Christian Kirk: bound for a breakout in air raid offense

The Arizona Cardinals enter the 2019 regular season with a new head coach, a new quarterback, and a new game plan to kickstart the franchise back to its winning ways.

Arizona’s hiring of Kliff Kingsbury last January wasn’t a decision made on a whim. It was a calculated move, but one that required trust and flexibility. During his time as the head coach for Texas Tech and offensive coordinator for USC, Kingsbury was known for his fast-paced system that capitalized on the explosion of various playmakers. Now, he plans to implement his scheme on the professional stage.

The new system Kingsbury has injected into the Cardinals was believed to be one of the primary reasons why the Cardinals decided to part ways with 2018 first-round choice Josh Rosen and select his replacement, Kyler Murray, with the no. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft. Kingsbury once said that if given the chance to take Murray in the first round, he would do it. That statement came true just a few months later. Murray, utilized as a dangerous dual-threat weapon for Oklahoma in his Heisman-winning season, is equally as deadly throwing the ball as he is running it. His excellent poise manning the Sooners just a season after Baker Mayfield’s departure for the NFL translated to the stat sheet: 4,361 passing yards, 1,012 rushing yards, 52 total touchdowns, and just seven interceptions. Murray was tabbed as a perfect fit for the Kingsbury experiment.

Yet, the question remains. What exactly is an “air raid” offense?

An air raid offense is based on a few principles. It’s a pass-first offense and around 65-70% or more play calls per game can be passing plays. The offense also operates predominantly out of the shotgun, commonly with four receivers and a running back with a tight end only used sparingly. One interesting aspect of the air raid layout is the position of the linemen. Normally clumped together, linemen in Kingsbury’s offense will be spread out further apart from each other, a strategy designed to increase the distance between pass rusher and quarterback.

The system’s effectiveness is also determined by the speed in which the offense can operate. The Cardinals will have to adjust to no-huddle situations on the field, which means Murray will likely be given a large amount of freedom to audible. Because of this, receivers will also have the unique ability to modify their routes accordingly to the defensive packages they are faced with. And, due to the sheer volume of pass catchers on the field, Murray will have his fair share of options to throw to during the play.

“That’s what this offense does: puts people in space, makes defenders make decisions,” Murray told the Arizona Republic in May. “I think it’ll be very dangerous.”

Running back David Johnson is also excited about playing in the new scheme.

“We’re going to get the ball down the field as fast as we can. We’re trying to get a lot of plays in the game”

Murray isn’t the only fresh face at Cardinals minicamp with high expectations for his first year. The young gunslinger arrived alongside wide receivers Andy Isabella (no. 62 overall), Hakeem Butler (no. 103 overall), and KeeSean Johnson (no. 172 overall). All three have one thing in common: they were all effective contributors to the passing game in college, finishing within the Top 10 in the nation in total receiving yards. However, they were also decorated throughout their college years in their own way. Isabella led the FBS in receiving yards per game (141.5) and finished as a Biletnikoff Award finalist. Butler impressed scouts with his freakily large frame and his playstyle drew comparisons to Lions six-time Pro Bowler Calvin Johnson throughout the draft process. Johnson’s production during college actually exceeded that of Davante Adams, who played two seasons at Fresno State. Kingsbury’s offense requires the quarterback to spread the ball around, so adding three more productive pass catchers to the lineup was a top priority for the Cardinals in the draft.

However, one familiar face still remained after Kingsbury’s dust-up. Christian Kirk, the no. 47 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, is embracing the opportunity to build off a rookie season that showed flashes of potential. Even with the pressure to perform with multiple rookie wideouts clamoring for his job, Kirk has all the tools needed to succeed this season.

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Christian Kirk (13) during rookie minicamp at the Arizona Cardinals Training Facility. (Mark J. Rebilas – USA TODAY Sports)

Kirk and Murray have actually played together long before they were both drafted. Murray spent his freshman year at Texas A&M and started three games before transferring to Oklahoma and sitting under Baker Mayfield for a season. Even in those brief appearances, there were traces of chemistry between the two. In a dominating win against Western Carolina in 2015, Kirk caught nine passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns and was Murray’s most targeted player on the field that afternoon. If both can get on the same page on the professional level, they could become one of the most electric quarterback-wide receiver tandems in the NFL. Murray’s arm strength and Kirk’s speed could be the perfect recipe for taking the top off secondaries around the league.

Kirk’s quickness and sharp mind is another reason to believe he will be a solid piece in Kingsbury’s offense. In fact, Kirk was praised by the new head coach for having a “good feel” for the offense and has a better grasp of the “terminologies and concepts” from playing in a similar design in college. Kirk is a dangerous playmaker in open space, an area heavily exploited by the air raid attack, and is a master at churning out yards after the catch. Kirk combines his speed with precise route-running and steady hands. He’s also menacing as a punt returner, as evidenced by his 44-yard dash in Week 1 against the Redskins.

The second-year speedster is also one of three receivers on the roster that have seen extensive NFL action. Aside from Kirk, only Larry Fitzgerald and Pharoh Cooper have seen more regular playing time. Kirk will have a firmer grasp on handling defensive backs at the next level than his rookie peers and understands all the little nuances and tricks of playing in the NFL.

The potential for Kirk to shine this season is high. He is a popular breakout candidate and NFL.com recently tabbed him as the most likely player on the Cardinals roster to be selected to his first Pro Bowl. If Murray and Kirk can build a rapport early, then the ceilings for both players may be higher than originally thought.

Cole Topham is a 17-year old sportswriter from Salt Lake City, UT. He is the lead editor and founder of snacktimefantasy.com. Besides journalism, his passions include fantasy rankings, drinking chai lattes, rock climbing, and absurd amounts of hair paste.

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