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How Kliff Kingsbury is assembling an Arizona air raid roster

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It starts with Kyler Murray, but the Cardinals’ embrace of the college offense has been total.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals-Rookie Minicamp Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals didn’t hire Kliff Kingsbury for his good looks, recruiting chops, or 35-40 record at the school that just fired him. They hired the ex-Texas Tech coach because they wanted in on his brand of spread offense, the type that’s taken hold in the NFL.

General manager Steve Keim has acted on the vision. Arizona’s crafting a roster that can look like Kingsbury’s wide-open, pass-heavy attack at Texas Tech.

Quick digression: I’m not talking about defense in this post, because I’m not going to pay any more attention to defense than Kingsbury does.

The defensive coordinator can worry about that.

Kingsbury is as devoted to the air raid as anyone. The former Mike Leach quarterback’s offenses have all the characteristics of the original scheme:

  • Ranking near the top of the country every year in passing frequency.
  • Having offensive linemen stand far apart, to force long paths for blitzing defenders, and having the QB throw quickly.
  • Giving receivers the authority to adjust their routes based on defenders’ positioning.
  • Running the ball mainly to constrain defenses from keying on the pass.
  • Using three or four receivers every snap, often without a tight end.
  • Working exclusively out of the shotgun.

Maybe Kingsbury will be a little less aggressive than he was in the Big 12. But there’s no question he’ll run one of the most spread-out offenses in a league that’s already moving in his direction.

The Cardinals have assembled a bunch of players who look like ideal fits.

A lot wouldn’t have been so useful in the NFL of 10 years ago. A lot are smaller than is optimal for certain schemes. But in Kingsbury’s offense, it’s easy to figure out roles.

Kingsbury now has an experienced air raid QB.

Kyler Murray just led S&P+’s best offense in college history, running a scheme that evolved from air raid co-father Leach. Some of the concepts in the Oklahoma offense, especially the varied RPOs, have come into vogue in the NFL. Other parts, like the Sooners’ heavy emphasis on power and counter runs, are just spread-ified versions of old staples. No matter the origins, Murray guided the Sooners’ spread to near perfection.

Different QBs can work wonders in versions of the air raid. Patrick Mahomes was great at Kingsbury’s Texas Tech because he had a brilliant arm and mastered the ins and outs. Now Murray’s running talent will allow Kingsbury to try some things he couldn’t do as often with Mahomes.

This offense mixes lots of receivers who present different kinds of threats. Arizona’s pieces are coming into place.

The most constant part of air raid roster construction has been pairing small, fast inside receivers with bigger home run-hitters.

Kingsbury’s best offense in Lubbock, the one that finished No. 4 in S&P+ in 2015, might be the best example. His leading receiver was 5’6 slot man Jakeem Grant, who got 1,268 yards and 10 TDs by working over the middle against spread-out defenses:

Part of why that play worked is that Tech had real deep threats on the outside, who forced corners to play off the ball and safeties to stay occupied away from the middle. Take this wide cushion, which helped open up the grass Grant ran through:

In the draft, Kingsbury got players who can fill both of these roles.

  • With the second-rounder the Cardinals got for Josh Rosen, they took UMass receiver Andy Isabella, who comfortably led FBS in receiving yards (1,698) and was second in receptions (102) in 2018. Isabella is 5’9, and he has 4.31 speed. The player with the second-most similar combine profile to Isabella ever is Keke Coutee, who played slot for Kingsbury and finished fifth in FBS in yardage. I think Isabella could challenge Anquan Boldin’s record of 101 receptions by a rookie.
  • The Cardinals added Iowa State receiver Hakeem Butler in the fourth round, getting 2018’s No. 8 yards-getter in FBS and the best mix of size (6’5) and all-around athleticism of any receiver at the combine.

Other Cardinal receivers seem like they’ll fit. Larry Fitzgerald is Larry Fitzgerald. Second-year man Christian Kirk played in an air raid at Texas A&M. Sixth-round pick KeeSean Johnson was one of FBS’ most prolific receivers in Fresno State’s spread. Arizona took a free-agent flier on former Bears No. 7 overall pick Kevin White, whom Kingsbury watched dominate at West Virginia.

Tight ends are optional in the air raid, but if you want one, he needs to be a particular type.

Basically, you need big receivers who can do a touch of blocking.

The Cards held onto restricted FA Ricky Seals-Jones, a tight end you wouldn’t want in a power running offense, but a potentially valuable part of a spread. The 6’5, 243-pounder had 34 catches for 343 yards in his second year.

Arizona also spent the last pick on UCLA’s Caleb Wilson. He’s 6’2, 240 with 4.56 speed, and his receiving numbers exploded when Chip Kelly took over the Bruins in 2018.

There’s reason to think Kingsbury will find use for TEs. In 2013, he inherited pro-style Tommy Tuberville’s players. One was a future NFL tight end, Jace Amaro. So the Red Raiders centered around using Amaro’s size and athleticism to create matchups. Amaro rang up 106 catches for 1,352 yards, both tops nationally for TEs.

On top of that, Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma, where Murray thrived, has made heavy use of tight ends.

The air raid offensive line emphasizes athleticism.

The ball comes out quickly, so having a giant left tackle who can pass-set for an eternity isn’t the biggest priority. Even air raid Washington State’s Andre Dillard, a first-rounder by the Eagles, measured a relatively svelte 6’5 and 315 pounds. He shot up draft boards because of his athleticism.

Because linemen are spread far apart, the key is to have lateral movers who can get in pass-rushers’ way. And because Murray’s the QB, the offensive linemen have to be able to run, as his Oklahoma blockers explained to me in detail.

The Cardinals signed J.R. Sweezy, the longtime Seahawks guard. He’s 30, but tested near the top of 2012’s O-line class in the shuttle, 40, broad jump, and vert jump. He’s a (relatively) thin 6’5 and 310 pounds — limber enough to block on screens and pull on zone reads and RPOs. Blocking for Russell Wilson the last six years, he’s experienced in those areas.

Also, Morgan State tackle Joshua Miles, Arizona’s sixth-round pick, is an explosive athlete who put up big broad and vert numbers.

Oh, and the air raid also sometimes uses running backs.

Good thing David Johnson is an excellent receiver.

I don’t know if Kingsbury will succeed, but he’s building the kind of roster that will make it a great experiment.

Kingsbury wants to run an NFL version of the air raid, and he’s getting the players to do it. He’s not going to fall into the Chip Kelly trap, where it became clear Nick Foles wasn’t the guy to run his spread option. Arizona’s line might be so bad in 2019 that it takes time to evaluate the coach’s work, but the foundation is there.