There may not be a better general manager/head coach tandem in the NFL than what the Cardinals have with GM Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians. In just two years, they’ve completely transformed the franchise, in terms of both perception and results. But the Cardinals are in a tricky place. Their window to win is small given the age (35) and injury history of quarterback Carson Palmer. Also, Larry Fitzgerald will be 32 when the season begins. Arizona suffered significant losses on defense in the offseason, the most notable being defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who left to become the head coach of the New York Jets. Bowles’ blitzing schemes were widely credited for Arizona’s sum being better than its parts. Given those losses — and Palmer’s knees — it’s tempting to write off the Cardinals. But the Keim/Arians combo engenders more trust — and faith — than any front office in franchise history. Doubt them at your own risk.
Arizona’s offense comes with a big if: If Palmer can stay healthy, the Cardinals should be a productive if not particularly high-scoring offense. The drop-off from Palmer to back-up Drew Stanton is steep; Stanton simply isn’t as accurate and doesn’t throw the deep ball as well as Palmer.
Palmer isn’t the most mobile of quarterbacks but shouldn’t have to be given the resources the Cardinals have put into the offensive line. The addition of Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati and the expected development of former first-round draft pick Jonathan Cooper should fortify what was a weakness last year, the interior of the line.
The line’s improvement also should bode well for the Cardinals’ running game, which took a hit last season when Andre Ellington went down with a knee injury in Week 1 and then was lost for the season in early December due to a hernia. When healthy, Ellington is a game-changer, capable of going long every time he touches the ball. Ellington’s only drawback is his size. He’s not built to carry the ball 20 to 25 times per game or thrive in short-yardage situations. The Cardinals hoped to land either Melvin Gordon or Todd Gurley in the draft to complement Ellington, but both were long gone by the team’s 24th overall pick. Arizona needs either Stepfan Taylor or third-round pick David Johnson from Northern Iowa to step up and carry the ball 10 to 12 times per game. That would help keep Ellington fresh — and dangerous — over the course of the season.
If Palmer stays healthy — there’s that “if” again — the wide receivers should be a strength. Fitzgerald was on pace for a 1,000-yard season in 2014 before Palmer got hurt; without the starting QB he was ineffective and sometimes ignored. Fitzgerald is no longer one of the NFL’s elite receivers, but he can still be a productive No. 1 wideout for a playoff team. Michael Floyd is still too inconsistent heading into his fourth season — there are weeks he disappears — but he still had 841 yards and six touchdowns last year. Like Fitzgerald, he needs Palmer to stay upright. John Brown provides the deep threat. He averaged 14.5 yards per reception last year, his first in the league.
Talk about a unit that suffered some big losses. Bowles left to become a head coach. Defensive end Darnell Dockett, who missed the 2014 season with a knee injury but still was a team leader, signed as a free agent with San Francisco, and nose tackle Dan Williams joined the Oakland Raiders. Inside linebacker Larry Foote retired, and cornerback Antonio Cromartie joined Bowles with the Jets.
The biggest problem — besides losing Bowles’ innovative mind — is the lack of an edge pass rusher. The Cardinals had just 35 sacks last year and didn’t have a single player in double digits. The draft didn’t provide any immediate help, so improvement will have to come from within. The onus falls on defensive end Calais Campbell to become a dominant player. He has his moments — he had seven sacks last year — but there are too many weeks where he’s not a factor.
Williams’ loss can’t be overstated. He was playing at a Pro Bowl level late in the 2014 season, and no one on the current roster can duplicate his abilities. With the Cardinals also being vulnerable at inside linebacker with Foote’s retirement, teams might be able to exploit Arizona up the middle in the run game. The Cardinals signed Sean Weatherspoon to replace Foote, but he’s been injury-prone his entire career, only once playing a full 16-game season.
The strength of the defense will be the secondary, even with Cromartie’s departure. Patrick Peterson had a rough 2014, but some of his issues can be attributed to the discovery that he has diabetes. Assuming he has the disease under control, he should revert back to being one of the best corners in the game. Arizona also believes the combination of Justin Bethel, who’s been a special-teams demon, Jerraud Powers and New England cast-off Alfonzo Dennard can more than make up for Cromartie’s absence. Arizona could have one of the best safety tandems in the league with Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Bucannon. Mathieu is a ball hawk who also will light up receivers, and Bucannon excels against the run. He’s also an effective pass rusher, particularly when the Cardinals blitz.
The Cardinals’ kicking game is in good hands. The same can’t be said yet for the kick returners. Placekicker Chandler Catanzaro had a brilliant rookie season, making 29-of-33 field-goal attempts, including 12-of-14 from 40 yards plus. He could find his way to the Pro Bowl at some point in the near future. Punter Dave Zastudil should be back after a 2014 season that was lost to a nagging groin injury. He led the league in punts inside the 20 in 2013 and ’12. Arizona needs to find someone who can give its return game some pop. Peterson could return punts, but the Cardinals are hesitant to let such a valuable every-down player expose himself to injury on special teams. Look for rookie receiver J.J. Nelson to get a shot. Nelson averaged 38.3 yards per kickoff return for UAB his senior year and was the national leader in combined kick returns (kickoffs and punts).
The Cardinals finished 11–5 last year despite Palmer being lost for the season in early November with a torn ACL and Ellington never being healthy all year. Palmer, whose quarterback rating was 95.6 (the second-highest mark of his career) at the time of his injury, makes Arizona’s offense go; receivers Fitzgerald and Brown in particular were much more effective when he was behind center.
If there’s a concern, it’s the defense. Arizona lost key contributors at every level, from Dockett to Foote to Cromartie. The Cardinals still don’t have a great edge pass rusher, and they have no idea if or when inside linebacker Daryl Washington will return from his league-imposed suspension. But if Arizona can figure out a way to be just average on defense, the offense should be good enough for another double-digit win season and a shot at supplanting Seattle atop the NFC West.