To say the Cardinals are starting over this season isn’t so much obvious as it is a vast understatement. They have a new general manager in Steve Keim and a new coach in Bruce Arians. Of the 88 players on the roster after the draft, 46 are new, including 21 veterans. That’s what happens when a team loses nine straight games after a 4–0 start, finishes 5–11, its third straight non-winning season, and goes through quarterbacks like most people go through socks. The instability at the position is what cost Ken Whisenhunt his job, and Arians and Keim quickly tried to remedy the mess by acquiring Carson Palmer. Make no mistake, though: Palmer is a transitional quarterback, and this is a transitional season. The Cardinals just want to establish a foothold in Arians’ first year and then hope they find their quarterback of the future in the 2014 draft.
Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 16th
Let’s start with this truth: The Cardinals can’t be much worse than they were in 2012, when they ranked dead last in total offense and rushing yards, and 28th in passing. There’s little question Palmer will be a significant upgrade over the quartet of quarterbacks — John Skelton, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley, Brian Hoyer — who took snaps last year. Palmer still has a strong arm and can zing the ball downfield, attributes that are essential to both Arians — who likes to go deep — and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who was probably singing a chorus of “Hallelujah” when the Cardinals traded for Palmer. Palmer’s downside: He too often throws it to guys in the wrong uniform. He’s had 50 interceptions the last three seasons. Given Arians’ fondness for taking chances, Palmer’s interception rate probably isn’t going to drop.
Also, Palmer isn’t the most mobile of quarterbacks, which makes the development of the offensive line vital. The tackle position was a nightmare last season, but the line should be stabilized somewhat by the return of left tackle Levi Brown, who missed all of 2012 with a torn pectoral muscle. Also, the interior of the line was upgraded with the first-round selection of guard Jonathan Cooper, who will start from Day 1. The team also signed veteran tackle Eric Winston in late July to a one-year deal, adding to its offensive line depth.
The improvement of the offensive line is critical in not only keeping Palmer healthy but also establishing some consistency in the running game. Newly acquired Rashard Mendenhall rushed for more than 1,000 yards as recently as 2010, but both he and 2011 second-round pick Ryan Williams haven’t been able to stay off the disabled list. Mendenhall had just 51 carries last season, and Williams has only 58 rushes in his NFL career. Mendenhall likely will get first crack at the starting job, but watch out for Williams. He has the lateral quickness and ability to make defenders miss. If he can stay healthy, he could have a breakout season.
The passing game should be more effective if for no other reason than Palmer will be able to get the ball to Fitzgerald, who should reclaim his stature as one of the NFL’s best receivers. Second-year pro Michael Floyd also could have a big year; he came on in the second half of 2012. The Cardinals are a bit thin at receiver, though, and can’t afford a key injury.
Arizona won’t be one of the league’s elite offenses this year, but it has the potential to move the ball downfield and score some points, something the Cardinals couldn’t do last year.
The short-term memory is the Cardinals’ defense collapsing down the stretch in 2012, allowing 123 points in its last four games. But the statistic is misleading; by that point, the defense was exhausted and beaten down physically and emotionally by the offense’s ineptitude. A more accurate read — and predictor of how the defense will play this year — came in the first four games, when the Cardinals gave up 61 points.
Arizona is particularly strong up front. Defensive end Calais Campbell (63 tackles, 6.5 sacks) could be headed to his first Pro Bowl, and under tackle Darnell Dockett should be more effective in the 3-4 hybrid scheme expected to be used by first-year defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
The Cardinals also have few worries at cornerback, where Patrick Peterson emerged as a shutdown corner in 2012 and the acquisition of veterans Antoine Cason and Jerraud Powers solidified the other the side of the field. In fact, Arizona has so much depth at the position, it should be able to effectively cover four-wide schemes.
The question marks are at linebacker and safety. The four-game suspension of inside linebacker Daryl Washington for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy is huge. Washington is a Pro Bowl talent and arguably the team’s best player. Arizona did sign Jasper Brinkley and draft LSU’s Kevin Minter in the second round, but they’re not Washington.
Also, Arizona needs to find a pass-rush threat at linebacker; Washington had more sacks (nine) than Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield combined (eight) last year. Given Washington’s absence, the lack of an elite pass-rusher could be fatal in the first month of the season. In hopes of potentially addressing this need and soften the blow when Washington serves his suspension, the Cardinals signed two-time All-Pro John Abraham to a two-year contract in late July. Abraham, 35, spent the last seven seasons in Atlanta playing defensive end, but he is expected to make the move to outside linebacker in Bowles' scheme.
At safety, the Cardinals lost starters Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes. While there’s no question Wilson’s game had slipped, he still was the defense’s leader. Fifth-year pro Rashad Johnson will replace Wilson, but he’s yet to prove he’s an every-down player.
The Cardinals’ plans at free safety are intriguing, to say the least. Rookie Tyrann Mathieu will move there from cornerback, and he has the physical skills to eventually be one of the league’s best. But can he stay clean? If so, Arizona will have found a steal in the third round; if not, the team’s last line of defense will be an issue all year.
Punter Dave Zastudil averaged 46.5 yards per kick last year and dropped 46 punts inside the 20. Placekicker Jay Feely made 25-of-28 field goals and combines his accuracy with a strong leg; he made a 61-yarder last year. Arizona could be special in the return game. Arians plans to use both Peterson — who returned four punts for touchdowns in 2011 — and Mathieu on punt returns. Mathieu also might be used on kickoffs. Both players are extremely dangerous with the ball in their hands, and by using a two-man return game on punts, teams won’t be able to angle the ball away from a single returner.
Final Analysis: 4th in NFC West
The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, the Cardinals’ division rivals, might be the two best teams in the league, and both improved in the offseason. But Arizona should be able to take a step forward from last year’s 5–11 record, if for no other reason than it has a capable quarterback in Palmer. Assuming he stays healthy, Palmer is probably worth at least a couple of wins by himself. The keys will be the offensive line, the secondary and the health of Mendenhall and Williams at running back. If everything goes well, the Cardinals could be around .500 in December, and that would be a victory in Arians’ first season as coach.
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2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:
Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)
NY Jets (8/15)
San Diego (8/20)
NY Giants (8/30)
St. Louis (8/23)
Green Bay (8/29)
New Orleans (8/26)
San Francisco (9/3)
Tampa Bay (8/15)