NFL Countdown #14: Aaron Rodgers and Kyler Murray played wildly different styles of
football in 2020, but both ended up with a league-high 14 passes of 40+ yards.
Kyler Murray was electric in 2020, and was on pace to break the single-season fantasy points record before hurting his shoulder in a Week 11 matchup against the Seahawks. Murray was averaging 29.1 fantasy points per game thanks to his improved passing and willingness to run the ball. He turned just 16 more pass attempts into an additional 249 yards and 6 touchdowns over his totals in 2019, and was near perfect on hitting DeAndre Hopkins on the left side of the field. Kliff Kingsbury was like the guy who sucks at Madden and keeps dialing up the same play over and over, but those short-left throws to Hopkins were easy money for Kyler in 2020.
PFF-charted throws to DeAndre Hopkins in 2020. Almost every target
was fewer than 20 yards and towards the left side of the field.
The Cardinals offensive line took a big step forward last season, giving their QB more time to read the field and avoid sacks. Kyler’s slower processing was also a big factor in his high sack totals from 2019, but something clicked with the Arizona offense and Murray was sacked 21 fewer times over the course of the 2020 season. These layup throws to Hopkins and Kyler’s improved awareness in the pocket helped the Cardinals extend drives and stay more consistent week to week – Kyler had 6 games without a TD pass in 2019, but cut that number in half in 2020.
Murray was a key piece of the Cardinals ground game for most of the 2020 season, leading his team in rush yards in four out of the first eight games. He finished the year with 819 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground, but was on pace for 992 and 16 before his shoulder injury. Kyler’s outlook for 2021 depends in part on how his shoulder is feeling, but more importantly on how Kliff Kingsbury is feeling about his shoulder.
Best Case Scenario for 2021:
Murray is bound to have a great season in 2021 as long as he stays healthy and committed to running with the football. The former first overall draft pick was on his way to rewriting the fantasy football record books until he injured his shoulder in Week 11. His shoulder should be fine by now, and he will return to form if Kingsbury is willing to let Kyler do all the things that essentially led to this injury.
The Cardinals added veteran wide receiver AJ Green and picked up the speedy Rondale Moore in the 2021 draft. Green is coming off his worst season in the NFL, where he caught just 45% of balls thrown his way. If AJ Green can return to be just a competent NFL receiver, he should be a better option for Kyler Murray than the aging Larry Fitzgerald or Christian Kirk. Kyler threw 9 of his 12 interceptions between the hashes in 2020, so having a guy like AJ Green who can win on the periphery should help move his attention away from the middle of the field. This Arizona wide receiver corps would have been historically good five years ago, but should still be solid in 2021.
Kyler is facing a relatively easy schedule in 2021, with 6 opponents who finished in the bottom-10 of pass defenses last season. If Kingsbury isn’t afraid to keep the opposing defenses on their toes by letting Kyler make plays with his legs, that should open up some great holes in protection downfield. There are a lot of ifs in this one, but if the Cardinals can pull it all together this year, we should see Kyler get back to running for 70+ yards per game and putting up solid numbers in the passing game.
Worst Case Scenario for 2021:
As we saw after Murray was banged up in Week 11, Kliff Kingsbury values Kyler’s longevity more than his fun rushing numbers. With his semi-injured shoulder, Kyler stopped running the ball as much overall, but most importantly he stopped running the ball in the red zone. QB runs in the red zone are the most lucrative for fantasy purposes, but also the most dangerous because the whole defense is bottled up in a small area. Before getting hurt, Kyler averaged 2 red zone carries per game. Kingsbury opted to avoid these plays for the most part once Kyler was banged up, only giving him 5 red zone carries in the final 6 games. After starting the season averaging a 62 yards and a touchdown on the ground, these numbers slid to 39 yards per game and just a single touchdown after the injury.
If Kliff Kingsbury keeps the restrictor plate on Kyler’s rushing attempts in this coming season, I don’t know if his passing alone will deliver premier value in fantasy football. Murray’s height was really the only knock on him heading into the 2019 draft, but this really becomes an issue when the defense isn’t afraid of him taking off and carrying the ball himself. Kyler has shown some difficulty in the pocket due to his size – he had the second-most passes batted down at the line of scrimmage in 2020 (11), but only two of these came after 2.5 seconds. When he’s able to move around and defenses have to respect his legs, Kyler was able to find windows to throw over the offensive line in 2020. If he’s not able to run freely in this Arizona offense, Kyler could find his way outside the top-10 at the quarterback position just a year removed from being on pace to score the most fantasy points ever.
Aaron Rodgers is the king of vengeance. The world found out that Rodgers doesn’t speak to his family after his brother was a contestant on The Bachelorette, and that’s just the perfect encapsulation of the 37-year-old quarterback’s persona. We don’t know what happened behind closed doors, but we do know that he doesn’t even open the Christmas presents he gets from family members. I’ll never understand how someone could receive a nicely wrapped gift and not even be curious enough to open it, but that’s just Aaron Rodgers. He lives in his own world and none of us can even begin to understand what goes on between his ears.
Another chip was added to his 3x-MVP shoulder ahead of the 2020 season when the Packers opted to trade up and pick his replacement in the draft. Rodgers had been telling anyone who would ask that he was unhappy with decisions made by the Packers organization, and had really hoped his team would make the right decision and secure him another weapon from a very loaded wide receiver draft class. With no extra help on offense, Rodgers rolled into the season with first-team All-Pro Davante Adams and a gang of receivers that wouldn’t start on most other teams.
The Packers organization lit a fire under their quarterback, and Rodgers ended up with his best statistical season of his career on his way to another NFC Championship game. The Packers had great success in close games throughout the 2019 season (8-1 in one-score games), but really started to hammer their opponents after Rodgers became comfortable in his second year in the new offense installed by Matt LaFleur. This new Shanahan-like scheme was heavily predicated on pre-snap motion and play action to force defenses into making mistakes, which allowed Rodgers to really capitalize on well-designed plays. Aaron Rodgers averaged a 91.1 PFF grade on passes thrown in under 2.5 seconds, a full 6.2 points higher than second-place Ryan Tannehill (also in a heavy play action, Shanahan-like scheme). He led the league in completion percentage, touchdowns, interception rate, adjusted yards per attempt, quarterback rating, and pretty much every stat in the red zone.
Best case scenario in 2021:
The Packers caved to most of Rodgers’ demands in order to get him to show up to training camp, including a trade for his old friend, Randall Cobb. Rodgers and Cobb connected 448 times for 5350 yards and 39 touchdowns over their eight years together, but I don’t anticipate the 31-year-old receiver being the same explosive player he was in the beginning of his career. However, Rodgers is among the best quarterbacks in NFL history at improvising when the pocket collapses, so adding an old friend that knows his tendencies will certainly help to extend drives and keep the chains moving. Cobb will be a great safety blanket for Rodgers on these types of plays amongst a wide receiver corps that got even worse after Devin Funchess was ruled out of the 2021 season.
Aaron Rodgers led the league in most passing statistics and earned his third MVP title while throwing the ball to guys like Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling in 2020. His team added two possession-type receivers in Randall Cobb and Amari Rodgers, and we should expect the rest of his skill players to take a step forward after having a normal offseason in 2021. If Rodgers can keep his completion percentage up and play with a thousand chips on his shoulder again this year, the sky is the limit in his last dance with the Green Bay Packers.
Worst Case Scenario in 2021:
Barring injury, the worst case scenario for the Packers would have to be a new dispute between their GM and quarterback. Rodgers clearly harbors a lot of disdain for Packers GM Brian Gutekunst, but decided to play in 2021 thanks to a few concessions from the organization and his great relationship with head coach Matt LaFleur. If Gutekunst starts flexing again like he’s more important to the Packers than one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, I really wouldn’t put it past Rodgers to walk away from the team mid-season. The man doesn’t talk to his own family – we have no reason to think he wouldn’t burn this bridge with the entire state of Wisconsin.
On the football side, there are a few reasons to worry about Rodgers in 2021. Aaron Rodgers is one of the most talented quarterbacks of all time, but he should take a step back in several statistical categories due to natural regression. He is getting older and drinks a lot more scotch than Tom Brady, but I saw nothing in 2020 that would indicate Rodgers is nearing the cliff that most other quarterbacks eventually encounter. The Packers offensive line lost two starters in free agency (Corey Linsley & Rick Wagner), so I don’t expect them to protect the quarterback as well despite the return of David Bakhtiari and the additions of 3 rookie linemen.
Green Bay has a pretty rough schedule in 2021, and Sharp Football Analysis has them at the biggest jump in strength of opposing pass defenses from last season. Strong secondary play from the Rams and Ravens and a tough front-seven on the Steelers and Washington Football Team should give the Packers some trouble with their weak wide receiver corps and unproven offensive line. The Packers’ schedule alone should be enough to ensure Rodgers doesn’t repeat his ridiculous success from 2020, but there is always the chance that he gets the call from Jeopardy and bails on the team halfway through the season.