the response to, “What do you think they do with [Kyler] Murray?” will be as wide open as ever.