2014 Preview: Arizona Cardinals
The 2013 campaign was a tale of two seasons for the Arizona Cardinals, as a mediocre 3-4 start gave way to an impressive 7-2 finish and a run at an unlikely playoff spot, only to be denied in Week 17. The first year of the Bruce Arians/Steve Keim regime went about as well as could have been hoped, and that has created great expectations for their second year.
The loss of some key pieces on defense, and the increased competition in the NFC West will only make their jobs harder, though, and a setback relative to the success of last season may be difficult to avoid.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Year Two in the System
Last year saw a new regime take over when Bruce Arians got his first head coaching job at age 60, and with a new coaching staff comes growing pains. This was evident in the Cardinals’ first seven games, especially on offense, where the learning curve was the greatest. The offense had such difficulties in the first few weeks of the season that even veterans like Larry Fitzgerald were unsure on where to lineup sometimes and Carson Palmer looked like a traffic cop as much as a quarterback. Things gelled in those last nine games, however, and the offense finally looked to be in sync. Now with a full season in Arians’ system under their belt, expect the Cardinals offense to look even better than the already-polished version from the second half of 2013.
2. Andre Ellington
Going into last season, the Arizona running back situation was a real question mark. Previous first-round pick Beanie Wells had been cut and former Steeler Rashard Mendenhall had been signed as the starter, but was coming off a serious injury. Add to that a couple of low draft picks in Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington, and it was very unclear what the group would be able to produce. However, despite Mendenhall (-5.5 rushing) getting the majority of carries, it was soon evident that Ellington (+13.9) was a rare talent. His inexperience and durability concerns kept his carry numbers low (117 attempts in 2013), but that shouldn’t be an issue this year, as he enters 2014 as the clear-cut No. 1 back. Ellington showed not just explosiveness out of the backfield, but versatility enough to line up and be effective as a receiver. He finished fifth in Elusive Rating, forcing 31 total missed tackles and averaging 3.15 Yards After Contact per attempt.
3. Left Tackle Upgrade
Although the Cardinals’ offense line issues have been well-documented here at PFF, it always seems that left tackle has been a real area of concern. Last year, the Cardinals started the season with Levi Brown as the starter, a Top-10 pick from 2007 who had never lived up to expectations. He played so poorly, allowing four sacks, six hits, and eight hurries in just three games, that by Week 4 he had been traded away. His replacement ended up being a waiver wire pickup at the end of the preseason, Bradley Sowell. Sowell struggled all year, allowing 59 total pressures, and finished dead last among all tackles in our Pass Rushing Productivity measure. Keim tried to finally remedy this situation by signing Jared Veldheer away from the Raiders on the first day of free agency. Although limited greatly in 2013 after a triceps injury, Veldheer showed a lot of promise the year before, grading out at +16.5, excelling in both pass protection (just 33 total pressures allowed in 665 pass snaps), as well as run blocking (+6.2). At just 27 years old, Arizona hopes that he is just reaching his prime and will be able to lock down this crucial position for years to come.
4. Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles
There was much consternation among Cardinals fans last summer when Ray Horton was not hired as either head coach or retained as defensive coordinator after a terrific effort as the DC for Ken Whisenhunt in 2012. Arians (understandably) brought in his own guy, which turned out to be recently fired Eagles DC Todd Bowles. Despite some success in Miami, the Eagles defense had been terrible under Bowles, who was an interim replacement in Philadelphia. As it turned out, all the concerns were allayed very quickly, as Bowles was able to demonstrate his keen eye in both designing schemes and making halftime adjustments. He was consistently able to put his players in the best position to succeed, evidenced by the Cardinals leading the league in unblocked pressures with 82 overall, and helped revive the careers of both Karlos Dansby and John Abraham, free agents who were signed to little fanfare but ended up producing terrific seasons.
5. Dynamic Offensive Weapons
It has been a long time since Larry Fitzgerald wasn’t the catalyst of the Cardinals offense, but this year Arizona expects to have a lot more playmakers to lean on besides Fitzgerald, the face of the franchise for years. Ellington’s potential has been well-detailed, but look for Michael Floyd to build on an impressive second year performance (+8.1, with 65 catches for 1041 yards and five touchdowns) across from Fitzgerald. Floyd’s Yards Per Route Run of 1.83 is well ahead of Fitzgerald’s, indicating he is more of a downfield threat now. Third-round pick John Brown, who is small but lightning-quick, looks to be another player who can stretch a defense. Coming from tiny Pittsburg State, he looked great in the offseason workouts, but that often doesn’t translate to game day. So far in his limited preseason snaps, he has shown to be just as explosive as he looked in shorts, and Arians will no doubt hope he can mold him into Arizona’s version of T.Y. Hilton.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Missing Pieces on D
As good as Bowles was last year, he will be missing several key pieces in 2014 that will make his job more difficult. Last year inside linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended for the first four games, and it was noticeable how the whole defense improved once he returned. Now with another failed drug test, he’ll miss the entire year (and, in fact, his career might be over), leaving a significant hole in the middle of the Cardinals’ defense. His athleticism (19 total pressures in 2013, good enough for a team-high PRP of 11.5) will be hard to replace. This only amplified losing fellow ILB Karlos Dansby (who had a solid 10.8 Run Stop Percentage and 11.0 Tackling Efficiency) to Cleveland in free agency, coming off a career year as the leader in the middle of the defense. Adding insult to injury, defensive end Darnell Dockett tore his ACL in training camp, and while his production had slipped, his leadership will also be missed on a defense now suddenly without three veteran pieces from last year.
2. Edge Pass Rushing
The Cardinals have seemingly been searching forever for a pure pass rusher who can come off the edge and challenge tackles one-on-one. John Abraham was the exception last year, of course, when he signed a two-year deal on the eve of training camp after generating little interest in the offseason. Expectations of him were limited, but after taking a few games to find his bearings, he quickly turned into all the Cardinals could have hoped for, wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks with a solid PRP of 11.3 and 67 total pressures. He returns this year, but is now dealing with a recent DUI arrest, and has only been at training camp for a couple weeks now. The Cardinals hope younger players like Sam Acho (just a 7.4 PRP in 2012) and 2013 fourth-round pick Alex Okafor, both of whom missed the last 13 games in 2013 with injuries, will step up, but so far neither has shown to really be disruptive off the edge on a consistent basis.
3. Offensive Guard Questions
Despite the much ballyhooed addition of Veldheer, the offensive line still has a lot of question marks. Last year’s first-round pick Jonathan Cooper, who was expected to step into the left guard spot, has struggled in returning from last year’s broken leg (-3.2 so far this preseason), and has recently been sidelined with a turf toe injury. Newly signed Ted Larsen is the latest fill-in at the position, but he managed a -10.3 in just 369 snaps for the Buccaneers last year. At right guard, Paul Fanaika returns, and while he hasn’t embarrassed himself this preseason (+0.2), he struggled mightily in his first year as a starter (-26.2, allowing seven sacks, seven hits and 32 hurries).
4. Consistency at Quarterback
Although Palmer showed clear improvement over the course of the season, his consistency may always be an issue. With dynamic weapons at wide receiver and running back, the offense may ultimately be limited only by how far Palmer can take it. His 22 interceptions last year were a career high, and he often got bailed out by the defense, most notably in their Week 16 win in Seattle, when they were able to overcome four interceptions from Palmer against the eventual champions. Ironically, he struggled most in his Deep Passing, with just a 31.1 Accuracy Percentage, something which is normally a staple of an Arians-run offense. To be fair, his average Time to Throw last year was just 2.46 seconds, one of the lowest in the league, so even a modest improvement in pass protection would certainly be a benefit.
5. NFC West
Improvements aside, the Cardinals still reside in the toughest division in the league, and nothing in the offseason seems to have changed that fact. Last year’s NFC championship game featured the top two finishers in the division, and everyone remembers what Seattle did to Denver. Although there were the usual defections from the Superbowl winner chasing big free agent deals, the Seahawks and 49ers both appear loaded again for long playoff runs. Even the Rams look improved as they continue to haul in the bounty from the RGIII trade two years ago. While Arizona was an impressive 8-2 outside of the division in 2013, they were just 2-4 within it, and they will definitely have to improve on the latter number to challenge the top two teams.
Follow Roland on Twitter: @PFF_RolandB