Confident Cardinals look to challenge Seattle in NFC West

September 9, 2015

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Carson Palmer is healthy, by all accounts with an arm stronger than it's ever been.

As long as that's the case, the Arizona Cardinals are convinced they can compete with anybody in the NFL, including their nemesis in the Pacific Northwest.

The Arizona receiving corps is deep and even faster than before. The defense features a stout line and a secondary that could be one of the league's strongest.

"This is the best football team we've had," coach Bruce Arians said.

The Cardinals won 10 games two years ago in his first season in the desert, and 11 last season, earning Arians his second NFL Coach of the Year honor in three years; the other was in 2012 as interim coach in Indianapolis.

The Cardinals were 8-1 when Palmer slipped and tore an ACL to end what had looked to be one of the best of his 12 NFL seasons. Arizona won the next week with Drew Stanton. But when Stanton also went down with a season-ending knee injury, Arians turned to Ryan Lindley, with awful results. The Cardinals lost all three of Lindley's starts, including a wild-card playoff game at Carolina.

While the 35-year-old Palmer rehabbed his knee, he also worked on his right shoulder, which had a dead nerve early last season, sidelining him for three games. As a result, he said, the arm is "as strong as it's ever been, maybe stronger."

In Palmer's last 15 starts, Arizona is 13-2.

Some things to look for in Arizona this season:

GAINING GROUND: General manager Steve Keim made improving the Cardinals' weak running game a No. 1 offseason priority. The Cardinals were last in the NFL at 3.3 yards per carry. Rather than have the breakout year many expected, Andre Ellington never got going because of a torn tendon in his foot that bothered him all season.

Much of what Arizona does in the passing game is predicated on play-action, and that doesn't work if there's no real threat to run.

The Cardinals' chief offseason free agent acquisition was left guard Mike Iupati, who with San Francisco was one of the top run blockers in the NFL. Iupati signed a five-year, $40 million contract, with $22.5 million guaranteed.

He underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus, but is expected to miss only a couple of games.

At running back, the Cardinals added a couple of guys named Johnson. David Johnson was drafted in the third round out of Northern Iowa and three-time Pro Bowl back Chris Johnson was a late addition.

THE O-LINE: Putting Iupati alongside Jared Veldheer gives Arizona a formidable left side of the line. On the right side, Jonathan Cooper is firmly set at guard after a difficult season coming back from a broken leg.

Ted Larsen, who started all 16 games at left guard last season, takes that job until Iupati returns.

Right tackle Bobby Massie is suspended for two games for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and it appeared Earl Watford won the spot. At center, A.Q Shipley signed as a free agent and has been trying to hold off longtime starter Lyle Sendlein, cut by the team but re-signed during camp.

SMOKE AND FIRE: John "Smokey" Brown seems poised for a big season after his sometimes sensational rookie showing. And fifth-round pick J.J. Nelson is just as fast, maybe faster.

That gave him the nickname "Fire," to make the pair "Smoke and Fire." They might be the NFL's fastest pair of receivers on the same team.

LINEBACKER QUESTIONS: Outside and inside linebacker were the biggest question marks for the Cardinals entering camp.

Alex Okafor led the team with eight sacks a year ago and is at one outside linebacker spot. The other goes to LaMarr Woodley, with rookie Marcus Golden expected to get playing time in relief. At inside linebacker, free agent signee Sean Weatherspoon sat out all of camp with a hamstring problem before playing in the preseason finale. Kevin Minter, slimmed down and in terrific shape, is out to prove he is more than just the run-stopper he was a year ago.

BETTCHER'S BUNCH: Todd Bowles won the AP's first Assistant Coach of the Year award for his handling of the aggressive Cardinals' defense, a performance that earned him the head coaching job of the Jets. Arians promoted 37-year-old outside linebackers coach James Bettcher to take Bowles' place.

If the preseason is any indication, Bettcher's defense will be just as blitz-crazy as his predecessor's, maybe more so.