What's at stake for Kyler Murray, Cardinals over final eight games

TEMPE, Ariz. -- And so Kyler Murray's return begins.

With the Arizona Cardinals quarterback set to return on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS) barring any setbacks from a torn right ACL he suffered last December, the 26-year-old's future with the organization will become a weekly topic based on how well Murray plays each game.

Regardless of how loud the chatter gets, Murray's status with the Cardinals may not be swayed much by how the rest of 2023 plays out.

There's a belief by some inside the Cardinals that Murray controls his destiny in Arizona.

If he can lead Arizona to a handful of wins, which would cause the Cardinals to move off the No. 1 pick in next year's NFL draft, which is where they currently sit according to ESPN Analytics, the chatter about possibly trading Murray to make way for USC quarterback Caleb Williams getting drafted by Arizona will disappear. The comparisons between Murray and Williams have been ongoing since Williams arrived at Oklahoma before transferring to USC. When he won the Heisman last season and became the favorite to be the top pick in the 2024 draft, those comparisons ramped up. Williams (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) is a bigger, thicker version of Murray (5-10, 207). Their games are similar. Both are great outside the pocket making off-schedule plays and both have big, accurate arms inside the pocket.

The risk in moving on from an established NFL starter in favor of a rookie is the unknown. Murray has proved he could play and win at the NFL level, leading Arizona to a 11-6 record and playoff berth in 2021. Williams has yet to prove what he could do.

But last year, before the injury in Week 14 ended his season, Murray was on pace to have the worst statistical season of his career after winning rookie of the year in 2019 and following that up with back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances in 2020 and 2021. Arizona was 3-7 when he went down on the third play against the New England Patriots and finished 4-13, which led to the firing of former coach Kliff Kingsbury, who, coincidentally, now works with Williams as a senior offensive analyst at USC.

In August, general manager Monti Ossenfort said his staff will scout every position regardless of who's on the roster or where the team will pick.

"I think everybody in this organization needs to prove something every day," Ossenfort said during training camp. "We're all here competing. We're at the highest level. If all of us don't bring it every single day, we're gonna get passed up. So, whether that pertains to Kyler or, specifically, myself or [coach Jonathan Gannon] or any other player on the team. This is a day-to-day business."

When Gannon took the Cardinals job in February, Murray was a major reason why. Few, if any, open jobs come with a starting quarterback at the level of Murray.

Moving on from Murray won't be an easy decision for a variety of reasons.

First, the heft of his contract will need to be considered.

Of the $37 million he's set to earn in 2024, $35.3 million is already guaranteed. However, his 2025 salary of $18 million becomes fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the 2024 league year. So, Arizona will have to know one way or the other by March 18, 2024 what their long-term plans are for Murray.

The next eight games could play out in a variety of ways, but it's unlikely most of them will change Murray's place on the Cardinals going forward.

Here's a look at three potential scenarios and how they would affect Murray's future with the Cardinals.

Scenario 1: Murray plays well, Cardinals start winning. If that happens, then all is well in Cardinals Land with their future at the game's most important position. Arizona will move forward with Murray at quarterback and build off whatever success the team experiences in 2023. Depending on how many wins Murray can lead the Cardinals to will also impact Arizona's draft position and could eliminate the possibility of Arizona drafting a quarterback, both because they wouldn't need one and because they wouldn't be in position for a top prospect.

Scenario 2: Murray plays well but the Cardinals keep losing. It's hard to believe Arizona would move on from Murray if this happens. His future in Arizona isn't tied to wins or losses. Publicly, both Gannon and offensive coordinator Drew Petzing have said they want to see progress from Murray the rest of the season as well as a grasp of the offense. If that's there by time Week 18 wraps up, then Murray should continue to be the Cardinals' quarterback. There's an understanding internally that the roster in its current form needs improvements from head to toe. And with Murray coming back to play behind an offensive line that's beat up and to an offense that's missing some of its key skill players, the Cardinals may not look like what many would expect them to look like with Murray on the field -- but that's not any fault of his own.

Scenario 3: Murray plays badly, Cardinals keep losing. Even if Murray plays poorly or is not close to his pre-injury form, the Cardinals could stick with him. Whether Arizona will publicly acknowledge it or not, Murray will have a grace period this season. The question will be how long that'll last. Gannon has already warned that Murray may not look like himself when he's back and that's, to a degree, to be expected. He'll have gone exactly 11 months without a game snap when he plays Sunday against the Falcons.