How the Arizona Cardinals can adapt their offense without DeAndre Hopkins

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The fallout from DeAndre Hopkins' six-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs started behind closed doors. The Arizona Cardinals tried to fill his upcoming void through a trade for wide receiver Marquise Brown and by taking tight end Trey McBride in the second round of the NFL draft.

It will end very publicly on the playing field.

If history repeats itself, the Cardinals might find themselves struggling to get by during those first six games. They didn't fare well without Hopkins last season, going 3-5 (including the playoffs). They went 1-4 after he suffered a knee injury in Week 14.

Now Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury must prove he can win without Hopkins. It's doable, according to ESPN NFL Analyst Matt Bowen, who played seven years in the league. But he said it'll take a "slight shift in offensive philosophy."

To Bowen, the Cardinals are a spread offense that is vertically based with some horizontal elements. Brown can be an asset in that regard because he can help create windows down the field for quarterback Kyler Murray. Without Hopkins last season, the Cardinals had to rely on yards after the catch: 44% of their passing yards were after the catch with Hopkins on the field compared to 56% without Hopkins, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Brown can also help in the horizontal game, where Bowen expects second-year receiver Rondale Moore to be a larger factor.

"You can scheme [for Moore] horizontally as a manufactured touch player to get the ball in his hands in jets and bubbles and wide receiver screens like they've done in the past," Bowen said.

What will the Cardinals offense look like without Hopkins? Who can replace him? Will Kingsbury adjust without Hopkins? Only one thing is for sure.

"They don't have another DeAndre Hopkins on the roster," Bowen said. "It's as simple as that, right?"

What have the Cardinals lost?

When teams turn on Hopkins' film, what do they see? Yes, he'll be 30 when the season starts. Yes, he's coming off MCL surgery. But he's still one of the most feared receivers in the NFL and losing that is a lot for the Cardinals to replace.

"He's wide receiver that can create his own separation," Bowen said. "He's an outstanding route runner. And he is a viable threat every time you get the ball at the plus-20-yard-line because he's so good inside the red zone in terms of his catch radius, his one-on-one ability and his hands at the point of attack."

Losing Hopkins means the Cardinals are losing their boundary X receiver, a "very important position in today's NFL," Bowen said. The draft was full of receivers who could play it and corners who can defend it.

The Cardinals could try Brown isolated at the boundary. Brown has the foot speed to create separation and beat corners off the line, but at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds he doesn't have the height or size Bowen says is typical for most boundary X receivers.

"Boundary X receivers mostly have had the long frames and bigger bodies where they can win post-up situations and use their catch radius at the point of attack to make contested catches, whether it's a curl, come back in break or whatever it may be, when you're trying to win that situation which is usually on third down," Bowen said.

Bowen also suggested moving A.J. Green to the boundary X spot because of his size (6-4, 207 pounds). There he could be used as a possession receiver and as a receiver who can make catches in the second level.

Tight end an option?

By taking McBride in the second round, the Cardinals might have tipped their hand on where Kingsbury is heading with the offense.

By pairing McBride with fellow tight end Zach Ertz, whom the Cardinals re-signed this offseason, Arizona now has two talented pass-catchers. Bowen thinks Ertz and McBride could help Kingsbury call more looks and dig deeper into his already deep playbook to "to attack defenses differently but still trying to have the same type of pass-game production."

The Cardinals could play more 12 personnel -- one running back and two tight ends -- than they did last year, when they used it 21.2% of the time, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, their lowest rate in Kingsbury's three seasons.

Both Ertz and McBride could also be options at the boundary X receiver spot, Bowen explained. There's precedent for it. The Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins lined up tight ends Travis Kelce, Kyle Pitts and Mike Gesicki, respectively, out wide on at least 138 routes last season.

"Now you're talking about a bigger target with a bigger frame and more of a physical profile in position to work in his coverage and create leverage back to the football," Bowen said.

If Kingsbury determines Brown and Green can't win those one-on-ones, he might have to determine how to get the tight ends involved.

How is the run game impacted?

Having Hopkins on the field usually meant the Cardinals saw at least two defenders focused on the five-time Pro Bowler -- one at corner and one at safety over the top. That meant nine other defenders were responsible for 10 offensive players.

That led to a more open box for the Cardinals' rushing game to work.

Without Hopkins, it's likely teams will take that extra defender and use him in the box more often. That could change if Brown proves he's as big of a threat as Hopkins, Bowen said.

"That's something that Kliff is going to have to respond to," Bowen said.

If Brown can be a deep threat -- and with Kingsbury's reputation for using the vertical passing game -- defenses will continue to play the Cardinals the same way, leaving room for the Cardinals to run.