What to watch for in the Cardinals’ preseason opener

Rookie receiver John Brown must show he can handle the NFL stage, beginning with Saturday's preseason opener.

GLENDALE, Ariz. — There isn’t a whole lot to glean from preseason games. The Cardinals won’t game plan for Saturday’s opener against the Houston Texans at University of Phoenix Stadium. They won’t watch film of the Texans and they won’t show much in order to keep regular-season teams from dissecting their playbook.

We won’t get much of a sense of how the Cardinals will use running back Andre Ellington. We won’t have a clear idea of how the inside linebacker position will be impacted by the losses of Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington and we won’t get much of a sense of the offense or defense because the starters won’t play very long.

But there will be hints — quick snippets of information to gather here and there.

Here are 10 things to watch as the Cardinals open the preseason.

1. The kicking competition: Clemson product Chandler Cantanzaro will get the first crack to impress the coaching staff in a competition in which coach Bruce Arians says: "The games are everything." That statement is good news for Cantanzaro, who hasn’t had a particularly impressive week at practice, including a 5-for-9 performance on Tuesday in which he missed from 33 yards, 39 and 52 twice. Cantanzaro had length on his kickoffs, a weakness in Feely’s game that Arians noted on a couple occasions last season. But Arians must also weigh the experience of a veteran with the 16th-highest field goal percentage (82.663 percentage) in league history vs. a rookie who hasn’t kicked in a pressure-packed NFL situation yet. "They’ve both had big, big kicks," Arians said. "NFL and ACC yeah, they’re different … but you either have nerves or you don’t." The kickers will alternate games so Cantanzaro gets Saturday’s entire game while Feely will kick next weekend at Minnesota.

2. Inside linebackers Kevin Minter and Larry Foote: It is perilous to form judgments based on training camp, but Minter hasn’t done well in coverage and neither player has made anybody forget about Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington. It’s unrealistic to expect that. The latter two were playmakers of the highest caliber. Neither Minter nor Foote will replace them, but can the Cardinals survive without two critical 2013 pieces? And how will teams try to exploit their absence?

TEXANS AT CARDINALS
When:
5:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale
TV: Ch. 15 (replay 4:30 p.m. Sunday on FOX Sports Arizona)
Radio: 98.7 FM
Sitting this one out: Texans RB Arian Foster and WR Andre Johson wont play. Neither will Cardinals C Lyle Sendlein.
Need to know: Bill O’Brien takes over the Texans after two seasons overseeing Penn State’s transition from its scandal-ridden past. O’Brien last coached in the NFL as New England’s offensive coordinator in 2011.
Tickets: Saturday’s game is sold out but a limited number of tickets returned from the visiting-team allotment are available for purchase.

3. Pass protection from offensive tackles Jared Veldheer and Bobby Massie: Given the losses on defense (Dansby for good, Washington for the season, Tyrann Mathieu and maybe John Abraham in the short term), the Cardinals may need to score more points to win this season. In order to do that, they need to keep QB Carson Palmer upright, even if he wants to get knocked down a few times early. Veldheer was the Cardinals’ prized offseason signing and he could get a quick but telling looks against Texans standout defensive end JJ Watt or linebacker Jadaveon Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. The right tackle spot is Massie’s to lose, but he must prove that he can cut down on the mental mistakes, move better to his left and put into action what he insists were better offseason study habits. 

4. Left guard Jonathan Cooper’s footwork: It’s one of the hot topics of training camp. Cooper isn’t moving as well as he was last year and, according to Arians, he’s been on the ground too much for an athlete of his caliber. Cooper hinted that some of the issues may be his subconscious still compensating for the broken leg he’s been rehabbing for nearly a year. Live action may offer a chance to put that out of his mind and become the player the Cardinals drafted first in 2013. Having his knee drained of fluid recently may also help.

5. Guard Earl Watford’s reaction time: Watford is battling something almost all young NFL players battle: the speed of the game. "When it’s live bullets you’ve got to be quick," he said. Arians believes Watford’s ascension to the starting lineup is a matter of time and opportunity. He should get an ample dose of the latter on Saturday with starters Cooper and Paul Fanaika not expected to play more than 15 plays.

6. Safety Deone Bucannon’s recognition of what he’s seeing: The faster Bucannon can jump into the starting lineup, the better. Tony Jefferson is a nice insurance policy and has impressed well beyond expectations for an undrafted rookie free agent (2013). But Bucannon is the hard-hitting future of this position, the guy the Cardinals have tabbed to replace franchise icon Adrian Wilson. He’s made some plays in camp, getting his hands on a number of balls for interceptions. Arians also likes the way he’s played in the nickel linebacker spot — one of the ways the Cardinals may compensate this season for the losses of Dansby and Washington. Eventual running mate Tyrann Mathieu describes Bucannon as high-strung and hard on himself. But Arians says he has settled down. Game action will tell the tale.

7. Speedy receivers Ted Ginn and John Brown: Both have impressed in camp and both could do wonders for the Cardinals offense this season if they can stretch the defenses and pull a safety away from receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. Ginn must prove he can be a consistent; Brown must show he can handle the NFL stage. There is also mild concern that Brown’s second hamstring injury since arriving in Arizona could portend a problem. 

8. Tight ends Darren Fells and Troy Niklas: Now that Jake Ballard has retired, can a converted basketball player in his second year of pro football and a rookie who has missed a lot of time with a broken hand really solidify the position alongside John Carlson and Rob Housler?

9. The battle for backup running back reps: Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer will both have roles as pass protectors and between-the-tackles runners, but whose role will be larger, and how much can Robert Hughes work his way into the mix?

10. QB Logan Thomas: The Cardinals drafted him in the fourth round. He’s going to make the roster and Ryan Lindley is not. Everyone knows it. But what does Arians want to see from a fellow Virginia Tech product? "Throwing it to the right guy where his eyes belong not just picking a guy out. Read the coverages, get it out of his hand and operate more efficiently than he has been in practice. Arians says Thomas has improved his touch, but "he’s still missing too many wide open guys when I think he has tried to take a little bit off it instead of just hitting them. Their job is to catch it so be accurate." 

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