It's hot in New Mexico, but it doesn't hold a candle to the brain-baking heat in Arizona. With my air conditioning running full blast, I thought I'd chat with my friend Jess Root, the grand poobah of all things Arizona Cardinals. He's the site manager at Revenge of the Birds, and I'm a huge fan of his articles. It may be time for Jess to join the others who have crossed paths with a certain Front Office fiction character? After all, Dave Fucillo, Kenneth Arthur and Danny Kelly got there chance, so it's only fair, right? You can go here and here to see how these famous NFC West writers fared...
While sorting through all the off season moves and losses via free agency, then adding in the recent NFL Draft, most teams have new questions in 2014? How did Arizona do overall in addressing offensive and defensive needs? (Give me a 1 to 10 grade, with 10 being best)
Jess: It is really hard to dislike what the team did on either side of the ball. Offensively, I give them an 8. They upgraded left tackle significantly and also shored up the tight end position. They added speed at receiver. The only question mark that remains is how the right side of the offensive line will play out. There are position battles at both right guard and right tackle.
Defensively, I give them a 9. They did lose Karlos Dansby, who was probably their MVP, but they added Antonio Cromartie and drafted Deone Bucannon. Adding Kareem Martin off the edge and as a rotational lineman adds pass rushing ability as well. They re-signed Matt Shaughnessy, who was huge in the number one rush defense.
Essentially, almost every hole or weakness was addressed.
After studying the NFC West teams, I think they all - particularly the St. Louis Rams - have offensive line needs. In fact, it looks like the position of need they all have in common is Guard (Right or Left)? How did Arizona address it's offensive line needs this off season?
Actually, the guard position wasn't the issue. Jonathan Cooper was drafted in the first round in 2013 and returns from injury. The team still has their 20013 starter at right guard, but Paul Fanaika will have to battle 2013 draft pick Earl Watford and veteran Ted Larsen. The issue was at tackle. They had weak play at left tackle in Bradley Sowell, but signing Jared Veldheer shores that up and then gives competition for right tackle. Sowell shifts over there and will battle Bobby Massie, the 2012 starter, for the job. They could still bring back Eric Winston, but that will likely only happen if the other two do very poorly.
The NFC West appears to be sliding ever farther into a "run first" division. The Seahawks have the best running back (Marshawn Lynch) who fits this bill, with San Francisco's Frank Gore not far behind. The Rams have a promising second year RB in Zac Stacy, and Arizona's Andre Ellington showed flashes in 2013.
Arizona may be the last holdout to "the run", since they really haven't added any running back depth via the draft or free agency? San Francisco is so deep at RB, that it's hard to see how they can keep all of them on the roster. Seattle has proven depth at the position, after hitting prior drafts for quality running backs to groom behind "Beast Mode". The Rams have Stacy, and a marginally proven Benny Cunningham to go with recent draftee Tre Mason, but the signs are there that Sam Bradford will be edging more toward handing the ball off more often than passing this season.
How do you evaluate Arizona's run game for 2014?
Arizona will never be a run first team with Bruce Arians running the offense. He loves to chuck the ball down the field. He does, though, love offensive balance. There was a trend the last 9 games of the season in 2013 -- they would run the ball 30+ times in their wins. Of course, they do not use the run as the main part of their offense, but if the offense is doing well, they will run the ball. But they will never be confused with the offenses that the rest of the division run. Arians is still Arians and loves to throw the ball.
That said, the running game should be successful. Andre Ellington will be the main back, but he will not get all the carries. Jonathan Dwyer and Stepfan Taylor will do the dirty work inside and Ellington will be used to make plays in space.
Defense is literally the watch-word for the NFC West. How did your team improve on defense this off season? What were the biggest additions - subtractions? - in the off season? What's the weakness on defense for Arizona?
Looking at the defense, you really like what you see. They did lose Karlos Dansby, so there is some playmaking sideline to sideline that is lost. Instead, Kevin Minter enters and he will be used more at the point of attack to free Daryl Washington to make plays sideline to sideline. The team returned Matt Shaughnessy and Frostee Rucker and signed Antonio Cromartie to a one-year deal. Larry Foote was added as linebacker depth.
They were the best in the league against the run and the key personnel returns, so it would be hard to see a drop off there. The one really noticeable weakness last season was in covering tight ends, but that got better later in the season. The addition of Cromartie and drafting of Deone Bucannon ideally will shore that up. There are legitimate concerns -- will John Abraham be able to produce like he did in 2013? Can Minter ably fill the void that Dansby leaves? How much time will Washington be out with a likely suspension? Will Tyrann Mathieu be as effective after his knee injury and will Cromartie be healthy in 2014?
The NFC West will be playing outside of division games against the AFC West and NFC East. Which opponents in these division look like the biggest problem for the Cardinals?
Everyone has to look at the Broncos and think they will be trouble. Based on last year, the Eagles should be the tough one in the East as well, as they have a bunch of weapons and a team in its second year with Chip Kelly. But to be honest, while you have to respect all NFL teams, when you play in the NFC West, you feel it just is easier everywhere else. Washington will be interesting to see with DeSean Jackson. You can never trust the Cowboys or the Raiders and the Chargers and Chiefs are always mysteries. So...I have tio say Denver and Philly.
Give me your win/loss forecast for each team in the NFC West, and more importantly, the team to watch in the division other than your own?
You have to figure that the Seahawks are the favorite in the division. After that, it is almost impossible to predict. Right now I will give a range of wins. Seattle will win between 10 and 12 games. San Fran will win between 9 and 11. Arizona will be between 8 and 12. The Rams will be between 6 and 10. It's a lame answer, but that's what I have so far.