TEMPE, Ariz. — Bruce Arians always reminds the local media that offseason workouts are not football, they’re soccer. Football doesn’t begin until the pads come on and the hitting commences at training camp.
No position battles were won; no personnel questions truly were answered during organized team activities.
"A lot of guys in the spring look really good. Then the noise level goes up and they disappear," Arians said. "Guys that you say, ‘he’s just an average guy,’ put the pads on and all of the sudden he flies around and he knocks the crap out of people. He’s a football player."
The offseason workouts, which concluded Thursday, were more about learning the playbook, learning technique and getting to know one another. This six-week break will test players’ retention and conditioning discipline.
The real answers will come when camp begins in late July. Until then, here’s a look at the status of each position group as the Cardinals break for the summer.
Carson Palmer is the unquestioned starter and Drew Stanton is the unquestioned backup. With a year under his belt in Arians’ system, Palmer says he is light years ahead of where he was at this time last year. If that’s true, maybe he can build off the final nine games of the 2013 season in which he threw 16 touchdowns against nine interceptions (four in one game). Ryan Lindley is battling fourth-round draft pick Logan Thomas to keep his No. 3 spot on the roster. The guess here is Thomas will win the job. He was drafted by the current regime; Lindley was not, and Thomas has raw tools that intrigue Arians and GM Steve Keim.
Arians said earlier in the offseason that he wants to get Andre Ellington 25 to 30 touches a game. It doesn’t seem realistic, but Arians has at least backed off the notion that Ellington must be protected because of his slight build; anointing him the team’s No. 1 back. Ellington was a dynamic force in space last season and that is where the Cardinals most likely will want to get him this season. Second-year back Stepfan Taylor gives the team more of a between-the-tackles runner, but Arians has liked the pass-catching versatility he’s seen from former Steeler Jonathan Dwyer, who has been known primarily as a bruising runner. Versatility also is how Robert Hughes is making his mark. Hughes, a Notre Dame product, spent time on four different teams’ practice squads.
Here’s what Arians said of the Cardinals tight end group: "It’s an NFL room with probably more numbers than we can keep." Second-round pick Troy Niklas (broken hand) won’t be ready until training camp, which has dropped him behind the others. Fourth-year veteran Rob Housler needs to break through as a big-time playmaker this season or his days in Arizona could be over. John Carlson has wowed the coaches and likely is going to nail down one starting spot. Jake Ballard gives the team a versatile player with underrated pass-catching abilities while Darren Fells (6-7, 281) and Andre Hardy (6-6, 245) are a couple of intriguing prospects because of their size.
Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd are clearly the starters. Arians on Thursday raved about Floyd’s offseason. It gets interesting after that. The team signed free agent Tedd Ginn Jr. in the offseason to add speed, but it also drafted John Brown for the same reason, and Walt Powell was selected for his quickness and toughness in traffic. The Cardinals really need one of the three to emerge as a legitimate No. 3 receiver. Ginn has the inside track at this point, but Brown has looked good without pads.
The left side of the line appears set with free-agent signing Jared Veldheer at left tackle, 2013 top pick Jonathan Cooper at left guard and Lyle Sendlein at center. The real battles are taking place on the right side. Paul Fanaika is still holding off Earl Watford at right guard, but that could change when the players don pads. The Cardinals really want to see Bobby Massie grab the right tackle spot, but he has to show the requisite aptitude for the job. If he doesn’t, Bradley Sowell or Nate Potter could supplant him, or the Cards could sign a free agent before camp.
Darnell Dockett, Dan Williams and Calais Campbell form a formidable front. The only question here is depth. Nose tackle Alameda Ta’amu is still recovering a torn ACL, but the Cards still have end Frostee Rucker and drafted Kareem Martin and Ed Stinson. Arians said Thursday he is very pleased with the backups.
With Lorenzo Alexander, Sam Acho and Alex Okafor all coming back from injuries that sidelined them for the season in Week 3, the Cardinals appear to have good depth on the outside. John Abraham hasn’t participated in much of the offseason workouts, but he has likely earned one starting spot after posting 11.5 sacks in less than a complete season. Matt Shaughnessy is the other starter at this point, but defensive coordinator Todd Bowles believes Acho was ready to break out when he got injured, so it would not be a surprise to see Acho retake a starting spot.
This will be the biggest question mark heading into camp. Without last year’s starters — Karlos Dansby left in free agency and Daryl Washington is suspended for the season — the Cardinals are left with unproven second-year man Kevin Minter (one defensive snap in 2013), 13-year veteran Larry Foote, veteran Erie Sims, who hasn’t impressed Arians early, and possibly Lorenzo Alexander, who isn’t 100 percent after going down in Week 3 with a Lisfranc injury. It would not be at all surprising to see the Cardinals make another move here before camp. You have to wonder if they would have drafted Niklas with their second pick had they known Washington was going to be miss the entire season.
How soon will Tyrann Mathieu be ready and how quickly can top pick Deone Bucannon pick up the defense, especially after missing OTA time with turf toe? Those are the major questions. The Cardinals expect the top picks to play. If Bucannon can start, all the better. But Rahshad Johnson is an experienced veteran and Tony Jefferson, who signed as a rookie free agent last season, also impressed so the Cardinals may be OK here.
Patrick Peterson and free-agent signing Antonio Cromartie give the team a pair of Pro Bowl cornerbacks if Cromartie’s balky hip can stay healthy. Jerraud Powers is a good fit as the team’s nickel back and Arians keeps raving about special teams ace Justin Bethel’s progress at this position. The Cardinals will need that depth and more at the defense’s most important position. Veteran Bryan McCann adds some.
Jay Feely, 38, will try to hold off rookie Chandler Catanzaro (Clemson) for the kicking duties while Dave Zastudil holds down the punting job. With Peterson likely out of the punt return mix, Ginn, Brown and possibly Cromartie will factor in the return game.