Getty The Cardinals have an unexpected way to replace the suspended DeAndre Hopkins.
DeAndre Hopkins’ six-game suspension for PED violations presents a number of challenges for the Arizona Cardinals. Primarily, how to replace arguably the NFL’s most dynamic wide receiver.
Hopkins is the top outside threat on the roster. He is the big-play specialist that defenses fear. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury has leveraged Hopkins’ basic skills in a specific role.
Replacing the ‘X’ receiver who makes his passing schemes work will require creative solutions from Kingsbury, even after the Cardinals traded a first-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens for Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown.
One of those solutions involves using an unlikely veteran on the outside more often.
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New position awaits 3-time Pro-Bowler.
Zach Ertz is one of the keys to the Cardinals offense in 2022, but the 31-year-old’s biggest impact may be away from his familiar position of tight end. Ertz recently appeared on The Dave Pasch Podcast and explained how he will help compensate for the loss of Hopkins: “Maybe I’m going to play an ‘X’ receiver. I did that a lot in Philadelphia.”
Ertz’s reference to how often he parted ways with the Philadelphia Eagles is important in understanding how this ploy could work for the Cardinals. The ‘X’ receiver generally “lines up in front of the tight end in most cases, at the line of scrimmage and farther away from the ball,” according to Bleacher Report’s Brent Sobleski.
This is where Hopkins commands double teams and threatens to stretch the field on any Cardinals play. It’s where he was lined up on the famous “Hail Murray” touchdown connection with quarterback Kyler Murray against the Buffalo Bills in 2020, split out as the only receiver on his side of the formation:
Hopkins thrives as a split end because the position demands a big-bodied speedster. Ertz may no longer cover ground in an instant, but the 6’5 ″, 250-pounder would be a physical mismatch against defensive backs on the outside.
As he noted, Ertz has useful experience playing wideout. He became a force as a split end during the Eagles’ championship run in the 2017 season, according to Zachary Rodgers of Caesars Sportsbook, and even scored against the New England Patriots from the ‘X’ position in Super Bowl LII:
Using Hertz as a heavy wide receiver would give defenses a different challenge and leave opponents unable to relax without having to face Hopkins. A cornerback won’t beat Hertz to the ball, while linebackers and deep will have difficulty staying with him in space.
Putting Hertz open on the other side of where he normally lines up needn’t cost the Cardinals anything from the tight end spot. Not when the team used its first draft pick this year on Mackey Award winner Trey McBride.
The selection of McBride should cause the Cardinals to use two-tight end sets more often this season, according to NFL Matchup on ESPN analyst Greg Cosell. He told Ross Tucker’s Football Podcast that he believes the Cardinals could play “35, 40 percent 12 personnel,” two tight ends and a running back, thanks to Ertz and McBride.
Keeping McBride in line as a traditional tight end would free Ertz to move around more often. Making his role less predictable could reduce the turnover problem Murray experienced when he targeted Ertz last season, according to ESPN’s Josh Weinfuss:
Kyler Murray targeted Zach Ertz on his two interceptions. Murray now has 3 interceptions when targeting Ertz this season, the most of any receiver, per @ESPNStatsInfo.
– Josh Weinfuss (@joshweinfuss) Dec. 14, 2021
Keeping Ertz on the move would also open up possibilities for other members of the receiving corps.
New ideas needed for 3 of Hopkins’ fellow WRs.
Kingsbury needs some new ideas on how to use AJ Green, Rondale Moore and Brown. Green and Moore had their moments last season, but neither could emerge as a consistent middle linebacker.
Green, like Ertz, still returned in free agency. The 33-year-old may still see time as the ‘Z’ receiver, a position he played for most of 2021, but Hopkins’ temporary absence should allow Green to attack from both sides of the lineup more frequently.
There’s no doubt Green can still make highlight-worthy plays, as he did with this catch against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 11:
Green is one of the best receivers of his generation, and the Cardinals need to get more than 848 yards and three touchdowns out of him this season.
They also need more production from Moore, who racked up just 435 yards and a single touchdown as a receiver, to go with 76 yards on the ground. It was a modest return from last year’s second-round pick.
The Cardinals would unlock Moore’s full potential if they used him in a “wide back” role similar to the one Deebo Samuel flourished in for the San Francisco 49ers. There were indications last preseason that Moore can be a factor in the ground game:
Brown’s presence will relieve some of the pressure on Moore to be a bigger asset in passing schemes. The former Raven has a relationship with Murray from his days at Oklahoma and knows how to work inside.
Using unexpected alternatives to Hopkins at the ‘X’ position will allow Brown to work in space, an area where he excelled last season, according to Jonas Shaffer of The Baltimore Sun:
Hollywood Brown has been at his best in the slot this season.
Coming into today, he had caught 11 of his 17 targets for 215 yards, per @SportsInfo_SIS. Outside, he had four receptions on five targets for just 20 yards.pic.twitter.com/um2EK9L3wA
– Jonas Shaffer (@jonas_shaffer) October 3, 2021.
It’s also an area where the Cardinals need to replace Christian Kirk after last season’s slot specialist signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency.
However, replacing Hopkins is the priority, and trading Ertz away will be a problem defenses probably won’t expect.
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