If you asked NFL fans before the 2021 season who would be the last remaining undefeated team, few would have answered the Cardinals. Sure, plenty were high on Arizona going into the year and expected them to be a playoff team.
But being the last undefeated team while playing in the seemingly loaded NFC West? Who saw that coming?
Indeed, through seven games this season, the Cardinals sport an unblemished 7-0 record. They dodged an early-season bullet against the Vikings when Minnesota missed a makeable, game-winning field goal to give Arizona a cheap Week 2 win, but aside from that contest, their wins have all been decisive.
Now, they’re getting one of their biggest tests yet. They’re taking on the 6-1 Packers on “Thursday Night Football.” The winner will have the inside track to the No. 1 seed in the NFC as the midpoint of the season draws nearer.
As Arizona’s dominant run continues, many will ask exactly how they’ve pulled it off. The answer is simple. They had one of the best offseasons of any NFL team and were able to add several high-quality, impact players to strengthen the core of their team.
That’s especially true on offense. The Cardinals made some good-looking moves on defense in signing Malcolm Butler and J.J. Watt, but Butler retired on eve of the season while Watt played well in seven games but suffered an apparent season-ending shoulder injury in Week 7.
Those two acquisitions didn’t pan out in full — though Watt played well duirng the winning streak and is a valuable team leader. But on offense, almost every signing and trade that the Cardinals have executed has worked to perfection.
Here’s how the Cardinals were able to mold their roster from a potential playoff contender to an undefeated juggernaut by acquiring several offensive veterans in free agency and via trade.
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Cardinals sign long-time Bengals receiver A.J. Green
A.J. Green didn’t look like the Pro Bowl receiver he once was during his final couple of seasons with the Bengals. He had a career-low 11.1 yards per catch and two TDs in 2020, and it looked like his days as an effective starter were over.
Nonetheless, the Cardinals took a chance on Green. They signed him to a low-risk deal worth up to $8 million for one year. So far, the results have been excellent.
Green has emerged as a true No. 2 receiver across from DeAndre Hopkins, something that the Cardinals lacked last year. Christian Kirk has settled into his No. 3 receiver role nicely while Green is on pace for nearly 1,000 receiving yards.
Green has been more effective than Larry Fitzgerald was last year as Kyler Murray’s No. 2 receiver. Fitzgerald is a future Hall of Famer, but he averaged a career-low 7.6 yards per catch in 2020. Green is averaging 16.9 this season and looks far more explosive than Fitzgerald. That has given Murray more downfield playmaking options to target.
Ironically enough, Green has modeled his game after Fitzgerald and looks up to him as a mentor. So in many ways, he was the perfect fit to replace the Arizona legend.
Cardinals trade for Raiders center Rodney Hudson
Offensive linemen may not get as much love as the skill position players, but one of the most important things that the Cardinals did was trade for former Raiders center Rodney Hudson.
Hudson has been graded as an elite pass blocker for a good chunk of his career, per PFF. He has only played about half of the Cardinals’ snaps to date because of an rib injury, but he has fared well. The three-time Pro Bowler has allowed no sacks and committed just one penalty while posting a pass-blocking grade of 68.2. That’s not quite his elite peak, but it’s still good.
Comparatively, the Cardinals started Mason Cole most of last season at center. He committed eight penalties — tied for the second-most among centers — allowed two sacks and had a pass-blocking grade of 46.1.
Needless to say, Hudson’s presence has provided a boost to Murray’s protection. Offloading a third-round pick to get Hudson and a seventh-rounder was a solid move.
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Cardinals sign kicker Matt Prater
In the three seasons before signing Matt Prater, the Cardinals had used four different kickers with middling success. In 2020, Zane Gonzalez was their primary kicker, but he made just 72.7 percent of his kicks.
Prater has been a viable replacement. He has one of the NFL’s strongest legs, and he held the record for the league’s longest field goal until Justin Tucker broke it in 2021.
Prater has gone 12 of 15 on kicks this year, but all three of his misses have come from beyond 40 yards. That included a 68-yard attempt that was returned for a TD by Jamal Agnew. His leg strength has proven to be a weapon for the Cardinals, as he made a 62-yard field goal earlier in the season.
Cardinals sign James Conner
The Cardinals let Kenyan Drake go during the 2021 NFL offseason but they brought in a replacement. They signed James Conner to a one-year deal worth $1.75 million to compliment Chase Edmonds.
Conner has fit that role well. He is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry, but he has run for six touchdowns. Edmonds has been able to work more as a receiver thanks to Conner’s presence and has stayed fresh between the tackles. That’s part of why he is averaging 5.8 yards per carry this season.
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Cardinals trade for Zach Ertz
Fast forward about half a year, and the Cardinals were able to make another solid trade. This one came in season and filled Arizona’s biggest remaining offensive weakness. They needed a tight end. Maxx Williams had gotten hurt and the team didn’t have a higher-end receiving option even when Williams was healthy.
The Cardinals then set their sights on Zach Ertz. They sent a 2021 fifth-round pick Tay Gowan and a fifth-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft to the Eagles to get Ertz.
So far, Ertz has played just one game for the Cardinals, but he seemed to fit right in. He caught three passes for 66 yards and a TD against the Texans and should only get more comfortable in the offense as he adjusts to it. Ertz also has Super Bowl experience with the Eagles which should provide a boost to the Cardinals’ locker room.
These moves are far from the only ones that have sparked the Cardinals’ unbeaten streak. The ascension of players like Kyler Murray and Isaiah Simmons along with draft picks like Zaven Collins and Rondale Moore have also played key parts in Arizona’s improvement.
But the veteran acquisitions that the Cardinals made in 2021 are proving to be the biggest difference-maker for this team so far. General manager Steve Keim certainly deserves praise for what he was able to do during the offseason, as it has provided the needed spark to help the Cardinals’ offense level up again.