Since Monday when Kliff Kingsbury was fired by the Cardinals, the names that have dominated the public discourse has been Sean Payton and DeAndre Hopkins.
Of course, that has been the case for quite a while, but now the speculation has ramped up with the team beginning the interview process for a coach and general manager.
What we know about Payton
The Cardinals, along with the Broncos and Texans, have requested permission to interview him and the Broncos have reportedly scheduled an interview with him Tuesday (Jan. 17), the first day it is allowed. Even though he didn’t coach in 2022 after resigning following the 2021 season, there are two years remaining on his contract. To allow him out of the contract, the Saints will receive compensation.
It is believed that interested teams know the general demands the Saints have regarding potential draft picks. It was 21 years ago that the Raiders received two first-round choices, two second-round choices and $8 million from the Buccaneers for Jon Gruden.
In this year’s draft, the Texans have first-round picks at No. 2 and No. 12 overall; the Broncos have pick No. 28 and the Cardinals own the third overall selection.
While there are those that believe the third choice is a non-starter, it can be argued that acquiring Payton likely has a better chance of success than a high draft pick. It’s instructive to look at three drafts from 2016 to 2018.
It’s still too early to evaluate the last four drafts, although defensive end Clein Ferrell (fourth pick Raiders, 2019) along with quarterback Zach Wilson (second choice Jets, 2021) and quarterback Trey Lance (third pick 49ers, 2021) have hardly been successes. Lance has been injured twice in the last two seasons when he started games.
In those three previous drafts, of the 15 players selected in the first five picks, only five are still with the team that drafted them.
For the Cardinals, while surrendering that third pick would be painful, it also could reduce the other compensation the Saints would receive.
The question is how serious Payton truly is about the Cardinals. A positive is that this is the clearest path for him to have a say in who runs the personnel department. While so much emphasis is put on the general manager, and understandably so, the most vital aspect of the job is putting together a staff.
Including Steve Keim, the Cardinals had 10 personnel executives and 13 scouts in 2022. Many of them will remain in place through the April draft because of the work already done and the way contracts are structured in the NFL.
The elephant in the room is quarterback Kyler Murray. There has been significant chatter in recent days regarding comments Payton made prior to the 2019 draft and in a recent radio interview.
The first, of course, was before Murray sustained six injuries in four seasons with five to his legs. Several occurred when he wasn’t running for yards.
In the radio interview with Colin Cowherd, Payton said it’s important that the offense with Murray at the helm include “a package that suits his talents, but also takes some pressure off him as well.”
He added, “What would I like to see? I’d love to see him have a better running game under center. I’d love to see him hand the ball off to another really good player and take a deep breath. I want to see him have a few more layups and when I need those (scrambling) plays, they’re going to come spontaneously through the red zone or third down.
“But I think if we’re counting on those every week, that’s a stressful job.”
That actually was the case for the first eight games of the 2021 season when the offensive line was relatively stable, and receivers Hopkins, Christian Kirk, A.J. Green and Rondale Moore along with running backs James Conner and Chase Edmonds were healthy.
Murray suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 8 trying to escape pressure and was affected when he returned after missing three games. Hopkins was lost for the season with a knee injury in Week 14, the line had four different combinations in the final five regular-season games, while Conner and Edmonds played only one game together in the last nine games.
Even if Murray is able to adapt to the way Payton would want him to play, there will always be times where he will run or be sacked and be at risk for injury.
There are coaches and personnel executives in the league that make it a point to avoid dual-threat, running quarterbacks. Sources told gophnx.com there was a split in the Ravens front office, including one in a high position, when Lamar Jackson was drafted with the final pick of the first round in 2018. The Ravens haven’t had Jackson down the stretch the last two seasons.
Chicago’s Justin Fields was injured on two occasions this season. Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III was never the same after suffering an injury after leading Washington to the playoffs in 2012. Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota, the second overall pick in the 2015 draft, had some early success, but also was affected by injuries.
Does Payton truly believe that Murray’s style is sustainable over time to hitch his coaching wagon to him? If he does, it will make for a great ride while gleeful fans should still always remember that the Saints still had five of the 15 seasons he coached with records of 7-9 or 8-8 with three 7-9s in consecutive years. What would Michael Bidwill do if something similar happened here?
What we know about Hopkins
He missed eight games this season and played limited snaps in two games because of a hamstring injury. In 2021, there were seven missed games and one with limited snaps, also because iof a hamstring issue. That’s 15 missed games, albeit with six for suspension, in two seasons after missing only two in the first eight years of his career.
Hopkins will be 31 in June and has two years remaining on his contract at $19.45 million and $14.915 million with nothing guaranteed. His cap charge for 2023 if he is on the Cardinals roster is $30.75 million.
There was a report about Hopkins this week that claimed Bidwill is telling potential general managers that Hopkins would be traded in the offseason. Certainly, it’s possible Bidwill would say he isn’t opposed to it or reveal, if true, that Hopkins has informed the organization that he would like to be traded, probably to a contender. His contract includes a no-trade clause. But informing a candidate that he will be traded would be a non-starter for someone expected to have control over personnel
It’s also important to examine the contractual issues related to a potential trade.
There is $22.6 million of signing bonus proration remaining on his Cardinals contract that has to be accounted for. That “money” would not travel with him to another team.
If he is dealt on or before June 1, all $22.6 million accelerates into the Cardinals 2023 cap. If he is traded after June 1, there would be a charge of $11.3 million in 2023 and $11.3 million in 2024.
However, even if a new team would be willing to wait until after June 1 to get Hopkins into their building for the brief remaining time of offseason workouts, that $30.45 million would be carried on the Cardinals cap until then, limiting what they can do when free agency begins in March.
Plus, that new team would be saddled with $34.37 million for two years. They could extend his contract and include a signing bonus that would lower his base salary.
The other reality is that contracts affect the compensation teams are willing to send to the trading team. That’s why the Cardinals were able to get Hopkins without spending a first-round pick three years ago when he was 28 years old and was demanding a new deal from the Texans.
As for Hopkins possibly wanting to be traded, would his tune change if Payton becomes the coach? Would Payton want him? That is unknown at this time.
However, if they want to keep him, the Cardinals could also extend the contract by adding actual or voidable years, provide a signing bonus and lower the base salary in 2023 to a more palatable cap figure.
It must also be mentioned that when Payton was with the Saints, they frequently had player purges before free agency started because they were so much over the cap.
The key component for any team, including the Cardinals, is how much they want Hopkins at 31 with injuries the last two seasons and with many quality receivers entering the draft every year.
There is also the matter of Marquise Brown’s contract. After acquiring him from the Ravens on draft day last year, the Cardinals exercised the fifth-year option on his rookie contract worth $13.413 million. He is scheduled to become a free agent in 2024.
The new regime would have to decide whether Brown has shown enough to receive a new contract when it is understood that there are currently 14 receivers in the league with contracts averaging at least $20 million a year that included guarantees of at least $40 million.
Has Brown shown he is worth that much coin? No. Would he hold out or “hold in” without a new deal? Nothing can be ruled out.
To think, these are only two of a myriad of items that Cardinals will have to deal with in the next six months leading to training camp.
Fasten your seat belts. The soap opera of 2022 might just be headed for an encore.
Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org