If you had asked NFL fans before the 2021 season who the last remaining undefeated team would be, few would have responded to the Cardinals. Sure, many were excited about Arizona starting the year and hoping they would be a playoff team.
But being the last undefeated team while playing in the seemingly charged NFC West? Who saw that coming?
In fact, through seven games this season, the Cardinals have a flawless 7-0 record. They dodged an early-season bullet against the Vikings when Minnesota missed a game-winning field goal to give Arizona a cheap Week 2 victory, but other than that contest, all of their victories have been decisive.
Now, they are receiving one of their most important tests yet. They will face the Packers 6-1 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 approaches.
As Arizona’s dominant run continues, many will wonder exactly how they’ve done it. The answer is simple. They had one of the best off-seasons of any team in the NFL 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 attractive moves defensively by signing Malcolm Butler and JJ Watt, but Butler withdrew on the 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 quite pan out, although Watt played well during the winning streak and is a valuable team leader. But on offense, almost every transfer and trade the Cardinals have executed has worked perfectly.
Here’s how the Cardinals were able to mold their roster from a potential playoff contender to an undefeated behemoth by acquiring several offensive veterans in free agency and through a trade.
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Cardinals sign Bengals catcher AJ Green
AJ Green didn’t look like the Pro Bowl catcher he once was during his final seasons with the Bengals. He had a career-low 11.1 receiving yards and two TDs in 2020, and it looked like his days as an effective starter were over.
Still, 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 become a true No. 2 receiver against DeAndre Hopkins, something the Cardinals lacked last year. Christian Kirk has adapted well to his role as No. 3 receiver, while Green is on track for nearly 1,000 receiving yards.
Green has been more effective than Larry Fitzgerald last year as Kyler Murray’s second receiver. Fitzgerald is a future Hall of Famer, but he averaged 7.6 yards per reception, his career low, in 2020. Green is averaging 16.9 this season and looks much more explosive than Fitzgerald. That has given Murray more playing options on the field to aim for.
Ironically, Green has modeled his game according to Fitzgerald and look at him as a mentor. So, in many ways, he was a perfect fit to replace the Arizona legend.
Cardinals trade for Raiders center Rodney Hudson
Offensive linemen may not get as much love as skill position players, but one of the biggest things the Cardinals did was trade former Raiders center Rodney Hudson.
Hudson has been branded as an elite pass blocker for a good chunk of his career, according to PFF. He’s only played about half of the Cardinals’ plays to date due to a rib injury, but he’s done well. The three-time Pro Bowler has allowed no sacks and committed only one penalty with a pass blocking rating of 68.2. That’s not his elite peak, but it’s still good.
Comparatively, the Cardinals opened Mason Cole for most of last season at center. He committed eight penalties, tied for second among centers, allowed two sacks and had a pass blocking rating of 46.1.
Needless to say, Hudson’s presence has provided a boost to Murray’s protection. Discarding a third-round pick to get Hudson and a seventh round 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 average success. In 2020, Zane González was their leading kicker, but he made only 72.7 percent of his shots.
Prater has been a viable replacement. He has one of the strongest legs in the NFL and held the record for the longest field goal in the league until Justin Tucker broke it in 2021.
Prater is 12-of-15 shooting this year, but his three misses have come from more than 40 yards. That included a 68-yard attempt that was returned for a TD by Jamal Agnew. The strength of his legs has proven to be a weapon for the Cardinals, as he scored 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 brought in a replacement. They signed James Conner for a year worth $ 1.75 million to complement Chase Edmonds.
Conner has fitted that role well. He is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry, but has rushed for six touchdowns. Edmonds has been able to work more as a receiver thanks to Conner’s presence and has stayed cool between tackles. That’s part of the reason he’s 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. It came in season and filled Arizona’s biggest remaining offensive weakness. They needed a tight end. Maxx Williams had been injured and the team did not have a high-level 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 be a perfect fit. He caught three passes for 66 yards and a TD against the Texans and should only feel more comfortable on 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’ undefeated streak. The rise of players like Kyler Murray and Isaiah Simmons along with draft picks like Zaven Collins and Rondale Moore have also played a key role in improving Arizona.
But the veteran acquisitions the Cardinals made in 2021 are proving to be the biggest difference for this team so far. General manager Steve Keim certainly deserves praise for what he was able to do this offseason, as he has provided the spark needed to help the Cardinals’ offense level up again.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.