The Cardinals were one of the NFL’s most improved teams from 2012 to 2013, going from 5 wins to 10 wins. Why did they improve? Well, their quarterback play improved from abysmal in 2012, when they completed 55.4% of passes for an average of 5.6 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions. Even worse, after Kevin Kolb got hurt in 2012, 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. That’s a big part of the reason why they finished 5-11 after starting 4-0.
Carson Palmer wasn’t great, but he was a monstrous upgrade, completing 63.3% of his passes for an average of 7.47 YPA, 24 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions. He was able to get the ball downfield to the Cardinals’ talented receiving corps, which includes Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, the latter of whom broke out with his first 1000 yard season in 2013, his 2nd year in the NFL.
Their running backs also were better. After they averaged 3.4 yards per carry on the ground in 2012, they averaged 3.6 yards per carry in 2013. Lead back Rashard Mendenhall struggled, averaging 3.2 yards per carry, but Andre Ellington averaged 5.5 yards per carry as the backup. For some reason, he only got 118 carries to Mendenhall’s 217, as Bruce Arians channeled his inner Todd Haley and gave the clearly inferior running back half as many carries. Mendenhall is a free agent this off-season and losing him might be addition by subtraction for 2014.
The Cardinals still weren’t great offensively, with an average passing game, a below average running game, and an abysmal offensive line, but they were good enough offensively to let their defense shine and help them win games. Their defense allowed opponents to move the chains at a 68.19% rate, 8th best in the NFL, propelling them to a 11th place finish in rate of moving the chains differential. Only Detroit ranked higher among non-playoff teams and they were the only non-playoff team to win 10 games. They could very well sneak into the playoffs next season, but they are in the NFL’s best division, which doesn’t help matters.
The Cardinals traded Levi Brown early this season, which was a good move because he sucks, but Bradley Sowell was horrific in his absence, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked offensive tackle. Neither of youngsters Nate Potter nor Bobbie Massie did anything of note this season, playing 80 and 57 snaps respectively this season. Meanwhile, free agent acquisition Eric Winston was awful as well at right tackle, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 69th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible. He’s a free agent this off-season anyway. They need one, if not two new starters at offensive tackle this off-season. They’ll definitely heavily consider offensive tackles with the 20th overall pick.
The Cardinals really need to get more edge rush than just from John Abraham. Abraham had 12 sacks, but no other rush linebacker had more than 3 sacks and Abraham is going into his age 36 season in 2014, so he won’t be around much longer. Matt Shaughnessy started opposite him and he was terrible as a pass rusher, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in terms of pass rush grade on Pro Football Focus. He’s a free agent this off-season anyway.
Carson Palmer was a tremendous upgrade on the crap the Cardinals had at quarterback in 2012, but he still wasn’t great, completing 63.3% of his passes for an average of 7.47 YPA, 24 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions. Even worse, he’s going into his age 35 season and will be a free agent after next season so he won’t be around much longer. They’re in an awkward position picking 20th overall and they won’t be able find an upgrade over Palmer in the first round, even if they wanted to, which I’m not sure they do. However, they don’t really have a developmental quarterback on the roster behind him so it wouldn’t be surprising at all if they drafted one after the 1st round.
Bruce Arians likes his tight ends to be blockers first for some reason. As a result, Jim Dray led the team in snaps played by Cardinal tight ends. However, he was overmatched as an inline tight end, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th worst ranked tight end in terms of run blocking grade. He also only caught 26 passes for 215 yards and 2 touchdowns and he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst tight end overall. He’s a free agent this off-season so the Cardinals should take this opportunity to upgrade the position. Rob Housler is their best pass catching tight end, but he can’t block at all so Arians probably won’t make him the starter. They might look at tight ends in the mid-round of the draft.
Darnell Dockett is an aging player going into his age 33 season and on the decline. This might be his last season with the Cardinals as the Cardinals can cut him and save 6.55 million in cash and cap space going into his age 34 season in 2015. They don’t have an internal replacement at all and they have very little depth at the position, especially with Frostee Rucker set to hit free agency. They should spend a mid-round pick on the position.
Javier Arenas was their primary kickoff returner last season, returning 22 of 26 kickoffs, but he’s a free agent this off-season. He wasn’t very good anyway, averaging 21.3 yards per kickoff return, as the Cardinals averaged 20.0 yards per kickoff return, tied for dead last in the NFL. They should use a mid-round pick on a kickoff return specialist.
Patrick Peterson wasn’t nearly as good as a punt returner this year as he usually has been, averaging just 6.0 yards per punt return, as the Cardinals averaged 5.8 yards per punt return as a team, 31st in the NFL. It’s probably best to just allow Peterson focus on cornerback, to avoid unnecessary injury to their best coverage defensive back, and find a punt return specialist. They’ll be looking for someone who can return kickoffs and punts in the mid rounds of the draft.
Jay Feely is a free agent going into his age 38 season. He’s still a good kicker, nailing 30 of 36, but if they can’t retain him, they’ll have to replace him.
Key Free Agents
MLB Karlos Dansby
Karlos Dansby was a solid middle linebacker in Miami, grading out as a top-13 middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons from 2010-2012, but the Dolphins cut him last off-season anyway in an attempt to get younger at the position. Dansby went back to Arizona, where his career started, on a cheap one year deal and arguably had the best season of his career, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked middle linebacker in 2013. Meanwhile, Dannell Ellerbe, his replacement in Miami, was awful this season. He’s going into his age 33 season, but he still won’t come nearly as cheap as he did last off-season. The Cardinals will attempt to re-sign him, but they don’t have a ton of cap space and Dansby will command quite a bit of money on a short-term deal.
WR Andre Roberts
A solid depth receiver who could start in some places in the league, Andre Roberts caught 43 passes for 471 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2013 as the Cardinals’ #3 receiver. In a bigger role in 2012, he caught 64 passes for 759 yards and 5 touchdowns, which is actually pretty impressive considering his quarterback play. He’ll get a decent amount of money on his next contract.
S Yeremiah Bell
Yeremiah Bell looked pretty done after the 2011 season, as an aging safety who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked safety out of 89 eligible. However, he played pretty decent as a starter with the Jets in 2012 and then in 2013 with the Cardinals. That being said, he’s now going into his age 36 season so he might have to wait a little bit for the phone to ring and he might have trouble finding a starting job.
OT Eric Winston
Eric Winston was a top-26 offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus from 2008-2012 and a top-14 offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus from 2009-2011. However, despite being an above average starting right tackle, Winston was still cut after both the 2011 and 2012 season for financial reasons, first by the Texans and then the Chiefs. He sat on the open market a while probably because teams weren’t too excited about someone who had been cut in back-to-back off-seasons, but he ended up with the tackle needy Cardinals. However, he struggled mightily, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 69th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible. Now he’s going into his age 31 season and looking at his 4th team in as many years after the worst year of his career. He’s also exclusively a right tackle and that’s not as valuable of a position. He won’t be a hot commodity on the open market and should consider himself lucky if he gets a starting job.
RB Rashard Mendenhall
Rashard Mendenhall was a first round pick of the Steelers in 2008, but he never really lived up to that. He was a starter in Pittsburgh for 3 seasons, but he only once exceeded 4.1 yards per carry in 5 seasons with the Steelers. Hurting matters, he tore his ACL at the end of the 2011 season, limiting him to 3.6 yards per carry and 6 games in 2012 and then 3.2 yards per carry in 2013. This past season, he rushed for 687 yards on 217 carries. He’s only a short yardage plodder and shouldn’t be anyone’s lead back. He’s averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in his career and will probably have to settle for one year deals this off-season.
OLB Matt Shaughnessy
Matt Shaughnessy struggled mightily as a 4-3 defensive end in 2012 with the Raiders, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th worst ranked 4-3 defensive end overall and 4th worst ranked in terms of pass rush grade. Moving to a 3-4 and playing rush linebacker in 2013 with the Cardinals didn’t help matters, as could be expected of the 6-5 270 pounder. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, including 3rd worst in terms of pass rush grade. He’s a rotational defensive end at best.
TE Jim Dray
Jim Dray led the team in snaps played by Cardinal tight ends because Bruce Arians likes his tight ends to block primarily for some reason. However, he was overmatched as an inline tight end, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th worst ranked tight end in terms of run blocking grade. He also only caught 26 passes for 215 yards and 2 touchdowns and he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst tight end overall. He’s a depth tight end at best.
K Jay Feely
Jay Feely is going into his age 38 season, but age hasn’t stopped him yet. The career 82.7% field goal kicker nailed 30 of 36 field goals. Feely’s 329 career field goals made are 21st all-time. He won’t hurt for work if he wants to continue playing.
Cap Casualty Candidates
MLB Jasper Brinkley
Jasper Brinkley was brought in to be a starter last off-season, with Paris Lenon gone and Daryl Washington facing suspension. However, the Cardinals also brought in Karlos Dansby through free agency and Kevin Minter in the 2nd round of the draft. Dansby had a great season and Washington seems to have put his legal troubles behind him. Even if Dansby leaves as a free agency, I’d guess that Minter would be the starter inside next to Washington, with Brinkley being a cap casualty. They can save 2 million dollars in cap space by cutting him, which makes sense.
RB Ryan Williams
Ryan Williams is as big of a bust as a 2nd round pick can be, playing a combined 142 snaps in 5 games in his 3 seasons in the league thanks to injury and ineffectiveness. When on the field, he carried the ball 58 times for 164 yards, a pathetic 2.8 yards per carry. Owed just over a million dollars going into the final year of his rookie deal, he’s unlikely to be back. There’s at least 3 running backs ahead of him on the depth chart, 4 if they bring back Rashard Mendenhall.