Super Bowl or bust? That might seem dramatic, but it also rings true for the Cardinals this season. After winning the NFC West and advancing to the NFC Championship Game, the Cardinals should be satisfied with nothing less than playing in the final game of the season.
And why not? Carolina lost cornerback Josh Norman. Marshawn Lynch hung up his cleats in Seattle. Arizona, meanwhile, maintained the core of its team and added two important parts in pass-rush specialist Chandler Jones and guard Evan Mathis.
There’s also the realization that the Cardinals’ window is closing fast. Quarterback Carson Palmer is 36. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald will be 33 when the season begins. Defensive end Calais Campbell could leave in free agency after the season.
Arizona legitimately is the team to beat in the NFC. The key: Getting home field advantage throughout the playoffs so the NFC Championship Game will be played at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Truthfully, there’s only one significant question going forward: Can Palmer erase the memory of his brutal NFC Championship Game performance against Carolina when he threw four interceptions (he had six turnovers in all) and play big when Arizona needs him most?
Palmer had terrific numbers during the regular season, and it’s fair to assume his injured right thumb affected him in the playoffs, but until he plays well on the big stage, there are going to be doubts about his ability to lead the Cardinals to the Super Bowl.
Other than that, there’s little not to like about Arizona’s offense. Third-round pick David Johnson emerged late last season as one of the best backs in the NFL. He’s big, he has breakaway speed and he’s a terrific receiver. A 1,000-yard rushing season and 50 catches aren’t out of the question. Veteran Chris Johnson, at this stage of his career, is an ideal backup. He had 814 yards in 11 games before going down with a fractured tibia injury against the 49ers.
The wide receiving corps is deep and versatile. Fitzgerald, now operating out of the slot, is still Palmer’s go-to-guy, and there’s been little drop-off in his skill level. Last year, he had 109 catches — his first with 100-plus since 2007 — and 1,215 yards. Michael Floyd can beat smaller cornerbacks to jump balls, and John Brown is the home-run threat; he averaged 15.4 yards per reception last season. The only quibble: Arizona still doesn’t have a tight end who can beat teams down the middle. Darren Fells has the athleticism, but he was targeted only 28 times last year because Palmer has so much confidence in his wideouts.
The offensive line is probably the weakest link offensively, but that unit got a big boost in the offseason with the signing of Mathis to play right guard. The question marks are at center and right tackle. Will rookie fourth-round pick Evan Boehm be ready to start at center? And can 2015 first-round draft pick D.J. Humphries, often criticized by coach Bruce Arians last year, handle right tackle? If the answer to both those questions is yes, the line will be fine. If not, it could compromise Arizona’s Super Bowl hopes.
How badly did the Cardinals need a premier pass rusher? Elder statesman Dwight Freeney led the team with eight sacks last year, and no one else had more than five. Enter Chandler Jones, who had 12.5 sacks for New England last year and gives Arizona the one dimension it was desperately missing defensively: someone to scare quarterbacks.
Now, with Jones, Campbell and first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche, Arizona can get pressure from its line and not have to blitz as much as it has in past seasons. Jones isn’t stout against the run, but the Cardinals will live with that shortcoming if he racks up double-digit sacks.
Arizona plays five defensive backs on almost every snap, but that’s a bit of a mis-perception, because natural safety Deone Bucannon lines up at inside linebacker and, despite his 220-pound frame, is a fierce defender against the run. The Cardinals aren’t blessed with great talent at linebacker, so in some ways Bucannon may be the defense’s most important player. It will be interesting to see if teams start attacking the Cardinals with jumbo packages and extra offensive linemen, trying to take advantage of Bucannon’s lack of size at inside linebacker.
The secondary could be the weak link of the defense this season. Arizona needs to find a cornerback who can hold his own opposite Patrick Peterson (Justin Bethel couldn’t do it late last season), and safety Tyrann Mathieu is coming off his second reconstructive knee surgery. Mathieu says he’ll start the opener against New England, but there has to be some question about his readiness.
If Mathieu has recovered, and if the Cardinals can find a competent No. 2 corner, this has a chance to be Arians’ best defense in his four seasons as coach.
The only thing holding Chandler Catanzaro back from becoming one of the league’s best placekickers is consistency. He was 28-of-31 on field-goal attempts last year, including 6-of-7 from 40 to 49 yards, but he also missed five extra points, a surprise given that he connected on every field-goal attempt inside 40 yards.
Punter Drew Butler doesn’t have the biggest leg, but he gets great hang time — only 25 of his 60 punts were returned last year — and he had 22 punts downed inside the 20-yard line compared to only six touchbacks.
Arizona’s return game could be in a state of flux. David Johnson was terrific returning kickoffs in 2015 — he averaged 27.2 yards per return and had a 108-yard return against Chicago — but he’ll be the No. 1 back this season. Arians might not want to risk his health returning kickoffs. Possible replacements include J.J. Nelson and Brown. Peterson likely will be the primary punt returner, but he hasn’t been as dynamic as he once was; he averaged 8.1 yards per return last year, and his longest return was only 38 yards. Arians could look for more explosiveness in his return game while also preserving Peterson.
The Cardinals aren’t a perfectly constructed team — they need a cornerback to step up opposite Peterson, and their offensive line remains a question mark — but general manager Steve Keim has built a deep, talented roster that should compete for a championship. And, in Arians, Arizona has a coach that gets the most out his players. If Palmer stays healthy — at his age and with his injury history that’s a big if — there’s no reason the Cardinals shouldn’t win at least 12 games. It’s amazing to think how far Arizona has come since its days at Sun Devil Stadium. Once a laughingstock of a franchise, it is now one of the best-run in the NFL. Super Bowl or bust? Absolutely.