2014 preview: Cardinals look to build on last season’s success in rugged NFC West

With football season around the corner, FOXSports.com is providing a thorough analysis of all 32 teams heading into training camp. The offseason may have lacked some hard-hitting action, but franchise-altering moves have been made. Parity is excessive as ever. Every team looks great on paper in July. But it’s the development and seasoning of a team that will matter in January and, yes … even February. Goodbye, offseason!

Today, we continue the series with the Arizona Cardinals.

2013: 10-6 overall (2-4 in NFC West, missed playoffs)

Head coach: Bruce Arians (second year)

Key departures: ILB Karlos Dansby (free agency), ILB Daryl Washington (year-long suspension), SS Yeremiah Bell (retired), LG Daryn Colledge (free agency), RT Eric Winston (free agency), RB Rashard Mendenhall (retired), WR Andre Roberts (free agency)

Key arrivals: LT Jared Veldheer (free agency), CB Antonio Cromartie (free agency), WR Ted Ginn (free agency), ILB Larry Foote (free agency), SS Deone Bucannon (first-round draft pick), K Chandler Cantanzaro (free agency)

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THREE QUESTIONS

1. Can the Cardinals keep QB Carson Palmer upright?

2. Is this the final year in a Cardinals uniform for defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and receiver Larry Fitzgerald?

3. Could the Cardinals go 10-6 again … and miss the playoffs again?

Arizona plays in the NFC West, the NFL’s best division. The Seattle Seahawks are the defending Super Bowl champs, the San Francisco 49ers have been to three consecutive NFC Championship Games, and the St. Louis Rams just might have the best defensive line in football after drafting defensive tackle Aaron Donald (No. 13 overall) to add to star ends Robert Quinn (19 sacks), Chris Long and tackles Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford.

Maybe the Seahawks will suffer a Super Bowl hangover after several key offseason defections on defense. Maybe the Cardinals will finally figure out a way to beat the 49ers, who have won nine of the past 10 matchups between the clubs. Maybe the Rams will need another year to put it all together, but it’s pretty clear that in order to make the NFC playoffs, the Cardinals must do better than last season’s 2-4 record against division rivals.

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BREAKOUT PLAYER

Wide receiver John Brown

We could name running back Andre Ellington here since he figures to assume a much larger percentage of the offense this season, but Ellington had a pretty good breakout last year as a rookie. Brown, the team’s third-round pick of Pittsburg State, has wowed the coaching staff in camp both with his blinding speed and his ability to pick up the playbook so quickly.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

REASON FOR PANIC

The Cardinals lost two big-time playmakers at inside linebacker when Karlos Dansby left in free agency and Daryl Washington was suspended for the year for violating the league’s policy on substance abuse. Together, they combined for 199 tackles, 7.5 sacks and six interceptions, and they almost never left the field. Their replacements, Kevin Minter and Larry Foote, won’t be able to match their production, so the Cardinals will need others to pick up the slack.

ALEX MARVEZ’S 2014 PREDICTION

A stern defense suffered a blow during the offseason with the loss of inside linebackers Karlos Dansby (Cleveland) and Daryl Washington (year-long drug suspension). The other major concern is whether quarterback Carson Palmer will reduce the 22 interceptions he threw in 2013. The Cardinals would be a playoff favorite in another division. Unfortunately, they don’t have the luxury of playing elsewhere. Prediction: 8-8.

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