Don’t count out the Arizona Cardinals just yet.
After a disappointing 7-8-1 season in 2016, the Cardinals are back to being one of the most anonymous teams in football on a national level. However, the foundation is still there for wild card contention.
Offensively, Arizona fell off a cliff last season. Climbing back up is the biggest roadblock to contention. Quarterback Carson Palmer is 37 years old and coming off a down year. He had a below-average -7.8 percent DVOA, tossed 28 interceptable passes, per Cian Fahey’s charting, and lost ground in virtually every stat. Given Palmer’s age and the fact that he’s injury-prone, this felt like a warning sign. The thing is, even in a bad season, Palmer threw for over 4,200 yards and was generally competent.
That feels like a low bar, but teams have won with worse. Think of what the Jacksonville Jaguars could do with a quarterback of that caliber. All the Cardinals need is some upward regression on his part and they could be good to go.
The problem is the receiving corps. Head coach Bruce Arians said recently there were only two NFL-caliber receivers on the team, and it’s hard to say he was wrong.
Larry Fitzgerald is getting up there age-wise, but he led the league in receptions last season and had 1,023 receiving yards. He won’t be the problem. But when you get past Fitzgerald, things go downhill fast.
John Brown is hurt, and it’s unclear exactly when he’ll be back. Even if he returns to practice tomorrow, Brown is still coming off an underwhelming season in which he had just 517 receiving yards. J.J. Nelson, by all accounts, is having a terrible camp and still hasn’t really developed any attributes as a receiver beyond speed. That works fine as the occasional deep threat, but it’s hard to see Nelson being a regularly contributing piece of a good offense. Jaron Brown was one of the wideouts Arians praised, but he has 700 receiving yards in four seasons.
The tight end position is a black hole. Jermaine Gresham ranked 38th at the position in DYAR and DVOA last season. And if anybody gets hurt, the Cardinals are more or less screwed.
The offensive line looks fine, but it’s far from great. Left tackle D.J. Humphries struggled in his first year, allowing 5.5 sacks and blowing 14 pass blocks, per FOA. Across from him at right tackle, Jared Veldheer played just eight games last season. If the 30-year-old can stay healthy, Veldheer will be solid. On the inside, Evan Boehm is a question mark at right guard. Boehm had a 52.7 PFF grade in a limited number of snaps last season and will have to develop quickly this season. Center A. Q. Shipley had a very average 75.0 PFF grade last season, though he blew just nine blocks in total, per FOA. Left guard Mike Iupati is no longer an All-Pro and blew 20 blocks last season, per FOA.
The only part of this offense that looks really good is the running game. David Johnson led the league with 2,118 all-purpose yards last season, 1,239 of those coming on the ground. He wasn’t the most efficient running back in the league, averaging just 4.2 yards per carry. But Johnson’s 177 DYAR ranked ninth at the position. His ability as a receiver could also mitigate some of Arizona’s deficiencies at the position.
If the Cardinals do get up off the ground and make the playoffs this season, it will be in large part because of their defense. Arizona ranked third in both regular and weighted defensive DVOA last season and it’s pretty young.
Calais Campbell is a big loss for the defensive line. But if Robert Nkemdiche can play a full season, he could be of help mitigating it. Nkemdiche, a first-round pick in 2016, played just five games last season due to injury. However, if he stays healthy, he could be a beastly pass rusher. The rest of the line isn’t going to rack up sacks, but the Cardinals were third in adjusted line yards for a reason last season. Corey Peters, Josh Mauro and Frostee Rucker aren’t star run defenders, but all had below two average rushing yards per tackle according to FOA.
Arizona can also depend on Chandler Jones and Markus Golden for pressure at outside linebacker. Jones had 11.0 sacks, 11 hits and 29 hurries in his inaugural season in Phoenix, per FOA. Golden was quietly even better. He had 12.5 sacks, 17 hits and 29 hurries, per FOA. Expect to hear the 26-year-old’s name a lot this season.
At inside linebacker, Deone Bucannon pioneered the “moneybacker” position and isn’t going anywhere. Bucannon had a 55 percent success rate in coverage last season, ranking 25th among linebackers per FOA. His run defense was an issue last season, with Bucannon’s stop rate dropping to 53 percent from 60 percent in 2015, per FOA. It’s worth paying attention to see if he can rebound after his injury.
The Cardinals also drafted Haason Reddick with the 13th overall pick. He’s going to be starting the year while Bucannon gets healthy. An edge rusher at Temple, Reddick will have to make an adjustment to playing inside linebacker that will take some learning on the fly when it comes to coverage. However, he was a playmaker in run defense, ranking 10th in run stop rate, per FOA, and ran a 4.52 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. Reddick will also be an asset on blitzes thanks to his speed and pedigree from playing on the edge in college.
Expect Karlos Dansby to be on the field a fair amount as well. Dansby’s coverage ability is worth questioning — the 36-year old had a 43 percent success rate last season, per FOA. However, his 68 percent run stop rate was more than satisfactory and ranked 25th at the position, per FOA.
The secondary is the strength of this defense, thanks to Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. Peterson had a 55 percent success rate last season, ranking 12th among corners. That’s more or less what we’ve come to expect from the three-time All-Pro. Yet, it’s still worth noting because he can be counted on to shut down anybody on a given Sunday. Mathieu struggled last season coming off a torn ACL in 2015. However, if he’s fully healthy this season, it will make this secondary one of the best in football.
Finding the right guy to play across from Peterson on the outside is the biggest question this defense has. But Justin Bethel and Brandon Williams had equal 56 percent success rates last season. Bethel, however, nearly doubled up on Williams in PFF grading, with a 71.6 mark as oppose to Williams’ 37.3. Expect him to get the job.
The Cardinals spent their second round pick on safety Budda Baker. A University of Washington product, Baker’s instincts will be an asset in the NFL. He has good ball skills and the ability to read a quarterback’s eyes. Baker also has great speed, good instincts and fluid hips. Don’t expect him to guard tight ends — his 5-foot, 10-inch frame will be a detriment — but Baker can be a playmaker for Arizona. Next to him, Tyvon Branch and Antoine Bethea will both see some playing time. Expect the 31-year old Branch to get the bulk of it, however. His 60 percent success rate ranked third at the position last season, per FOA. Bethea, on the other hand, showed slippage, allowing 13.2 adjusted yards per target, according to FOA.
The Cardinals probably won’t get back to Super Bowl contention a la 2015. But if the passing game gels just a little bit, they could easily contend for a wild card in a weak NFC. Their defense has great potential if the young guys can contribute. Head coach Bruce Arians is one of the best offensive minds in football.
It’s not time to bury the Cardinals yet.