Kyler Murray: The NFL’s next breakout quarterback
Lamar Jackson. Patrick Mahomes. Over the last two seasons, we’ve seen two young star quarterbacks have head-turning, highlight-making, eventual MVP-winning sophomore seasons.
Mahomes wowed with his arm, breaking out with a 5,000-yard, 50-touchdown year, and followed it with a Super Bowl-winning encore and a half-billion-dollar contract.
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Jackson, meanwhile, was unstoppable through the air and on the ground last season. In his third season, who knows?
Comparisons to those two are lofty, but if there’s one player who could experience a similar year-two leap, it is Arizona’s Kyler Murray.
A bit of background
After a 3-13 2018 season with Steve Wilks at the helm, in which they earned the No 1 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Cardinals cleared house. In came Kliff Kingsbury – long-time Texas Tech head coach – and with that top pick, he secured Oklahoma QB Murray.
Despite measuring up at just 5-foot-10 at a position that usually demands height, former Heisman Trophy winner Murray became the first quarterback under six feet to be taken No 1 overall.
He also became the first player to be drafted in the first round of both the NFL and MLB drafts after the Oakland Athletics selected him ninth overall in the 2018 MLB Draft, hoping he would trade in touchdowns for home runs – but the lure of football was too much.
We know he was a multi-sport athlete, a shorter guy and also someone with the talent to go first overall in the NFL Draft. But what is he like on the football field?
Murray, the quarterback
First thing’s first: Murray can ‘do both’. He is a ‘dual-threat’ in the true sense of the word, as someone who can challenge defenses both through the air and on the ground.
When he started his college career at Texas A&M, he became the second-ever SEC QB (after Cam Newton) to record 100 yards passing and rushing and both passing and rushing TDs in his debut.
In his final – Heisman Trophy-winning – season, he racked up 4,361 yards and 42 touchdowns passing. On top of that, he added 1,001 rushing yards and 12 TDs on the ground.
An electric playmaker on the field, he defines ‘quick-twitch’ athlete and causes nightmares for defenders attempting to get a read on what he is dialling up.
Attack the pocket, and he will fire the ball out quickly. Give him too much time and space, and he will either burn you on the ground or progress through his targets and pick you apart.
Watch his highlight reel and you’ll see him blaze past defenders, sidestep them, spin, backtrack and cut every which way – sometimes all behind the line of scrimmage. If you’re after mesmerising highlights, he’s your man.
You may assume the quality running is at the expense of high-level passing. It’s not. Murray has the arm strength and quick release to hang with the best of them.
The rookie season
How did Murray’s talent and prior success work out in the NFL in his rookie campaign? It was a mixed bag. Arizona’s record improved to 5-10-1 and Murray showed plenty of flashes of what he is capable of.
Just like in high school and college, the rookie produced both through the air (3,722 yards, 20 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions) and on the ground (544 rushing yards and four scores).
The positives were there: A 64.4 completion percentage put him 15th among all quarterbacks (ahead of Carson Wentz, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady) and his interception percentage was better than Matt Ryan and Deshaun Watson.
He also ranked in the top 10 in both passing attempts and completions, so at the very least, he got some practice in!
However, the production doesn’t fairly show the potential. Rookie quarterbacks play like rookies. They make mistakes. They learn on the job.
While there were some statistics in which he held his own, there were a few very bad ones. Murray was sacked 48 times, tied for most in the league with Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan.
His 6.6 average yards per attempt number was down in 24th. While other QBs were airing the ball down the field, Murray was more conservative in his approach.
Similarly, his touchdown percentage (3.7) was down in 27th. With the number of passes he threw, you would expect more to find the end zone.
So why the positivity for 2020? There are a few factors.
Firstly, and most obviously, the acquisition of DeAndre Hopkins from Houston will be huge for Murray. 36-year-old Larry Fitzgerald and sophomore Christian Kirk, the team’s leading receivers, combined for 1,513 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
Hopkins matched that touchdown total last season (with 1,165 yards) and had at least 1,300 yards and 11 TDs in each of the seasons prior. He is truly an elite wideout and will change the look of the attack.
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Just as important, in fact, is that Murray is going to his second year in Kingsbury’s system. Murray (and Kingsbury) have learned it for a season, seen how it operates, and had the chance to improve it. The QB will know the playbook inside out.
It comes back to that second-year boom. Adapting to the league takes time. Both on the field and off it, players drastically have to change the way they think and behave. In his second season, Murray will be more comfortable, and that usually means success.
Former Cardinals quarterback and Hall of Famer Kurt Warner – who led Arizona to their last Super Bowl appearance in 2009 – was also encouraged by Murray’s first year.
Warner: Guys like Murray bring a whole different dimension
Speaking to Sky Sports on NFL 32, Warner said although the traditional quarterback is 6’4 and 225 pounds, smaller, more athletic ones like Murray (5’10, 207) “bring a whole different dimension to everything.
“I still think there are a lot of ways to play quarterback and what we’ve seen recently with guys like Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, they’ve opened our eyes to the fact that you can win at the position playing differently than maybe what we thought 10 years ago,” he continued.
“We thought it was about being a drop-back quarterback, being the bigger, stronger guy, being able to throw in the pocket – which I still think is needed to win championships – but you can have a lot of success, you can win a lot of games by being able to move and create and ad-lib.
“We are seeing more and more of that in the NFL and we are seeing a lot more success from those guys than we’ve seen in the past.
“So I just think our eyes are being opened – there are a lot of different ways to win and play quarterback in the NFL.”
Murray is just 23 years old and at the start of a blossoming career, but with the ingredients of situation, weapons and talent, 2020 could see him rise to become the NFL’s next sophomore quarterback star.
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