Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray was eligible to be activated from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list this week, yet the Cardinals did not activate him.

When exactly the Cardinals will activate Murray remains one of the league’s most intriguing mysteries – not just because Murray is recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee suffered last December, but also because his long-term future with the franchise is at least as interesting a question as his short-term outlook.

A new general manager and coaching staff took over in Arizona this offseason, and they have no history with nor loyalty to Murray. But they do have a mandate to rebuild the franchise from the ground up. They have amassed major 2024 draft capital, including two first-round draft picks, and have something like a blank slate on which to create the Cardinals’ future. But the reason the slate isn’t completely blank is Murray, who signed a whopper of a five-year, $230.5 million extension prior to the 2022 season and is under contract with the Cardinals through 2028.

Murray is only 26 years old and has proved himself capable of high-level performance. From 2019 – when he was the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft – through 2022, he ranked 13th in the league in Total QBR (59.5), 11th in completion percentage (66.8%), 15th in passing touchdowns (84) and third in rushing touchdowns by quarterbacks (23). In other words, he’s a good, solid young player who has had some success. There’s certainly reason to think the Cardinals might wait out his injury rehab, build the roster around him and keep him as their franchise quarterback.

As is the case when any new administration takes over, there is also the possibility of drastic change – the possibility the Cardinals will move on from Murray and his contract and start anew with a 2024 rookie or some other quarterback option. Because of that uncertainty, we talked to people across the league and looked at the situation, where it stands, what might happen and how the idea of moving on from Murray would work. Because, thanks to the contract, the position he plays and the NFL’s salary cap rules … it’s complicated. We present it in three parts:

Jump to a section:Should Arizona move on?Could Arizona move on?Would Arizona move on?

Should the Cardinals move on from Murray?

As outlined above, there are reasons not to move on. His age. His promising early-career performance. The ever-present worry of not being able to find someone better. It’s important to mention here that the Cardinals’ new administration has indicated the team is happy with Murray’s work and his presence in the building, and that it intends to bring him back and play him as soon as he’s healthy enough. That is the team’s official stance.

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“We’ll get him going when he is physically and mentally ready to play,” coach Jonathan Gannon told reporters in late September. “I’d love to have him out there, he’s itching to be back, but we’ll take that one day at a time.”

But there are reasons that could turn out not to be the plan. Murray is recovering from a torn ACL, a process that sometimes takes a year or more. It’s possible he might not be ready to return until November or December, or even that he can’t make it back at all this season. Once he does return, this is a player whose running ability has been a massive part of his game and his value, averaging 5.8 yards per carry over his career. Will he be the same runner he was before the injury? And if so, how soon?

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While we’ve heard nothing but positives about Murray from new general manager Monti Ossenfort and Gannon, it’s important to remember his history with the previous Cardinals regime wasn’t always the smoothest. There were the occasional reports about the team wanting him to be more mature and more of a leader. There was the bizarre clause in the original version of his contract extension in 2022 that allowed the team to void his guarantees if he didn’t do four hours of independent film study per week. That clause was eventually taken out of the contract after news of its existence became public and both sides were rightfully ridiculed for its inclusion, but the fact it was ever a thing in the first place indicates the team had concerns about committing to Murray long term and was interested in building an off-ramp.

Murray’s talent is undeniable, and pre-draft concerns about his 5-foot-10, 207-pound size don’t seem to be as big of a deal now as they were at that time. He has proved he can be a good NFL starting quarterback. What Ossenfort and Gannon have to decide is whether Murray is the right quarterback to lead their franchise for the long term or they can find a better option.

A 2023 draft-day trade with Houston brought the Cardinals an extra first-round and third-round pick in the 2024 draft. Another deal with the Titans, when Tennessee decided to move up in the second round for Kentucky QB Will Levis, brought an additional third-rounder. So Arizona has five picks in the first three rounds of a draft that most teams believe will be teeming with quarterback talent.

This season, the Cardinals are off to a spunky start. After acquiring veteran QB Joshua Dobbs in a trade just before the season, they’ve played hard for Gannon and played well behind Dobbs, even upsetting the highly regarded Cowboys in Week 3. But in spite of that, they are 1-3 and could be headed for the kind of season that results in a very high pick. If it’s high enough to get USC’s Caleb Williams or North Carolina’s Drake Maye, that could factor significantly into their decision about Murray. Remember, a big reason teams don’t like to move on from quarterbacks is fear of not being able to get someone better. Having the first or second overall pick in next year’s draft is likely going to be enough to convince teams that they can. (ESPN’s Football Power Index projects the Cardinals’ first-rounders to be Nos. 4 and 15.)

Murray is scheduled to earn an average of $39.34 million per year from 2024 through ’28. It’s not considered high-end QB money anymore – Joe Burrow averages $55 million per year on his new deal – but it’s certainly a lot more than the Cardinals would have to pay Williams, Maye or any other QB on a rookie contract.

Add together the injury, the history of concerns the team has had about Murray, the contract and the draft capital stockpile, and it’s certainly possible to conclude the Cardinals would be better off hitting the reset button and moving on from Murray to another option.

Could the Cardinals move on from Murray?

Murray’s contract is not impossible to escape, but it is expensive and complicated. Let’s operate from the premise that the Cardinals won’t be able to do anything about him this season, since we still don’t know if or when he’ll play. Instead, let’s jump ahead to the offseason, when things could get moving.

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Murray is scheduled to earn a $37 million base salary in 2024, of which $35.3 million is fully guaranteed. (He also has $850,000 in per-game roster bonuses, a $1 million workout bonus and up to $1.5 million in possible incentives, but let’s stick to the really big numbers that matter.)

In 2025, he is scheduled to earn $18 million in salary plus an $11.9 million roster bonus. If he is still on the Cardinals’ roster on the fifth day of the 2024 league year, that $29.9 million in 2025 money becomes fully guaranteed. So March 18, 2024, is a pretty important pivot point for all of this. If the Cardinals don’t want to be stuck with $29.9 million in 2025 guaranteed money for Murray, they would need to cut or trade him by then.

If they were to cut him and designate him as a post-June 1 release, their 2024 cap hit for him would be $48.3 million, and for 2025 would be $33.2 million. Pretty big numbers, even in an era in which the salary cap is climbing ever upward and teams are far more comfortable with dead money.

The other (cheaper) option would be to trade Murray, which would result in a $46.2 million dead-money charge on their 2024 cap but leave them free and clear after that (and also save them $35.3 million in 2024 cash, which in many cases matters more to teams than cap charges).

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The trick would be finding a team willing to take on the $35.3 million in guaranteed money for 2024, and that’s where the decision on whether and when to bring him back from his injury gets interesting. I talked to several NFL front office people about the situation, and the vast majority of them said it would be difficult to imagine a team giving the Cardinals something of value for Murray if they didn’t know for a fact he was healthy, and that the only way to know for sure about his health would be to see him play at least a few games this season. So if the Cardinals are thinking about trading Murray, it would make sense to get him on the field at some point.

The problem with that? Putting him on the field also means risking he gets hurt again. And if that were to happen, they would be in a tough spot. That’s because $18 million of Murray’s 2025 compensation is guaranteed against injury, as is $22.835 million of his 2026 compensation. In other words, if Murray were to play this season and suffer a career-ending injury, the Cardinals could be on the hook for $76.135 million over the next three seasons for a player they can’t use.

So … if the Cardinals have decided they want to go in a different direction at quarterback, the key question will be whether to return Murray to the field once he’s healthy or sit him all season. The former choice could help their efforts to trade him if he plays, stays healthy and looks good. The latter would protect them against significant future financial risk but also potentially make him more difficult to trade.

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Whatever the Cardinals decide, Murray is going to be expensive for them next year and possibly in 2025. But if they decide they want a different quarterback, trading him by March 18 is the most fiscally prudent way to go.

(Something else worth noting: It’s also possible any acquiring team could look to rework Murray’s deal as a condition of the trade. Aaron Rodgers set a potential precedent for this when he accepted a significant pay cut after the Jets acquired him from the Packers this past spring. That’s a difficult thing for the Cardinals to count on when making their plans, however.)

Would the Cardinals move on from Murray?

Based on my conversations with various sources about this situation, I do not believe the Cardinals have decided what they will do with Murray after this season. And that’s obviously understandable. He’s still not healthy enough to play, they don’t know when he will be, and it’s too early in the season to know what their other options are for 2024 and beyond.

For his part, Murray has been attending meetings and practices, working out and rehabbing his knee on side fields while the team goes through practice. A few weeks ago, he posted a TikTok video of himself working out and said he was “itching to get back.” The post ended with the word “soon.”

The outside speculation – the word I get when talking to agents and executives from other teams – is that the Cardinals likely will move on after this season. Again, that’s speculation. But there are common-sense reasons to speculate that way.

The Cardinals’ impressive early-season competitiveness notwithstanding, they are off to a 1-3 start and have a roster that appears to need help in many areas. The two first-round draft picks should enable them to move up in the draft if they need to do so in order to get a guy they like, be it Williams, Maye or some other first-round QB prospect. Trading Murray would presumably land them other valuable picks that would help in that effort, as well as the larger effort to rebuild around whomever they have at QB. If they decide to move on from him, they’ll likely be in a position to convince themselves they have a strong alternative.

They’re also likely to have numerous potential trade partners, especially if Murray comes back and plays well in the latter part of this season. A partial list of teams that could conceivably be looking for new quarterbacks for one reason or another next offseason includes the Patriots, Jets, Titans, Raiders, Broncos, Commanders, Cowboys, Bears, Lions, Vikings, Buccaneers and Falcons. And teams will slide on and off that list as the season progresses and circumstances change.

The contract for the acquiring team would not be overly expensive for a healthy starting quarterback in this market. If the Cards could get a few teams interested and improve their return in a potential trade, that might make the decision to move on from Murray even easier.

There’s a long way to go in this whole saga, but Arizona’s looming decision on Murray will be a massive one for the future of its franchise – and potentially other franchises, as well. It’ll be fun to see Murray back on the field whenever that happens. But even if that happens this season, it would not be the end of the story.