When a team has a pre-season over/under win total of 6 or less, the over actually hits roughly 2/3rds of the time. It makes sense. The NFL is a parity filled league in which teams’ win totals change an average of 3 games per season. Teams that were bad the previous season, which are usually the teams with low over/unders, are usually not quite as bad the following season (and vice versa). This season, only three teams have pre-season over/under win totals of 6 or less, Jacksonville, Oakland, and Arizona.
Jacksonville and Oakland make sense. They had 2 of the top-3 picks in the draft last season, winning 6 games between them last season (Jacksonville, 2, Oakland, 4), but Arizona won 5 games last season and, unlike Jacksonville and Oakland, they seem significantly improved overall this season as compared to last season. I don’t love going over the 5.5 number on any of those 3 teams, but Arizona is the only team I would consider putting money on, which, given history, isn’t a bad idea.
The Cardinals’ largely return the same roster from last season, but they are significantly improved at two crucial spots, quarterback and Head Coach. Ken Whisenhunt wasn’t a bad coach at all, but, despite trying a ton of different quarterbacks, the only one the supposed offensive genius had success with was Kurt Warner, who took them to a Super Bowl.
New Head Coach Bruce Arians, meanwhile, was probably the best Head Coaching hire of the off-season. It’s rare that someone like Arians is available on the Head Coaching market and it took a special set of circumstances. Arians was actually the Coach of the Year last season in Indianapolis, taking over for the cancer stricken Chuck Pagano after week 3 and guiding the Colts to a playoff berth and the 2nd biggest single season turnaround in NFL history. The only reason he was available was because Pagano is in remission and set to take over as Head Coach once again. He was the only option on the market who wasn’t completely inexperienced or a retread who had recently been fired.
Prior to taking over as Interim Head Coach of the Colts last season, Arians was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, where he guided many successful offenses (including a Super Bowl victory) in 5 seasons in that role. In Indianapolis, his work with rookie Andrew Luck and the Colts’ young offense was noticeable and he also demonstrated incredible leadership in very troubling times. If anyone can get the Cardinals’ stagnant offense off the ground, it’s Bruce Arians.
Stagnant might be too nice of a term. In 3 seasons since Kurt Warner retired, the Cardinals have scored 18.1 points per game (26th), 19.5 points per game (24th), and last season a pathetic 15.6 points per game (31st). Last season, they ranked dead last in the NFL in yards per attempt (5.6) and yards per carry (3.4), while allowing a league leading 58 sacks. That’s the stagnant offense trifecta. Their leading passer had 1169 passing yards and their leading rusher had 356 rushing yards. The last team to average fewer than the 4.1 yards per play they averaged last season was the 2008 Cincinnati Bengals and every team in the league averaged at least a half yard more per play than they did last season.
Things were probably the worst under center. Kevin Kolb did well to start the season, leading a game winning drive week 1 in relief of an injured John Skelton en route to an improbable 4-0 start. He actually went 4-2 overall in his 6 games, completing 59.6% of his passes for an average of 6.4 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, guiding a solid defense (16.2 points per game allowed in those 6 games) and not making a lot of mistakes.
However, when he was lost for the season, things became so bad it was actually really funny unless you were a Cardinals fan. The terrible trio of John Skelton, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer combined to complete 228 of 425 (53.6%) for 2214 yards (5.2 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions, a quarterback rating of 53.2. You could have put a drunken Derek Anderson or a purple dranked up JaMarcus Russell under center and gotten better production than that trio gave you.
The only game they won the rest of the way required them to get two pick sixes, another interception to start a drive on their opponent’s 3 yard line, and a 4th down stop deep in their opponent’s territory followed immediately by a 31 yard touchdown run. They gained 196 yards all game. If they had to play another 16 games with that trio under center, I guarantee you they would have not won more than 2 games at best and both of them would have required multiple return touchdowns/acts of God.
John Skelton is now in Cincinnati fighting to make their roster as their 3rd quarterback. Ryan Lindley remains on the Cardinals’ roster for the moment as the clear 3rd quarterback. There’s a very small chance the 6th round rookie from San Diego State was just incredibly overwhelmed being thrust into action like that last season, but if you watch his collegiate tape his accuracy was miserable there as well. Brian Hoyer, the only quarterback of the 3 who looked like he belonged on an NFL roster, is now in Cleveland, competing with Jason Campbell for the backup quarterback job.
Kevin Kolb is also gone as the Cardinals decided they had enough of the overpaid, injury prone quarterback. As I mentioned, the Cardinals also have a new quarterback along with Bruce Arians to help them fix this stagnant offense. Kolb has been replaced with a more durable option in Carson Palmer. Palmer isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but he’ll still be a million times better than what they trotted out there in the final 10 games of last season.
The soon to be 34-year-old is what he is at this point in his career and could be on the decline. He is a better fantasy quarterback than real quarterback. In reality, he turns the ball over too much, is too inefficient inside the red zone, and produces too much of his production in garbage time, which is why he was able to throw for 4000 yards with a 85.3 QB rating on a 4-12 team that scored 18.1 points per game last season in Oakland. However, he’ll have a much better group of supporting playmakers (more on that in a minute) and a great offensive minded Head Coach in Bruce Arians who is going to give him a lot of opportunities to make things happen downfield and accumulate yards.
Wide Receivers/Tight End
At the very least, he’ll be able to get the ball to a good group of receivers, which, again, makes him a million times better than what they had last season. You never would have been able to tell from their stats, but this is a very talented receiving corps. Larry Fitzgerald is one of the great receivers of his generation. However, he has sadly never really had great quarterback play, except for those couple Warner years, but he’s always produced. Last year, however, was too much for even him to handle as Arizona’s pathetic quarterback play limited him to 71 catches for 798 yards and a career low 4 touchdowns. From 2005-2011, Fitzgerald averaged 94 catches for 1309 yards and 10 touchdowns per 16 games and he’s only missed 4 games with injury in his career. I expect him to bounce back.
What was lost in Arizona’s miserable 2012 season was that wide receiver Andre Roberts had a breakout year, as so many receivers do in their 3rd year in the league, just no one noticed because his production was limited by the guys throwing him the ball. Roberts’ 64 catches for 759 yards and 5 touchdowns not only were all career highs, but they are pretty close to what Larry Fitzgerald produced and he did so on 40 fewer targets and 80 fewer pass snaps. Like the rest of this Arizona receiving corps, Roberts will benefit from improved quarterback play. He’ll probably rotate snaps in 2-wide sets with promising 2nd year Michael Floyd, but there will be enough 3-wide sets and enough yards to go around for both young receivers to get on the field.
Michael Floyd is the really exciting one. Floyd was a 1st round pick of the Arizona Cardinals last year, taken with the 13th pick at the urging of Larry Fitzgerald, who felt that Floyd could be what Anquan Boldin once was, someone to take the bracket coverage off of Fitzgerald. However, because of this fantasy football centric/immediate results world we live in, Floyd was seen as largely a disappointment.
However, when you look at history, there is nothing disappointing about his rookie year. Receivers, even 1st round picks, take at least a year to come around. Since 2005, 28 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 40 catches for 557 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Floyd’s 45 catches for 562 yards and 2 touchdowns are actually right in line with that and he got better as the season went on, catching 32 passes for 435 yards and a touchdown in his final 8 games, culminating in a 8 catch for 166 yards and a touchdown performance week 17.
Plus, he did that despite some of the worst quarterbacking in the NFL. It’s no surprise that Floyd’s big game week 17 came in the first game he played serious snaps with even a legitimate NFL backup caliber quarterback under center in Brian Hoyer, who went 19 of 34 for 225 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions. He and Palmer should be able to hook up for some good production, as he figures to see plenty of single coverage. He could have a breakout year as a complement opposite Larry Fitzgerald.
Rob Housler, meanwhile, is the tight end. Housler caught 45 passes for 417 yards last year, which isn’t much, but again, consider who the Cardinals’ quarterbacks were. His 1.07 yards per route run were just a touch under Larry Fitzgerald’s 1.18. With a legitimate quarterback under center now, heading into his 3rd year in the league, the athletic 2011 3rd round pick could have a breakout year and establish himself as a solid pass catching tight end. He doesn’t block much though. Jeff King, the blocking tight end, will continue to come in during two-tight end sets. It’s a highly underrated receiving corps and at the very least, Carson Palmer should be able to let that show.
Things are not as good at running back and on the offensive line as they are in the receiving corps, but they should be improved over last season at the very least. As I mentioned in the opening, the Cardinals ranked dead last in the NFL rushing for 3.4 yards per carry and didn’t have a rusher go for more than 356 yards. They had optimism going into the season with 2009 1st round pick Beanie Wells and 2011 2nd round pick Ryan Williams. Wells was coming off a breakout 245/1047/10 season from the year before and Williams was set to return after missing his rookie year with injury.
However, both struggled immensely. Wells averaged 2.7 yard per carry coming off off-season knee surgery and Williams averaged just 2.8 yards per carry, coming off his own injury problems. Williams went down for the season with a shoulder injury after week 5 and Wells missed 8 games of his own with injury before coming back and continuing to struggle. He famously said before the final game of the season that he was auditioning for the other 31 teams in that game. He didn’t see the field at all, putting himself in Ken Whisenhunt’s doghouse with his comments and this off-season he was cut. He remains a free agent at still 24 years old this off-season (25 in August). All of this led to way too much of Alfonso Smith (3.6 yards per carry on 60 carries) and LaRod Stephens-Howling (3.2 yards per carry on 110 carries) in Arizona’s backfield.
Williams is set to return this season. Injuries have limited him to 58 carries in his first 2 years in the league. Throw in an injury riddled final season at Virginia Tech in 2010 and you’ve got the definition of an injury risk. He clearly came back too early from his torn patellar tendon last year, before that unrelated shoulder injury ended his season. At this point, his knee is probably as good as it’s going to get and he’s still a talented back with plenty of opportunity (at only 23 years of age) in Arizona’s backfield if he can prove himself, but he might be damaged goods at this point.
Williams will compete for lead back duties and split carries with Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall, a 1st round pick of the Steelers’ in 2008, rushed for 3309 yards and 29 touchdowns in three seasons as the starter in Pittsburgh, but he wasn’t as good as those numbers would suggest. He was largely a volume rusher, with 794 carries in those 3 seasons, an average of just 4.2 yards per carry and even that had a lot to do with his surrounding offensive talent. He also contributes very little on passing downs, with just 66 catches in those 3 seasons. Last season, a torn ACL suffered in January limited him to 51 carries for 182 yards.
However, he’s another year removed from that injury this year and he reunites with former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and there’s some bounce back potential here. Williams has by far the most upside though. I expect Mendenhall to handle most of the early down work and Williams to serve as a change of pace and passing downs back, at least early in the season. The two of them don’t make a particularly impressive running back committee, but they should, at the very least, be an upgrade over the mess they had at running back last season.
Things on the offensive line are very similar to how they are at running back, not good, but not as bad as they were last season. I mentioned the league leading 58 sacks allowed last season. Things weren’t actually as bad as that made it seem. When hits and hurries are factored into the equation in a measure known as pass block efficiency, they actually ranked 30th in the NFL (though they were ProFootballFocus’ worst rated pass blocking offense). That’s not good, but it’s a little bit better than dead last.
On top of that, while their starting offensive tackles surrendered 25 sacks in the first 8 games of the season (more than double any other starting tackles in the NFL at that point in the season), they surrendered just 7 in the final 8 games of the season. What happened? Well, for one, turnstile D’Anthony Baptiste, who allowed 12 sacks in those first 8 games, got benched for 7th round rookie Nate Potter and played just 75 snaps the rest of the way. Despite his limited playing time, Baptiste still managed to grade out as ProFootballFocus’ 79th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible.
Potter wasn’t great or anything, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 67th ranked offensive tackle in his limited time, but he wasn’t as bad as Baptiste, allowing just 7 sacks. The 2012 7th round pick could be better in his 2nd season in the league. He’ll compete with Levi Brown, who is returning from a triceps injury that cost him all of 2012.
Brown isn’t good or anything, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 6th worst rated offensive tackle in 2009 and worst rated offensive tackle in 2010, but he did show signs down the stretch in 2011 before getting hurt, grading out 57th out of 76 eligible for the season and allowing just 2 sacks in his final 7 games of the season, grading out positively in all 7. At the very least, he’s a good run blocker and he’s not D’Anthony Baptiste, though he’s nowhere near the “elite” left tackle Bruce Arians is trying to sell him to the media as.
Meanwhile, at right tackle, Bobby Massie somehow didn’t give up a single sack from their 9th game of the season on, after allowing 13 sacks in the first 8 games of the season, including 6 sacks in one game against St. Louis week 5. The 4th round rookie just hit his stride and though he still graded out as ProFootballFocus 72nd ranked offensive tackle, he graded out alright against the run overall and really improved in pass protection down the stretch. In his 2nd season in the league, he might actually be an above average right tackle. He unfortunately doesn’t have the foot speed to ever be considered a legitimate candidate to move to the blindside.
The developmental of Massie and Potter, as well as the return of Levi Brown, made the Cardinals not feel the need to draft an offensive tackle in the 1st round this off-season. That might not have been the worst idea considering they would have had to reach for one at 7th overall, though they should have really added one at some point. Instead, they used that pick to shore up the inside of their offensive line, drafting Jonathan Cooper out of North Carolina.
That was the first time a true interior offensive lineman had been drafted above 15th overall in 15 years, but it wasn’t a bad move. They needed the guard help and it was a historically poor draft in terms of top level talent. Cooper is one of the best guard prospects in a long time and might have more Pro-Bowl potential than any player in the entire draft even if he is just a guard. The Titans made a similar move 3 picks later, taking Chance Warmack from Alabama.
Cooper will slot in immediately at his natural spot at left guard and it would not surprise me if he was a very good starter in his first year in the league. Cooper will move Daryn Colledge to right guard. Colledge isn’t a bad player or anything, but it makes more sense to play Cooper in his natural spot. Colledge is a marginal at best starter who will compete with intriguing 4th round rookie Earl Watford for the starting right guard job. Watford has generated a lot of buzz this off-season, but the transition from James Madison to the NFL might be too much for him to win the starting job as a rookie. They’d be better off going with the veteran.
Meanwhile, at center, Lyle Sendlein will return from a season ending torn MCL. He too is a marginal starter, though he’s a well-regarded captain of this offensive line and a great locker room guy. Overall, it’s not a great offensive line and they still lack at the all-important left tackle position, but they should be better than they were last season.
As I said in the opening, the Cardinals’ defense only allowed 16.2 points per game in the first 6 games of the season. That wasn’t totally a fluke. The previous season, they allowed 18.3 points per game in their final 9 games. That’s a solid 15 game stretch where they were allowing in the teens in terms of points per game. They did allow 26.0 points per game in the final 10 games of the season, but you can blame the offense’s inability to stay on the field and to establish good field position for that. In terms of defensive DVOA, they ranked 6th last season (but dead last offensively).
However, there are several reasons why I don’t think they’ll play quite that well this season, the most prominent being the uncertainty of middle linebacker Daryl Washington with off the field issues, which I’ll get into later. Washington is one of 3 big time building blocks for this season, one in each level of the defense and without him, things just aren’t the same.
On the defensive line, the building block is Calais Campbell. Despite missing 3 games with injury last season, he still graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked 3-4 defensive end, behind only JJ Watt and Muhammad Wilkerson. That’s nothing new for him as he graded out 2nd in 2011, 8th in 2010, and 4th in 2009. The 2008 2nd round pick has emerged as one of the best defensive linemen in football in relative obscurity in Arizona. He’s worth every penny of the 5-year, 55 million dollar contract the Cardinals gave him before the 2012 season, after making him their franchise player. He’s still only going into his age 27 season.
Opposite him, Darnell Dockett used to be a similar kind of player. In 2011, he was ProFootballFocus’ 7th ranked 3-4 defensive end, but in 2012, he ranked dead last at his position. He spent a lot of time this off-season blaming ex-defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s scheme for that, but Campbell didn’t seem to mind it and Dockett did just fine under Horton the previous season. It’s possible a switch to a more penetrating scheme under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will revitalize him and he is a better fit for a scheme that allows him to move around, rather than plugging two gaps, but it’s also possible that going into his age 32 season, his best days are behind him.
At nose tackle, the Cardinals have 2010 1st round pick Dan Williams. Williams hasn’t been a bad player in his first 3 seasons in the league, but he hasn’t been able to be much more than a part-time player and a pure two-down nose tackle. He stops the run well, but little else and he’s also had weight and conditioning problems that have earned him a spot in former coaches’ doghouses. Going into his 4th season in the league, he may be counted on to play a new career high in snaps (right now it’s 428) and play more passing downs and rush the passer with Dockett on the decline. We’ll see if he can handle it. David Carter is another option. The 2011 6th round pick has been solid in reserve the last 2 seasons.
As I mentioned earlier, stud middle linebacker Daryl Washington has a laundry list of off the field problems. Washington is already suspended for the first 4 games of the season in violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, but he could be facing additional games as his domestic assault case plays out in court. He’s been working with the 2nd team defense this off-season and while he’ll probably regain a starting job whenever he returns, it’s a clear message that he’s walking a thin line.
In his absence, Karlos Dansby and Kevin Minter will be the starters. Minter is a 2nd round rookie so we’ll see what he has. Dansby, meanwhile, returns to Arizona after 3 seasons in Miami. He’s a versatile player who can play 4-3 middle linebacker, 4-3 outside linebacker, and 3-4 inside linebacker, which will be his primary position in Arizona. He graded out above average as ProFootballFocus’ 13th ranked middle linebacker last season, but he was cut in favor of the younger Dannell Ellerbe and took a while to find a new home. Heading into his age 32 season, we might not be able to expect him to be anything more than an average starter this season.
Certainly, Dansby and Minter will not have anywhere near the kind of impact that Daryl Washington had last season, though it’s good to see that Paris Lenon, who graded out as the 2nd worst middle linebacker in the league last year, is no longer a starter. Washington was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked middle linebacker last season and the 2010 2nd round pick is only going into his age 27 season. He excels at pretty much everything, especially stopping the run and blitzing the quarterback. The latter is actually probably where he’ll be missed the most.
No team blitzed their middle linebackers more last season than the Arizona Cardinals, with a rush linebacker usually taking their spot in coverage. It wasn’t just Washington. Washington’s 154 blitz snaps were actually 2nd at his position behind Lenon (who was not nearly as good). It’s unclear if the Cardinals will continue to do that under new leadership defensively, but as long as Washington is on the field, they’d be stupid not to at least utilize Washington in that manner. He’s much better blitzing than he is in coverage as he had 9 sacks, 4 hits, and 10 hurries on those 154 blitzes. No middle linebacker graded out better blitzing the quarterback and it wasn’t even close. It wasn’t a fluke either as in 2011 he was 2nd at his position in terms of blitzing grade, with 6 sacks, 5 hits, and 19 hurries on 141 blitzes.
The reason this will probably be where he’s missed most is because they have absolutely no one who can get to the quarterback from the outside. Despite Washington’s strong play as a blitzer and Campbell’s strong play on the defensive line, they still graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 23rd ranked team in terms of rushing the passer. Even though rushing the passer is not their primary job, Campbell and Washington still combined for 16 of the team’s 39 sacks. They’ll really struggle to get to the quarterback without him.
Sam Acho was ProFootballFocus’ 30th ranked rush linebacker out of 34 eligible, particularly struggling rushing the passer. O’Brien Schofield, who started just 9 games due to injury, wasn’t much better, ranking 26th despite limited playing time. The oft injured Schofield is now buried on the depth chart, but not behind anyone they can expect much from. Alex Okafor is a mere 4th round rookie, while free agent acquisition Lorenzo Alexander is a 30-year-old career backup and special teamer. Even Tim Fugger, a 2nd year undrafted free agent who didn’t play a snap for the team last season, is ahead of Schofield. It’s not a promising group.
The Cardinals also suffered some off-season losses in the secondary, losing starting safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes. Wilson was a declining player who was benched in sub packages down the stretch, so he won’t be a huge loss, but Kerry Rhodes was actually ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked safety last season and he only remains unsigned as of this writing because of his age (31) and asking price.
In their absence, the Cardinals will start Yeremiah Bell and Rashad Johnson. Bell had somewhat of a bounce back year with the Jets last season, grading out just below average, but that was because he rarely played outside of the box. In 2011, with Miami, he was ProFootballFocus’ 74th ranked safety out of 87 eligible. Heading into his age 35 season, he could be one of the worst starting safeties in the league this season.
3rd round rookie Tyrann Mathieu would get the first crack of replacing Bell in the starting lineup should he expectedly struggle, though he’s undersized and inexperienced. Johnson, meanwhile, is a below average career backup who saw some action down the stretch in sub packages last season in place of Wilson. The 2009 3rd round pick played just 115 snaps last season and seems unlikely to be anything more than a marginal starter at best.
Fortunately, the Cardinals should expect an even better season from Patrick Peterson, the building block of their secondary. Peterson is a little overrated right now. That’s not to say he’s not a good player. However, he made the Pro-Bowl as a rookie in 2011 for his return skills and not for his coverage skills, as he graded out 102nd out of 109 eligible cornerbacks and, while he improved to 18th in 2012, he still was not deserving of the Pro-Bowl nod he got as a cornerback. However, going into his 3rd year in the league, he has a chance to breakout as legitimately one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. He has that kind of talent and he’s only 23. It’s unclear if he’ll continue to return punts now that he’s their legitimate #1 cornerback.
Opposite him, however, things are a mess. Incumbent starter William Gay is gone, which isn’t bad because he was ProFootballFocus’ 105th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible last season, but replacements Jerraud Powers (81st) and Antoine Cason (107th) aren’t much better. They’ll compete for the starting job with 2012 3rd round pick Jamell Fleming, who graded out below average on 277 snaps as a rookie last year. Javier Arenas, a decent slot cornerback and nothing more, will also be in the mix for snaps on the slot. Whoever wins the #2 and #3 cornerback jobs, they will be positions of weakness.
Calais Campbell and Patrick Peterson are really the only two players on defense who you can expect to be something more than an average starter. Washington belongs in that sentence as well as long as he’s on the field, but that’s a question mark. However, as good as those 3 are, they just have a lot of average at best defensively, which is why I can’t see them being the 6th best defense in the league like DVOA said they were last year and why I can’t see them allowing in the teens scoring wise even if their offense improves as it should.
I think I’ve already said everything I can about Bruce Arians. I can’t remember a time when a reigning Coach of the Year switched teams in the off-season. This was absolutely the best hire they could make and it gives them their best chance of turning things around offensively. Even though he has just one year of Head Coaching experience, he excelled in that one year and he excelled as an offensive coordinator as well prior to that.
While I expect the Cardinals to surpass their over/under projection of 5.5 wins, it won’t be by much. This is a much improved team, but they play in a loaded conference and an especially loaded division so I don’t see much more than 6 or 7 wins for them. They’ll be lucky to take one from Seattle and San Francisco in those 4 games and lucky to split with St. Louis. They’ll win 1 or 2 divisional games.
Outside of the division, they host Detroit, Carolina, Atlanta, Houston, and Indianapolis. All 5 of those teams might be better than them so they’ll be lucky to get 2 wins out of those 5. So far, I have them at 3 or 4 wins. Fortunately, they have trips to Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Philadelphia, with only a trip to New Orleans appearing unwinnable. They should be able to get another couple of wins there and get to that 6 win total.
Projection: 6-10 4th in NFC West