Steve Wilks’ first words during his introductory press conference as the new head coach of the Arizona Cardinals -- “You guys made the right decision” -- were directed at team president Michael Bidwill and GM Steve Keim, and his voice rang with a clear tone of conviction. But will it end up going down as mere bluster, like Buddy Ryan’s famous “You’ve got a winner in town” boast? Or will things trend more closely to how they worked out for Wilks’ predecessor, Bruce Arians, and his promissory “We can get it done” prediction?
A lot has to happen for the Cardinals, who finished 8-8 a year ago, to return to the playoffs for the third time in five years and for just the sixth time in their 31 years in the desert. Considering that Wilks and his staff will be relying on a brand new set of quarterbacks in free-agent additions Sam Bradford and Mike Glennon and rookie first-round draft pick Josh Rosen, not to mention a depleted batch of wide receivers and tight ends, a rebuilt but unpredictable offensive line and a star running back who missed all but the first game of last season, any talk of the postseason might be premature. Defensively, the Cardinals also must replace six starters from a group that’s averaged a top-five ranking over the previous three seasons and is being converted from a 3-4 base scheme to a 4-3 unit.
With the loss of so many contributors, aging components at critical positions and overall uncertainty up and down the depth chart, Wilks’ first year could be a long one.
In a perfect world for Arizona, Bradford starts all 16 regular-season games and is able to rely on a heavy rushing attack led by David Johnson, who rushed for 1,239 yards two seasons ago and led the NFL with 20 touchdowns and 2,118 total yards from scrimmage. The problem with that, though, is that Johnson has suffered significant injuries in each of the last two games he has played, and Bradford has started all 16 games in a season just twice -- the last time coming six years and four teams ago, in 2012.
Wilks and new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy will be tasked with trying to improve a unit that finished last season ranked 24th in third-down percentage, 25th in scoring and 30th in touchdowns scored in the red zone. They’ll have to do it despite losing 11 players who saw significant time, each of whom was either a full- or part-time starter, including three running backs, three pass catchers and three linemen.
The rebuild starts up front, where Arizona added Justin Pugh from the Giants to man right guard and Andre Smith from the Bengals to handle right tackle. Center A.Q. Shipley and left guard Mike Iupati both return, and if young left tackle D.J. Humphries can return to form from a serious knee injury, the O-line should be improved. There were still holes to fill, however, which explained why the Cardinals used five of their six draft picks on the offensive side of the ball.
In addition to Rosen, whom they selected 10th overall after flipping a third- and fifth-round pick to the Raiders to move up five spots, they snagged a top-flight receiver in Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk, an NFL-ready interior lineman in Mason Cole from Michigan and an intriguing, record-setting running back in Fordham’s Chase Edmonds, who will be a nice change-of-pace weapon behind Johnson.
Star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald returns for a 15th season as the face of the franchise, but he turns 35 in the fall and can’t play forever. He might be persuaded to stick around beyond 2018, however, should Bradford be able to stay healthy or, in a more likely scenario, should Rosen move into the starting quarterback role and prove why most talent evaluators contend he was the best pure-passing prospect in the 2018 draft class.
The strength of the Cardinals has been this group, which joined the Broncos and Ravens as the only defense to finish with a top-10 ranking in each of the past three years. It just missed out last season on finishing with its third straight top-five ranking, finishing sixth overall. The key questions: Can the Cardinals maintain their level of excellence on D despite switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme? And how much will they miss playmakers like safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Tyvon Branch and fellow veterans such as linebacker Karlos Dansby and cornerback Tramon Williams?
There’s still a lot to like about the Cardinals’ defense, however, especially when it comes to cornerback and defensive end. There, Arizona has two of the best in the league in Patrick Peterson, the seven-time Pro Bowl performer and three-time All-Pro, and Chandler Jones, who set a franchise record and led the NFL with 17 sacks last season and whose 40.5 sacks since the start of the 2015 season are the most in the NFL during that span.
The concern is about who is playing on the other side of the two stars. The Cardinals haven’t been able to find a long-term solution at corner opposite Peterson. Arizona signed a slew of corners in the offseason, and between that group and third-year pro Brandon Williams, it figures to be an open competition for the job. On the edge, Markus Golden, who led the club with 12.5 sacks in 2016, is returning from a torn ACL. There isn’t reliable depth at end if Golden can’t make a full comeback.
At linebacker, Josh Bynes played well enough in reserve to earn a contract extension and a promise by Wilks to man the middle of the unit. There is youth and exuberance to the left and right of him in Deone Bucannon and Haason Reddick, but all three will have to shine and play above expectations for this group to truly excel.
There are also some questions up front and on the back end of the defense. Veteran free safety Antoine Bethea will be 34 when the season begins, and as accountable as he has been during his career, he’s coming off a torn pectoral and isn’t getting any younger. Second-year man Budda Baker has off-the-charts talent, but he has only a handful of games as a starting strong safety in the NFL, and at 5'10" and 195 pounds, he’s smallish for the position. And then there’s defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who looked like a steal when the Cardinals selected him late in the first round of the 2016 draft. He has yet to play up to par, and there have been concerns about his passion for the game, which likely makes this season a make-or-break situation for the former Ole Miss star.
When the Cardinals signed 35-year-old punter Andy Lee last September to join then-42-year-old kicker Phil Dawson, Dawson made a joke about a fictitious retirement home, saying, “I think Sunset Acres should sponsor the special teams unit.” Dawson is now 43 and Lee turns 36 in August, but they’re both back as the senior leaders of this group. Dawson tied a career high last season with 32 field goals, but he also tied a career high with eight misses. Lee led the NFL during the second half of last season in punts downed inside the 20, but he was average for the first part of the year.
The coverage and return units have good speed and tenacity, but where the Cardinals really should see a bump in performance is with their two return specialists, second-year pro T.J. Logan on kickoffs and the rookie Kirk on punts. Kirk had six returns for touchdowns in college, and Logan had both jobs nailed down coming out of training camp last year until fracturing his wrist in the preseason opener.
A healthy Bradford might be enough to make even the most skeptical critics rethink their conclusions about the Cardinals, but history isn’t on Bradford’s side, and with the departures of so many key players across the board, it’s difficult to believe this is a credible playoff team. If Arizona’s defense can keep the team in games and Johnson once again threatens 1,000 yards as both a rusher and a pass catcher, then maybe there’s a chance of a winning record. The wild card could be Rosen. If the rookie quarterback gets thrust into the spotlight early, a lot of things could change.
Prediction: 4th in NFC West
(Top photo courtesy of www.azcardinals.com)