Well, we can wait no more, so we’re going to start previewing all 32 teams over the next 32 days. That means seeing why fans should be looking forward to a great year, but also throwing in plenty of reasons to be cautious about what could go wrong.
We’ll be doing things alphabetically so up first, say hello to the 2012 Arizona Cardinals.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Larry Fitzgerald is still Larry Fitzgerald
It’s one thing to be excellent when you’re surrounded by brilliance, it’s a whole other thing to rise above the mediocrity (and worse) you’re working with to still be one of the best wide receivers in the business. In 2010, Steve Smith couldn’t handle life with Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore, but with a set of quarterbacks who were every bit as bad, Fitzgerald kept on producing. He didn’t put up the numbers that Calvin Johnson did, but it’s hard to imagine a player doing more to earn the 1,411 yards he finished the season with as he dropped just three passes all year while breaking the fifth-most tackles of any receiver. Even if the quarterback play doesn’t improve, Fitz continues to dominate defensive backs as long as you give him half a chance to do so.
2) Destruction on the defensive line
The secret may be out of the bag, but that doesn’t make it any less true: Calais Campbell is something of a beast. The Cardinal finished behind Justin Smith in our 3-4 defensive end rankings, proving (once again) that there aren’t many who play his spot that are in his league. His ability to get up field is huge for the Cardinals, and combining him with Darnell Dockett gives the team a dynamic duo who can make life tough for any quarterback. Last year alone the two combined for 101 quarterback disruptions, while Campbell added nine batted passes to the one Dockett managed. Guards (and tackles) just can’t cope with their blend of speed and power. Now if this is the year Dan Williams can keep his ample backside on the field, you’ve got a terrific trio with some decent depth behind them.
3) Joey Cancelled
This won’t be the only case of addition by subtraction. It’s fair to say the only thing more shocking than the performances of Joey Porter in a Cardinals uniform, was how much opportunity was afforded to him since he joined the club in 2010. The one-time loudmouth turned 136 pass rushes into just one sack, one hit, and two hurries in a display of pass rushing so inept you could barely believe it. Throw in the 34 combined sacks, hits, and hurries he got a year earlier on 407 pass rushes and you wonder what the coaches were watching to allow him so much time on the field. But he’s gone now, and that’s a good thing because it would take a herculean effort to find someone worse than him.
4) Special Special Teamers
Sometimes there are players who can do things you just don’t think are possible. Step forward Patrick Peterson, the kind of returner who forces teams to accommodate him. His work last year–picking up four touchdowns–was scary good, and you better believe teams have taken notice. If they put the ball in his hands they’re risking him inflicting some damage, so expect him to get some of the ‘Hester treatment’ that will give the Cardinals offense some much needed free yards. The Peterson impact will be felt, though the sophomore will need to step up his game in coverage to justify his selection status.
5) No Longer the Baddest Tackle in all of Town?
We’ve spent many a good year laughing at lead-footed Levi Brown. The Cardinals’ tackle has been beaten with such regularity that he’d become the surest of things in the NFL. It didn’t matter who was lining up against him, pressure was coming, and as a result, he led all tackles with the worst Pass Blocking Efficiency number over the past three years. So why is this a positive? Well I don’t want to jinx it, but after being a huge bust, Brown looked like he started to get it last year. Maybe he was motivated by the need for a new contract, but I’m going to ignore my inner cynic and go with the possibility Brown became the player the Cards hoped he would be. Just take a look at these numbers: after giving up 40 combined sacks, hits, and hurries over the first eight games of the season, he only surrendered 16 in the second half of the year. Color me optimistic.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) Kolb or Skelton?
This is kind of like asking how you want to die; by an erratic passer with a scattergun arm, or a quarterback who is about as skittish in the pocket as it gets. Either way there’s absolutely nothing to suggest the Cardinals were wrong to make a serious push for Peyton Manning in free agency, because when you really break down Kolb and Skelton, you can’t help but be underwhelmed. Sure you have to give Kolb a chance now that he gets a full off season in Arizona to get things down. But even before his terrible performance last year there were plenty of question marks about the guy that I raised here. As for Skelton, his fans can point out that he won some games, but he looked as bad as any quarterback at times last year. I shouldn’t have to remind people of how he played in Week 11 against the 49ers.
2) Where’s the Edge Rush?
Joey Porter may be gone, and things may improve, but the Cardinals still seem short on options who can challenge opposing offensive tackles. As it is, Clark Haggans, O’Brien Schofield and Sam Acho are the guys who will be counted on, and neither are that inspiring when you really break it down. The 35-year-old former Steeler Haggans barely mustered more pressure than inside linebacker Daryl Washington, despite rushing the passer on nearly 200 more occasions. While Acho and Schofield both finished with sack numbers that flattered them, capitalizing on quarterbacks holding onto the ball too long and failing to constantly generate any pressure. More seasoning could see both improve, but it’s asking a lot considering both men ranked in the Bottom 10 of our Pass Rushing Productivity study for 3-4 outside linebackers last year.
3) The Name’s Snyder. Adam Snyder.
You’d think after moving from 25th in 2010, to 21st in 2011 in our yearly offensive line rankings the Cardinals were moving in the right direction. With a left side that got better as the season went on, a reliable center, and investing a draft pick in a right tackle of the future all looked on the up. Well Cardinals fans, I have some bad news. As bad as you may have thought Rex Hadnot was, you’re in for a whole new level of, ‘what? that guy got beat again?’, with Adam Snyder taking over the right guard spot. Our lowest-ranked right guard from 2011, the former 49er managed just three games last year where he graded positively (one against Arizona) and is just not good enough when he’s on his heels. You may not notice much of a drop-off in the run game, but look for an increase in pressure up the middle.
4) Who Will Take Some of the Load off Larry Fitzgerald
Sure, the draft saw Arizona land Michael Floyd, but it’s something of a lottery as to whether rookie receivers can come in and contribute straight away. If he’s not up to it, then the Plan B (either Andre Roberts or Early Doucet) hardly fills you with much confidence. While Fitzgerald was our second-ranked receiver on the year, Roberts finished with the fifth-lowest grade and Doucet the 14th-lowest. They had plenty of the ball thrown to them, but a combination of drops, a lack of chemistry with the quarterback, and an inability to do much after the catch meant the Cardinals felt it necessary to spend a first-round pick on a receiver. Last year both quarterbacks forced the ball to Fitzgerald (nine passes aimed for him were intercepted, the most in the league), and you can expect more of the same without someone helping out.
5) Can They be a Team That Pounds the Football?
The good news is that Ryan Williams is back and Beanie Wells has flashed talented throughout his NFL career. The bad news is Williams can’t be fully healthy after a horrific injury, and Wells picks up injuries like they’re going out of fashion. So, despite having a line that is actually pretty handy in the run blocking department, Arizona continues to play like they have Kurt Warner throwing the ball to Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston as well as Fitzgerald. Every year they say they’re going to readdress that, but a lack of faith in their rushers or impatience on their part sees them go throw crazy, while going heavy on three and four wide receiver sets. Can this team actually commit to running the ball, give Kolb the help he needs and the offense some variety?
What to expect?
Last year the 49ers made the NFC West their division, and nothing the Cardinals have done this year suggests they are in a position to change that. At best, they’ve cleared out some dead wood, but they haven’t done a good enough job of replacing it, leaving you with much the same feeling as you had last year about them. If Kolb plays to a level he’s never shown (consistently), they could have themselves a nice season, otherwise, a defense with a lot of good parts just won’t be able to make up for the offense’s shortcomings.