The Arizona Cardinals played one heck of a season last year. To most, their performance was a surprise. While to others, it could be seen coming. The Cardinals actually remind me a lot of the 49ers in the years before becoming what they are now. When examining the 49ers prior to the 2011 season, they were team who had continuously picked in the top half of the draft. Of all those draft picks, they rarely missed on the premium picks (rounds 1-3). Ultimately this resulted in a strong, defensive team, built through the draft.
STILL A FEW PIECES AWAY
No one should be able to say that the Cardinals are far off from being a legit threat of being a consistent playoff team. On offense, the team still seems to lack a few key pieces and that starts with the quarterback. The truth is Carson Palmer can't be trusted. For every amazing throw he makes, there's sure to be an equally bad one. The Cardinals' Super Bowl odds are better than the odds of Carson Palmer ever getting back to his once Pro Bowl form. At this point, he's one of the top bridge quarterbacks in the NFL. If you need a spot starter for a year or two, he's your guy. Not be much more than that expected of him.
It's not as if Palmer doesn't have a nice arsenal of weapons. Larry Fitzgerald is still one of the best in the league, and the there's no denying his "not-so-Larry-like" stats can be attributed to poor quarterback play over the last couple of seasons. Larry is a dangerous weapon and will remain so until the day he hangs up his cleats. Michael Floyd is an absolute monster. Ironically, he reminds me of a slightly bigger Anquan Boldin. Floyd is very physical and hard to tackle. He makes some contested catches look far too easy. As long as he has Fitzgerald there to continue to teach him, Floyd will continue to get better. The Cardinals also brought in what I'm calling their secret weapon. John Brown terrorized the DII ranks over the last several years. He is a blazer, with underrated ball skills, and route running ability. He drew a lot of Antonio Brown and TY Hilton comparisons. And do we all know who was in both Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, respectively, at the time those players were drafted? You guessed it, Bruce Arians. I fully expect John Brown to be used in the same way Arians used those players, both on offense and special teams. He and Ted Ginn will also bring deep threats to relieve pressure underneath for Fitz and Floyd.
In the backfield the Cardinals have a lot of unproven players. Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor are sure to be the one-two punch in the desert this season. Ellington showed his explosiveness last season, but this year he will be asked to take on a much bigger role. He will no longer just be the change of pace back. Now he will be the top back. There are a lot of questions of whether or not he has the ability to carry the load. Ellington is a good receiver out of the backfield and it will only help in the way that Arians decides to use him. Taylor is more of the old school back. He is a north-south runner, with good third down ability. But Taylor lacks explosiveness and is better served as a goal line, short yardage, four min offense, type of back.
The real issue on this offense is the offensive line. This line has been beaten like a rug over the last couple of years. Robert Quinn alone has accumulated 8 sacks in the last 6 Rams-Cardinals games. The continuous beating has been going on for quite some time. The team has shown efforts to get better. In the 2013 NFL draft, the team selected the drafts top guard, Johnathon Cooper. During this years free agency period they signed - what might be their biggest signing in years - Jared Veldheer. The team also managed to sign Anthony Steen as an undrafted free agent after this years draft. Steen can play both center and guard very well. He is a solid player overall. But even after all the attention shown with this group, there still seems to be an uncertainty about the line as a whole.
THE GLUE IS MISSING ITS CAP
Make no mistake about the glue that holds this team together - as well as makes them a legitimate threat in the NFC West - is the defense. But this defense has lost a very important piece. Daryl Washington has been suspended for one year. His absence will be felt. It will also require others to step up. The Cardinals defense played the first four games of the 2013 NFL season without Washington due to suspension. While the unit was solid at times, there is no question, that when Washington returned, this unit took it to a different level. His shoes will not be easy to fill, and the odds are they won't be. Washington is one of the best ILBs in the NFL, and his absence is sure to hurt the defense in both pass and run defense. Kevin Minter and Larry Foote will be tasked with filling his role, respectively. John Abraham had a very productive year in 2013, but at age 36, one can only wonder how much is really left in the tank. This linebacker core will need Sam Acho and Matt Shaughnessy to step up big time.
The defensive line should continue to be just as strong as it was in 2013. One big factor to this team finishing with the No. 1 ranked run defense was the defensive line. Daryl Washington certainly played a big role, but this entire line is made up of guys who can stuff the run. It is very hard to find any weaknesses at all. Calais Campbell, Darnell Docket, and Dan Williams were a nightmare in 2013. Campbell and Docket also did an excellent job of putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They were very consistent all year. The team did lose Alameda Ta'amu - who was just starting to come on as a rookie - to a torn ACL in week 17. Considering how late in the year his injury took place, it's hard to envision him being ready to start the year.
Injuries were not too kind to the Cardinals in 2013. Just ask Tyrann Mathieu. The young defensive back was proving to be as advertised, and really having a solid rookie season when he tore his ACL/LCL in week 14. Mathieu's injury also took place late in the season, and his availability is in question to start the season. His absence will be - yet again - a major blow to this teams overall performance. Patrick Peterson is a helluva corner, and one of the best in the NFL. But he has yet to prove to be capable of having the type of impact on a defense that Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman has. With Daryl Washington gone, and a question mark hanging over Mathieu, the load he will carry will be the heaviest he has experienced since entering the league. This defense will need him more than ever. A case can be made for him to be a top 5 corner in this league. But he will have to prove to be as good as a Revis or Sherman to help elevate this team to take the next step. He will need to take over games. The team did do a nice job of getting him some help in the secondary. Actually, the argument can be made that Arizona completed it's secondary this off-season. You can't say enough about the addition of Antonio Cromartie and Deone Bucannon. Cromartie is an immeidate upgrade at the corner position, while Bucannon was the most productive safety in this years draft. Bucannon should bring more versatility than expected, as he can cover deep and play in the box.
This team is still a very dangerous team, in the NFL's toughest division. But with question marks at quarterback, offensive line, Washington's absence, and Mathieu's recovery, it's difficult to see this team continuing to progress. They have taken quite a few blows, but it would be foolish not to wonder how much fight is left in them. In order to continue with their progression, two things must happen: The offense is going to have to find consistency, as well as not turn the ball over so much, and Patrick Peterson is going to have to lead this defense back to being a top 10 unit. Between the two, the latter seems most likely. Even so, this is not a team anyone should count out...