Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Arizona Cardinals check in at No. 26.
There’s only one storyline for the Arizona Cardinals this season: Can Kevin Kolb play? The Cardinals have the pieces in place — an emerging defense, a dynamic receiving combo, two quality backs — to challenge the San Francisco 49ers for supremacy in the NFC West. But none of that will matter if Kolb isn’t the quarterback the Cardinals thought he was when they acquired him from the Philadelphia Eagles before the 2011 season. It’s not that the Cardinals have lost faith in Kolb; they just haven’t seen enough to know whether he’s the long-term answer at quarterback or the embodiment of a disastrous trade.
If Kolb can play like he did when he outperformed Michael Vick to be the Eagles’ opening day starter in 2010, the Cardinals have the talent around him to be a playoff team. If he’s the skittish, injury-prone quarterback he was last season, the franchise will be set back five years.
With the exception of the unproven Kolb, the Cardinals certainly have the skill players to be a force in the NFC. The first-round selection of Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd gives Arizona a much-needed No. 2 receiver and, more important, should provide Larry Fitzgerald more room to operate in the middle of the field. The Cardinals didn’t have anyone who could stretch a defense, so opponents would simply shift a safety to Fitzgerald’s side and double-team him every play. Floyd’s presence should counter that gambit.
The one-two punch also exists in the backfield. Beanie Wells is a powerful runner who played through pain to rush for 1,047 yards last season. He can make tacklers miss and is a powerful goal line threat. He might not get as many carries this year, however, because of the presence of second-year pro Ryan Williams, who missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. The Cardinals were raving about Williams’ home run ability during training camp. He and Wells give Arizona the best running back combination in the NFC West.
The questions, of course, are whether Kolb can get the ball to Fitzgerald and Floyd, and whether the much-maligned offensive line can keep the quarterback upright and open enough holes for Wells and Williams.
Kolb has the talent. But he needs to stay in the pocket longer rather than run at the first sign of trouble. He also needs to be more accurate with his throws. In his first season as a starter, Kolb completed 57.7 percent of his passes for 1,955 yards with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions in nine games.
Of course, Kolb’s skittishness is also due to the fact the line provided him little protection. Arizona should be solid up the middle, but Levi Brown has to provide better protection at left tackle, and the Cardinals have to hope fourth-round draft pick Bobby Massie can play immediately at right tackle. Otherwise, Kolb will be running for his life again, and the talents of Fitzgerald, Floyd, Wells and Williams will go to waste.
Few people outside of Arizona may have noticed, but the Cardinals were one of the better defenses in the league the second half of the 2011 season. They didn’t allow more than 23 points in any of the final eight games after giving up 20 points or more in six of the first eight games.
The transformation, which occurred when the players became more comfortable playing the blitzing, pressure schemes of defensive coordinator Ray Horton, is why Arizona went 7–2 over its final nine contests.
Arizona has deluxe playmakers at all three levels: Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell up front, soon-to-be-All-Pro Daryl Washington at inside linebacker, and safety Adrian Wilson and cornerback Patrick Peterson in the secondary.
There are a couple of concerns on the defensive side of the ball. Nose tackle Dan Williams has yet to play up to his status as the club’s first-round pick in 2010. He has the talent to be an elite run-stuffer, but he needs to lose weight and take the game more seriously.
Also, the Cardinals didn’t have a single player with double-digit sacks in 2011, so it’s imperative young outside linebackers Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield provide some pressure. Acho could have a breakout year. He had seven sacks as a rookie, and the coaching staff raves about his intelligence and approach to the game.
The Cardinals also need to force more turnovers, which should happen naturally as the defense matures. Arizona had just 10 interceptions and 12 forced fumbles.
The Cardinals have arguably the best return game in the NFL. The new kickoff rules somewhat negated the impact of LaRod Stephens-Howling, but he’s still a threat to go long every time he touches the ball.
There’s no arguing the point that Peterson is the best punt returner in the world. All he did as a rookie was return four punts for touchdowns, tying an NFL record. Peterson has no fear — one of his returns was a 99-yarder in overtime to beat the St. Louis Rams — and if he makes the first tackler miss, watch out. It will be a shock if teams punt the ball to him this year.
Arizona’s kicking game isn’t quite as dramatic, but it’s solid. Dave Zastudil averaged 45.2 yard per kick and dropped 24 punts inside the 20. Veteran placekicker Jay Feely made 19-of-24 attempts, but he missed two of six from 30-39 yards. That shouldn’t happen.
Final Analysis: 3rd in the NFC West
It’s almost impossible to predict how the Cardinals will fare, because the uncertainty at quarterback is so great. But in some ways, this is a make-or-break year for Arizona. If Kolb performs well, Arizona should make the playoffs and challenge the 49ers for first place in the NFC West. If he doesn’t, Arizona likely will release him after the season and start anew its search for a franchise quarterback.
There’s also some question whether the regime of coach Ken Whisenhunt will survive if the Cardinals stumble to a third straight non-winning season. Whisenhunt is a quality coach and has brought some much-needed stability — and success — to the organization, but it’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, and team president Michael Bidwill isn’t the most patient of men.
Here’s the best-case scenario for this season: Kolb settles down, Arizona’s offensive line is just good enough to give him time to get the ball to Fitzgerald and Floyd, and the Cardinals make the playoffs as a wild card.
Related: 2012 Arizona Cardinals Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
The Cards never know what defensive tackle Darnell Dockett will say on his Twitter account, which is why it’s so fun to follow. In 140 characters, he’ll ruminate about the Cardinals, the NFL, social issues, his body, fashion, etc. His Twitter isn’t for the politically correct crowd, but for a few laughs — and groans — @ddockett is the place to be.
First-round draft pick Michael Floyd was suspended from the Notre Dame football team after a drunk driving incident. But by all accounts Floyd learned from his mistake and matured both as a person and a leader. Rather than enter the supplemental draft, he stayed in school for his senior year and earned his degree in sociology.
Floyd couldn’t have found a better home than the Cardinals. Arizona desperately needed a No. 2 receiver, and he already had formed a tight bond with wideout Larry Fitzgerald. Both players are from Minnesota, and the two have worked out together. Fitzgerald will take Floyd under his wing and give him a place to live: Fitz has let several teammates stay with him in the past.
What Did They Talk About?
In April, former Soviet Union head of state Mikhail Gorbachev was in the Valley to speak at a fundraiser for the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Gorbachev needed to get to New York after the speech, and lo and behold, Cardinals president Michael Bidwill, who’s a licensed pilot, was heading there in his private plane. So, he gave Gorbachev and his party a lift.
The Cardinals should send a bouquet of roses to the NFL schedule-maker. Arizona plays three of its first four games at home; it has consecutive road games just once; and it caught favorable dates for two possible cold-weather games: It’s at New England on Sept. 16 and at Green Bay on Nov. 4. The only downside to the schedule: Only three of the final eight games are at home.
Fans were surprised when the Cardinals re-signed left tackle Levi Brown in the offseason. Brown hasn’t lived up to expectations since being selected with the fifth overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft, and the prevailing wisdom was both sides needed to part ways. But Arizona didn’t think there was a better option in free agency, and Brown said there was “unfinished business” in Arizona.
A “Big” Steal?
The Cardinals may have lucked out when Ole Miss tackle Bobby Massie fell to them in the fourth round. Massie was projected to be a second-round pick. The 6'6", 316-pound Massie will get every opportunity to be the starting right tackle, and he’ll have plenty of motivation. He was mystified by his drop in the draft and said, “It just makes me hungry.”
Running back/kickoff returner LaRod Stephens-Howling has one of the coolest monikers in the NFL. He’s known as The Hyphen. Simple, but sweet.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Mon., July 30
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Related: 2012 Arizona Cardinals Schedule Analysis