The Cardinals enter the summer of 2013 trying to find a way to become relevant now that the NFC West appears to have quickly reversed it’s fortunes from three years ago as clearly the league’s weakest division to among the league’s best. They have a new head coach and quarterback which certainly is a good starting point.
Head coach Bruce Arians takes over for Ken Whisenhunt, after a year in which he earned NFL Coach of the Year honors as essentially a “backup,” replacing Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis as the interim head coach after he was diagnosed with cancer. The Colts had great success under Arians, and he hopes to mirror that in Arizona.
Whisenhunt was fired basically because the Cardinals quarterback situation became a giant quagmire since Kurt Warner opted to retire after the 2009 season. They now hope the veteran Carson Palmer can establish some stability at the position after cycling through bums over the past three seasons.
Palmer should work in Arians’ vertical pass attack. The very same worked well for both Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. Palmer doesn’t have quite the arm he once did, but he’s a quarterback that is not afraid to pull the trigger down the field, an essential trait to work in Arians’ offense. And unlike in Oakland, he’ll have at least one major upgrade at wide receiver.
Larry Fitzgerald has struggled to produce over the past three years mainly because the quarterbacks have struggled to get him the ball. But he’s still one of the elite receivers in the league, and Palmer isn’t going to hesitate to get him targets in 2013. How quickly they can build a rapport will be a key point of their summer and shouldn’t be a major obstacle. Fitzgerald is also expected to get reps in the slot as it worked wonders for Reggie Wayne last season, and should have a similar impact for Fitzgerald.
Lining up across from Fitzgerald will be Michael Floyd, who had a disappointing rookie season a year ago. He too is a player that if he can get on the same page with Palmer quickly, it should give Arizona two solid weapons at the position and the means to attack defenses in 2013 like they haven’t been able to since Warner’s days.
But the big key if the Cardinals offense wants to take that next step is going to be what happens up front. One of the deficiencies of Arians’ offense is the fact that it has a tendency to give up a bunch of sacks due to the deeper drops of the quarterback trying to make throws down the field. That initially doesn’t bode well for the Cardinals because they had the league’s worst offensive line in 2012. The hope is that the healthy return of Levi Brown and the selection of Jonathan Cooper at the top of the draft will provide the necessary boost.
Brown, while not an ideal left tackle, certainly is a significantly better option than D’Anthony Batiste, who was the team’s first option to replace him last year. But he ranked at the bottom of the league in Pro Football Focus‘ pass blocking rankings in both 2010 and 2011. He’ll have to improve quite a bit upon that if the Cardinals expect to take a significant leap forward. He’ll be pushed by Nate Potter this year, who reports indicate will get a legit opportunity to unseat Brown. Potter was adequate last year down the stretch, considering he might be a more natural fit at guard. It’d be an upset if Brown loses the battle, but he’ll need to have a good summer or the leash could be short under Arians.
Cooper should be an upgrade on the interior at left guard. Daryn Colledge has been more serviceable than good in his seven-year NFL career, but is a fairly known quantity. Center Lyle Sendlein is similar to ex-Falcon Todd McClure, and will need to bounce back from a year that saw him end up on injured reserve with a knee injury. Bobby Massie, struggled early in 2012 as a rookie, giving up 12 sacks in the first seven games (per Pro Football Focus). But he finished strong with 1 sack in the final nine games. He’ll need to pick up where he left off.
While the Cardinals starting five likely won’t have too much competition this summer, it will be paramount that they can quickly gel as a unit and try to be a stable force for the offense. They aren’t certainly going to be a strength compared to most NFL lines, but if they put together a decent year it could be key for the Cardinals to add more wins to their total of five from a year ago.
That will also help out the Cardinals on the ground. Rashard Mendenhall was signed to be the starter and enters camp atop the depth chart. He’s well-versed in Arians’ offense from his days in Pittsburgh. He’ll replace Beanie Wells, whose constant injuries forced the team to let him walk this past off-season. Mendenhall also needs to avoid the injury bug, and become more consistent. He washed out of Pittsburgh also because ball security became an issue over the past few years, beginning with his infamous fumble in the Super Bowl a few years back.
Competition at running back behind Mendenhall will center on who can steal reps on third downs, an area where Mendenhall has been less than stellar. The top candidate may be Ryan Williams, who has flashed potential but also struggled to stay healthy. Williams missed all of his rookie season with an injury, and only played in 5 games last year. He is an explosive runner, but might suffer from Jerious Norwood Syndrome in that he simply may not possess the body to hold up at the NFL level.
The team also drafted a pair of rookies: Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington, to join incumbent William Powell. Powell flashed ability in a few opportunities last season. Ellington is very explosive, while Taylor provides power between the tackles. Whoever can show they are trustworthy in pass protection should emerge by the end of summer as the No. 2 rusher.
Defensively, the Cardinals may have suffered their biggest loss of the off-season by losing coordinator Ray Horton, now in Cleveland. Essentially the only reason why the Cardinals managed to win five games in 2012 was because their defense ostensibly won them. They were among the league’s best and most underrated units, and their quality is something that Matt Ryan can certainly attest to.
Despite the loss of Horton, the majority of their starters from a year ago return. Their biggest losses come in the secondary, where Horton featured a lot of nickel throughout the year. Only one each of their top three corners and safeties return: Patrick Peterson and Rashad Johnson. Gone are stalwart safeties in Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes, who had three excellent years together.
Replacing the corners are pickups Jerraud Powers from Indianapolis, Antoine Cason from San Diego, and Javier Arenas from Kansas City. Powers and Cason are expected to compete for the spot opposite Peterson, but both were average in their previous stints. The Cardinals hope a change in scenery propels them to new heights. Arenas was also a disappointment in Kansas City after being selected with the pick that the Falcons sent away as part of the Tony Gonzalez trade. He’ll be expected to play in the slot and will be pushed by rookie Tyrann Mathieu, who is also in the mix to earn reps at safety.
Joining Johnson in the starting lineup at safety will be Yeremiah Bell, picked up from the New York Jets. Bell is a very good run defender that is smart, but he’s certainly not Wilson. Johnson has been only a part-time player during his four-year career in Arizona, and the team is optimistic he can put everything together this season as a full-time starter.
Up front, the Cardinals lost another player at least for a portion of the season in linebacker Daryl Washington. He will miss the first four games due to a suspension after being arguably their best defender a year ago. The team picked up Karlos Dansby and Jasper Brinkley in free agency, and drafted Kevin Minter to add depth at inside linebacker. Dansby was a star in Arizona a few years back, and hopes to rediscover some of that mojo. Brinkley is a decent run stuffer, but is limited in coverage. Between the three of them, they should be able to keep the defense afloat while Washington is out.
More importantly for the Cardinals defensive success in 2013 will be finding players that will emerge at outside linebacker to pressure the quarterback since Washington led the team with 9 sacks last year. Last year’s outside trio of Sam Acho, Quentin Groves, and O’Brien Schofield each had 4 sacks. Groves is gone, replaced by Lorenzo Alexander, who made more impact on special teams than as a pass rusher with the Redskins over the past six seasons. Thus rookie Alex Okafor might be their saving grace. Okafor was productive at Texas, and hopes to go the way of ex-Longhorn Brian Orakpo rather than Acho in terms of becoming a top-tier NFL pass rusher. How he fares this summer will determine that.
Thus the brunt of the Cardinals pressure might once again fall on their front. Calais Campbell is one of the league’s best 3-4 ends and has averaged nearly 7 sacks per year in each of his four seasons as a starter. Darnell Dockett, his counterpart, struggled last year, with his sack total dropping to 1.5 in 2012. His production there has dropped steadily over the past four years, and it’ll be critical for him to bounce back given the circumstances surrounding Washington and question marks at outside linebacker.
The team did add ex-Raider Matt Shaughnessy in free agency. But he too is coming off a lackluster season as a pass rusher (3.5 sacks in 2012) and will try to produce when the Cardinals feature a four-man front in the nickel. More four-man fronts could benefit Dockett, who like Shaughnessy may be better suited to being a situational rusher at this point in his career.
It will be paramount for new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to get all these new players and whatever changes he features to the scheme to gel quickly this summer. Bowles looked out of his element when he finished the year as the Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator, managing to find a way to look less competent in that role than infamous Juan Castillo.
All in all, the Cardinals are optimistic that they can steal a page from division rival, San Francisco, and hope that the introduction of a new coaching staff can inspire confidence to this group to play significantly better than they did a year ago. They certainly added their fair share of new players, particularly on defense, and should also get some upgrades at key positions on offense. Whether it results in a playoff berth remains to be seen, but should at least earn a few more wins if things fall into place this summer.