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NFL Draft

Year 3 Breakout WR: What’s Christian Kirk Role In Cardinals’ Offense?

  • The Draft Network
  • June 25, 2020
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The 2018 wide receiver class was known as a thick, but starless group at the time of its drafting. Two years in, it’s definitely thick, but stars are beginning to emerge. All of Calvin Ridley, Courtland Sutton, D.J. Moore, and Michael Gallup have an argument not only as the top dog in the class but as upper-echelon receivers in the league altogether. I made the case for Gallup most recently—as his success seems the most underappreciated to me—but all four are great talents, and they aren’t alone. D.J. Chark, Christian Kirk, and James Washington fill out the top of a thick second tier.

Earlier this week, I focused on Chicago Bears WR Anthony Miller, who has been the image of volatility across his two years in the NFL. This time, it’s Arizona Cardinals WR Christian Kirk, who has been wicked consistent when on the field.

Despite his steadiness, there’s little to hang your hat on with Kirk when it comes to a third-year breakout. Kirk was a bit healthier in 2019 and enjoyed a major step up in quarterback play and volume with rookie quarterback Kyler Murray at the helm over previous rookie Josh Rosen in 2018. Kirk’s targets/game went from 5.6 to 8.3 in his sophomore season, but his yards/reception went down (13.7 to 10.4) despite the fact that his targeted air yards remained roughly the same (9.8 to 9.5), per NFL Next Gen Stats. Kirk was catching fewer of his deeper targets than he had in 2018, and he was generating less yardage after the catch as well.

His deployment didn’t necessarily change that much, which makes things even more interesting. Kirk took a few more snaps in the slot in 2019 than he did in 2018, but remained versatile in his alignments. It just seems like further volume made him less efficient, and he didn’t get as lucky with his deep catch percentage.

If the context around him stayed the same, then, you could project positive growth for Kirk in Year 3 just as a natural rebound from what was a bit of a disappointing Year 2. But things didn’t stay the same: Kirk’s WR room added the most high-volume and arguably dangerous receiver in the NFL when DeAndre Hopkins rode the trade train out of Houston and into head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense. 

Now, Hopkins isn’t going to demand the same volume in Arizona (he’s averaged 170 targets over the last five years!) that he got in Houston. That has something to do with the Air Raid system’s spread-the-wealth philosophy, but it also has something to do with the skill set of Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald, both of whom warrant targets in a way that many of Hopkins’ previous teammates have not.

Fitzgerald, like Kirk, remains a solid short-intermediate option given his consistent hands, quality route running, and physicality. He didn’t see nearly the same depth of target that Kirk did in 2020 (Kirk accounted for 27% of the team’s attempted air yards, 6% more than Fitzgerald, despite playing in three fewer games), but was a more reliable underneath option. Fitzgerald caught more of his targets, had a higher yards/reception despite the shallower depth of target, and had fewer drops.

This is a huge deal when considering Kirk’s fit in the offense. If Hopkins comes and takes many of the deep and intermediate targets as the isolation X receiver, and Fitzgerald remains the more desirable and consistent underneath option… where does Kirk fit into this offense?

The most natural answer is as a field-stretching Z. Will Fuller did just fine for himself (when he was healthy) as Hopkins’ running mate in Houston by gobbling up the one-on-one deep shots he got when safety help was skewed Hopkins’ way. Kirk, a 4.47 40-yard dash receiver with a 35.5-inch vertical jump and 115-inch broad jump, is not the sort of athlete that projects as a field-stretcher.

On Kirk’s deep targets last year, on which he was generally inefficient, you can see how much trouble he can have separating from man coverage on a line. Press coverage eats Kirk up, and he isn’t comfortable with the physical aspects of the game at this stage in his career, as he has neither the play strength to win through contact, nor the quickness and speed to separate from contact.

https://youtu.be/diGgixvZ-Tw

It’s also worth noting that, if the Cardinals’ coaching staff wants to shoehorn somebody into that role, they drafted UMass WR Andy Isabella in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and the name of his game is speed. Isabella was oddly invisible as a rookie, but in that specific Fuller role, is likely a better option than Kirk. 

So if Kirk can’t be Fuller, he needs to really start to hone in on his intermediate route-running. Separation can be easier from the slot than it is from the outside because true man coverage on a slot receiver has to respect the two-way go of an in- and out-breaking route, while man coverage on an outside receiver can play with inside leverage, knowing that the sideline helps to cover all out-breaking routes.

With that said, there’s reason for excitement here. Kirk is a nifty little out-breaking route runner, who does well to use reduced alignments, pre-snap leverage, and the threat of an inside break to work to the boundary. This 15-yard deep comeback/out for Kirk was by far his best route last season, as he was infrequently tasked with in-breaking routes against man coverage in his deployment in the Arizona offense. 

https://youtu.be/SdJFA-2F_c4

If you want to convince somebody (me) that Kirk is going to have a breakout season, you have to use these routes to illustrate a future as a dynamic separator from the slot. In that argument, you’re banking on the presence of Hopkins pushing Kirk more frequently into the slot as he and Fitzgerald continue to rotate their alignments while Hopkins stays permanently on the outside. (Remember, there are two slot WR positions for the Cardinals, who had four wide receivers on the field 31% of the time last year.)

In 2019, Kirk was technically a more effective slot receiver than Fitzgerald was, beating him out in yards/route run (1.40 to 1.33) and in catch percentage (73.9% to 69.8%). But Kirk doesn’t bring the same blocking ability that Fitzgerald does from the slot, which was fairly integral to Arizona’s successful running game out of the aforementioned 10 personnel. With Fitzgerald’s tenured position there for Arizona, it’s hard to imagine Kirk becoming the primary slot target unless he really takes a leap forward in either YAC or route-running.

The simple reality is that Kirk doesn’t have an elite skill to hang his hat on two years into his career. He isn’t an impressive YAC player, a dominant catch point player either underneath or deep, or a dynamic separator intermediate/deep yet. He is reliable, predictable, and consistent—and while that got him targets last year on a thin WR depth chart for a pass-heavy approach, the same luxury won’t be afforded in 2020.

So long as Kirk continues to produce on slot and underneath targets and improves his health profile, he’ll remain first in line to take over Fitzgerald’s starting slot job whenever it is that the potential Hall of Famer retires. But in 2020, with Hopkins and Fitzgerald representing more attractive immediate options, Kirk figures to be the third target getter in the pecking order, and at best a distant second to Hopkins with Fitzgerald right behind him. The combined weight of Hopkins’ catch point dominance and Isabella’s speed and draft capital also caps his downfield profile as well.

Kirk is fine for what he is, but anyone looking for him to become more in 2020 is likely to be disappointed.

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