Hopkins is the premier outside threat on the roster. He’s the big-play specialist defenses fear. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury has harnessed Hopkins’ core skills in a specific role.
Replacing the ‘X’ receiver who makes his passing schemes tick will demand creative solutions from Kingsbury, even after the Cardinals traded a first-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens for Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown.
One such solution 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 tight end position. Ertz appeared recently on The Dave Pasch Podcast and explained how he’ll help offset the loss of Hopkins: “Maybe I go play some ‘X’ receiver. I did it a lot in Philly.”
Ertz’s reference to how often he split out wide for the Philadelphia Eagles is important in understanding how this ploy could work for the Cardinals. The ‘X’ receiver usually “lines up opposite the tight end in most cases, at the line of scrimmage and furthest away from the ball,” per Bleacher Report’s Brent Sobleski.
This is where Hopkins commands double teams and threatens to stretch the field on any given play for the Cardinals. It’s where he was lined up on the famous “Hail Murray” scoring connection with quarterback Kyler Murray against the Buffalo Bills in 2020, split out wide as the single 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 a flash, but the 6’5″, 250-pounder would be a physical mismatch against defensive backs on the outside.
As he pointed out, Ertz has some useful experience playing out wide. He became a force as a split end during the Eagles’ championship run in the 2017 season, per Zachary Rodgers of Caesars Sportsbook, even scoring 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 out-muscle Hertz to the ball, while linebackers and safeties will struggle to stay with him in space.
Putting Hertz wide on the other side from where he usually lines up needn’t cost the Cardinals anything from the tight end spot. Not when the team used its top draft pick this year on Mackey Award winner Trey McBride.
The selection of McBride should see the Cardinals 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 he thinks the Cards could play “35, 40 percent 12 personnel,” two tight ends and one 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 targeting Ertz last season, per ESPN’s Josh Weinfuss:
Keeping Ertz on the move would also open up possibilities for other members of the receiving corps.
Fresh Ideas Needed for 3 of Hopkins’ Fellow WRs
Kingsbury needs some fresh ideas for how to use A.J. Green, Rondale Moore and Brown. Green and Moore had their moments last season, but neither was able to emerge as a consistent playmaker.
Green, like Ertz, was still brought back 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 let Green attack from both sides of the lineup more often.
Green is one of the best receivers of his generation, and the Cardinals have to get more than 848 yards and three touchdowns from him this season.
Greater production is also needed from Moore, who mustered 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 unleash 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 hints last pre-season Moore can be a factor in the running game:
Brown’s presence will alleviate some of the pressure on Moore to be a greater asset in the passing schemes. The ex-Raven has a rapport with Murray from their days at Oklahoma and knows how to work the inside of the field.
Using unexpected alternatives to Hopkins at the ‘X’ spot will allow Brown to work the slot, an area where he excelled last season, according to Jonas Shaffer of The Baltimore Sun:
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.
Replacing Hopkins is the priority, though, and shifting Ertz outside will be a wrinkle defenses are unlikely to expect.