2014 preview: Cardinals look to build on last season's success in rugged NFC West
Upgrades at receiver, offensive line and defensive secondary have Cardinals looking to improve on 10-6 record, but defense needs to compensate for loss of two playmaking linebackers in order to keep pace against divisional rivals.
NFL Roundtable: Arizona Cardinals
JUL 22, 6:29 pm
Coming off a surprising 2013 season, the Cardinals appear set to build off of last year's momentum. But playing in an extremely tough NFC West, can Arizona break through this year? Randy Moss, Brian Urlacher, Donovan McNabb, Jay Glazer and Joel Klatt take a closer look.
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!
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)
1. Can the Cardinals keep QB Carson Palmer upright?
Palmer was sacked 41 times last season, which was the eight-highest total in the NFL. He faced pressure 40.3 percent of the time; the eighth-highest percentage in the league according to Pro Football Focus, and he faced pressure that came in less than two seconds on 15 percent of his dropbacks; the highest percentage in the league.
The Cardinals offensive line has been a mess for years and wasn't even that good in 2009 when they went to the Super Bowl thanks to QB Kurt Warner's brilliant play and quick release. By adding left tackle Jared Veldheer in free agency and getting left guard Jonathan Cooper back from a broken leg that sidelined him for his rookie season, the Cards have a chance for vast improvement.
But the right side of the line is still a question mark, with right tackle Bobby Massie needing to prove he can be more consistent (and a better student of the game), while right guards Paul Fanaika and Earl Watford attempt to elevate that position beyond its recent mediocre play.
The Cardinals added some helpful offensive weapons this offseason, but it won't matter if the line doesn't give Palmer time to find them.
2. Is this the final year in a Cardinals uniform for defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and receiver Larry Fitzgerald?
Along with center Lyle Sendlein, they are the only holdovers from the 2009 Super Bowl team. Dockett has one more year left on his contract after this season, and his cap hit balloons to $9.8 million. That's nothing compared to Fitzgerald, whose cap hit will be $23.6 million next season.
Both still play a high level, but those numbers are unmanageable in the salary cap era. Fitzgerald might have to restructure his deal to remain the franchise icon, or he could be traded. Chances are the 33-year-old Dockett is entering his final year, since the Cardinals have Calais Campbell on the other side and drafted two linemen this year.
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.
Wide receiver John Brown
Mark J. Rebilas / USA TODAY Sports
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.
Arians desperately wanted to add a speed element to the offense to take the top off defenses and open things up underneath for receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, tight ends John Carlson, Rob Housler and Ellington. The team also signed veteran Ted Ginn Jr. for the same reason, and he will be a factor, but Brown was targeted 10 times in the preseason opener and led the team in receiving yards with 87. He also drew a long pass interference penalty against the Texans.
The staff was concerned that the jump from a Division II school might require time, but Brown hasn't shown any hint of stage fright, and the speed of the game hasn't bothered him a bit. He probably won't surpass Ginn as the team's No. 3 receiver this season, but he will get his touches and he will be a pain for defenses to cover with his 4.34 speed in the 40.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The Cardinals addressed key needs in the offseason by signing free-agent left tackle Jared Veldheer, adding speed at receiver (Ginn, Brown) adding a pass-catching tight end (Carlson) to pressure Housler and give QB Carson Palmer more options.
Add those pieces to a defense that finished No. 1 against the run and No. 6 overall and it's not a stretch to think that a team that finished 10-6 in the first year of a new coaching staff (and went 7-2 in its final nine games) will make significant strides now that there is familiarity with the schemes and the personnel.
Palmer only threw nine (four in one game) of his 22 interceptions in those final nine games once the team hit its stride last season. With better protection than 2013 left tackle Bradley Sowell could provide, and with far more offensive options, Palmer should enjoy a renaissance year in an offense that is tailored to his strengths.
The Cardinals should also remain strong along the defensive line with starters Darnell Dockett, Dan Williams, Calais Campbell and key reserves Frostee Rucker and Alameda Ta'amu, while the secondary could become one of the league's elite units as free agent cornerback Antonio Cromartie and top pick Deone Bucannon (strong safety) join cornerback Patrick Peterson and free safety Tyrann Mathieu.
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.
Minter is more of a run-stuffer who has looked lost at times in coverage during training camp. Foote is a 13-year veteran who doesn't have the speed to cover tight ends or drop into coverage the way his predecessors did. The Cardinals may have to substitute liberally this season, a move that could open them up to exploitation by offenses. Backups Lorenzo Alexander and Kenny Demens appear better suited to coverage, and top pick Deone Bucannon will move over from his strong safety spot to what Arians calls the "dollar linebacker" in nickel situations, but this position is a clear weakness.
If this weren't concern enough, the Cardinals will likely be without safety Tyrann Mathieu (knee surgery) for the first three games of the season, and they could also be without sacks leader John Abraham (11.5), the veteran outside linebacker who was arrested for DUI in late June outside Atlanta and could face a league suspension.
There's a widely viewed assumption that the Cardinals defense will be better than last year because it knows coordinator Todd Bowles' system and it has added Bucannon and Cromartie to the mix, but the loss of four key playmakers (short-term and long-term) could have devastating effects on the unit.
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.