Is Kyler Murray playing himself into — or out of — Arizona's 2024 plans?

Four games into his return from a torn ACL, Kyler Murray and the Cardinals offense are slowly starting to click

If you were trying to make a case for greatness at the quarterback position, you could do a whole lot worse than what Kyler Murray achieved in the final minutes of the first half Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

His defense had just stopped the Steelers on fourth down at the 1-yard line. Tied at 3-3 in a game so miserable it slogged through two separate weather delays, the Arizona Cardinals could have gone through the motions — run, run, incomplete pass, punt — and no one would have done more than shrug and say, “Yeah, that’s about right.”

Instead, Murray smoothly guided his team through a 15-play, 99-yard touchdown drive that gave Arizona a lead it would never relinquish. Murray may not have ensured himself a 2024 job with that drive, but he certainly helped bolster his case for staying in Arizona. He kept his foot on the gas and allowed Arizona to get past Pittsburgh, 24-10, for the Cardinals’ third win of the year.

Murray is 2-2 after returning from an 11-month rehab for a torn ACL, and while he hasn’t been particularly impressive statistically — he threw 13 completions for just 145 yards and a touchdown Sunday — he’s starting to exhibit the leadership that a young team needs out of the quarterback position, one way or another. In particular, he seems to have found a comfortable target in second-year tight end Trey McBride, who caught eight passes for 89 yards and a touchdown. (Don’t match McBride’s numbers to Murray’s if you favor a balanced, wide-receiver-oriented offensive attack.)

“Every time I touch the field I expect to win,” Murray said after Sunday’s game. “Still frustrated with the two losses [with] me playing in … but this is still technically preseason for me. It’s starting to slow down for me, I’m starting to get more comfortable out there.”

Much of the offseason talk around the Cardinals centered on possibly cutting Murray loose, one way or another, and cashing in on a quarterback-rich draft. But that’s a whole lot easier for a draft expert to project than an Arizona accountant to reconcile.

Murray’s contract is the NFL’s sixth-highest in average value, behind Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, Jalen Hurts and Russell Wilson. He hasn’t even started his five-year, $230 million extension to his rookie deal, which runs through the 2028 season. That, plus the mammoth salary-cap hit — $97 million this season, $81 million next, and on downward from there — means trading Murray would be difficult, but releasing him outright is a non-starter.

Is Kyler Murray playing himself into — or out of — the Cardinals' 2024 plans? (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
Is Kyler Murray playing himself into — or out of — the Cardinals' 2024 plans? (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

Arizona has two first-round draft picks, its own and one from Houston. At the moment, the Cardinals’ picks fall in the third and 18th slots, thanks to Houston’s resurgence. That presents the Cardinals with an interesting dilemma: Do they draft a quarterback to replace Murray, or do they draft some help — Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr., say, and an offensive lineman — for Murray?

Not only that, a look into the future shows that the Cardinals have a whole lot of cap space — $56 million, ninth most in the NFL — awaiting in the 2024 season. That kind of bankroll won’t reshape Arizona’s entire team, but it could help the Cardinals build around Murray in a way they haven’t for his entire career.

If Cardinals coaches are to be believed, Murray — who once drew heat for focusing on video games rather than game film — spent a significant portion of his rehab time learning the game alongside head coach Jonathan Gannon, who's been promising in his own right, and the rest of the staff. He’s spent time with new offensive coordinator Drew Petzing on the field and in the film room, trying to keep up with an offense that was already in place by the time Murray returned from injury four weeks ago.

The Cardinals’ final four games will be brutal — vs. 49ers, at Eagles and vs. Seahawks with only a road trip to the Bears game tucked in there as a potential respite. (Also, given the performance of Carolina and New England this season, it could be a battle for the No. 3 draft slot.)

But Murray has four more games to prove himself, four games to play himself into, or out of, the Cardinals’ 2024 plans. Not a bad place to be, for him or the team.