Arizona Cardinals 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Cardinals were the only team in the NFL to win 10+ games and miss the playoffs last season, going 10-6, but finishing a game behind New Orleans for the 2nd wild card spot in the loaded NFC. They did that despite facing the 5th toughest schedule in the NFL in terms of opponent’s DVOA and playing in the NFC West, the toughest division in football. The Cardinals went 2-4 in the division (including the first win by a visitor in Seattle in the Russell Wilson era), but 8-2 outside of the division. Only Kansas City and Seattle (9-1) finished with better non-divisional records and the Cardinals were tied for 3rd in that aspect with New England, Cincinnati, and Denver.

They finished 10th in DVOA, best among non-playoff teams, and 11th in rate of moving the chains differential at 2.82%, 2nd best among non-playoff teams. Their defense was better than their offense, as they finished 8th in the NFL, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 68.19% rate, but their offense wasn’t terrible, moving the chains at a 71.01% rate, 18th in the NFL. Their improved offense was the reason they were able to have a 5 win improvement last season, after Cardinal quarterbacks combined to complete 55.4% of his passes for an average of 5.56 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions in 2012, a league worst 63.1 QB rating.

So why, if the Cardinals were so good, is their odds maker over/under at 7.5 wins? Is that a no brainer bet? I wouldn’t fall into that trap. When it seems too good to be true with the odds makers, it usually is. The Cardinals aren’t going to be as good of a team this season. Defensively, they could be a lot worse this season. Karlos Dansby is gone as a free agent. Daryl Washington got a season long suspension. Tyrann Mathieu is a major question mark coming off of a torn ACL suffered in December. Darnell Dockett and John Abraham are going into their age 33 and age 36 seasons respectively and the latter could be facing a suspension for his 2nd DUI.

The Cardinals will have to be more reliant on their offense this season and I don’t know if they’re up to the task. They weren’t great last season and now Carson Palmer is going into his age 35 season. Palmer completed 63.3% of his passes last season for an average of 7.47 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, a solid QB rating of 83.9. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked quarterback and has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since 2009, but he could hit a wall in terms of his abilities at any time at his age. The Cardinals drafted Logan Thomas in the 4th round for that reason, but he’s not going to be anywhere near ready for action as a rookie. If he ever becomes a solid starter, it’ll be in 2015 and beyond, as Palmer has a voidable 10 million dollar salary for 2015.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

There are ways the Cardinals could be an improved offense this season if Palmer doesn’t completely fall off a cliff. The left side of their offensive line is much improved as they signed Jared Veldheer to a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal and they get Jonathan Cooper, the 7th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, back from a broken leg that cost him his entire rookie season. Cooper is a complete wild card coming off of that injury with no career snaps under his belt, but he was regarded as one of the best interior offensive line prospects of the decade coming out of the University of North Carolina. He should be an upgrade over Daryn Colledge, who graded out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus last season and then left as a free agent to Miami.

Veldheer is the bigger addition. The 2010 3rd round pick was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked offensive tackle in 2011 and 15th ranked offensive tackle in 2012. There might not have been a needier team for a blindside protector than the Cardinals. He’ll be an obvious upgrade over Bradley Sowell. Sowell was horrific this season at left tackle, after taking over for Levi Brown, an overpaid offensive tackle who was traded to Pittsburgh. Sowell graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked offensive tackle last season.

Veldheer comes cheaper than he would have because of an injury that limited him to 335 snaps in 2013, as the Cardinals get him for 35 million over 5 years when he probably could have commanded upwards of 40 million over 5 years he had not been hurt. It was smart for the Cardinals to pounce on him after an injury plagued year because he doesn’t have much of a history of injury before last season, because it was an upper body injury (torn triceps), which usually doesn’t cause many long-term problems, and because he’s still young, going into his age 27 season. He should bounce back in a big way this season.

The right side of the offensive line is still a big problem. Paul Fanaika played every snap at right guard last season and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked guard out of 81 eligible. That’s no surprise as the 2009 7th round pick didn’t play an offensive snap in any of his first 4 seasons in the league. Ideally, the Cardinals would prefer that 2013 4th round pick Earl Watford beat him out for the starting job, but he was unable to get on the field over Fanaika for a single snap last season, reportedly because of mental errors. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but, considering he was just a mid-round pick, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he never develops into the starter they want him to become.

Right tackle is a three way battle and Bradley Sowell is currently in the lead, with Bobby Massie and Nate Potter as the competition. As I mentioned earlier, Sowell struggled mightily last season, grading out as the worst offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus. He could be better at right tackle, but he struggled mightily on just 52 snaps as an undrafted rookie at right tackle in 2012 in Indianapolis. If he wins the starting job, I do not expect him to play well and he could easily get benched at some point.

Massie and Potter also come from the 2012 draft class, getting taken in the 4th and 7th round respectively by the Cardinals. They saw significant action as rookies. Massie made all 16 starts at right tackle and graded out 74th out of 80 eligible. He got better as the season went on, grading out well below average in 5 of his first 10 games and well above average in just 1 of those first 10 games. However, in his final 6 games, he graded out well above average in 5 games and well below average in 1 game.

Potter, meanwhile, played 435 snaps in 8 games (6 starts at left tackle) and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 67th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible, despite the limited playing time. Neither of the two played much in 2013, as Potter played 80 snaps and Massie played 57 snaps. Both graded out below average, Potter especially so. Eric Winston struggled at right tackle last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 69th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible, but there is no guarantee that they’ll have better right tackle play this season.

The only offensive lineman the Cardinals had last season who graded out above average was starting center Lyle Sendlein, who played every snap. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ ranked 18th overall (out of 35 eligible). He’s become a solid, but unspectacular player since struggling in his first year as a starter in 2008, grading out above average in 4 of 5 seasons from 2009-2013, maxing out at 16th in 2011. It’s an overall improved offensive line, but there are still serious issues up front.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Another area the Cardinals could be improved in offensively is running the football. The Cardinals averaged just 3.65 yards per carry last season, largely because Rashard Mendenhall averaged 3.17 yards per carry and the Cardinals still stubbornly stuck with him as the lead back, giving him 217 carries. This was despite backup Andre Ellington rushing for 652 yards and 3 touchdowns on 118 carries, an average of 5.52 yards per carry. Mendenhall is now gone so Ellington will become the lead back. The Cardinals seem to have finally realized what they have with him as they’ve been talking him up as a feature back all off-season.

Ellington is only 5-9 199 and the Cardinals were concerned about his ability to carry a load, which could have some merits, but he was definitely deserving of a bigger role. He also added 39 catches for 371 yards and a touchdown and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked running back on just 414 snaps, with no running back playing fewer snaps and graded out higher in pure run grade (7th). The 2013 6th round pick probably won’t average 5.52 yards per carry again this season, in a bigger role, but he should still average a high YPC and he could approach 300 touches as a three down back.

There’s a battle for the backup role between Jonathan Dwyer and Stepfan Taylor, an important battle because both are big backs and Ellington might not be the goal line back this season. Either of them could be Ellington’s goal line vulture and see about 100 touches total on the season. The 5-9 216 pound Taylor averaged just 3.19 yards per carry (115 yards on 36 carries) as a 5th round rookie in 2013. Meanwhile, the 5-11 229 pound Dwyer has averaged 4.22 yards per carry (971 yards and 2 touchdowns on 230 carries) in 4 seasons in the league with Pittsburgh since going in the 6th round in 2010. The Cardinals need Ellington to be the feature back they think he can be because they don’t have another option, but, no matter what, they should be better on the ground this season than last season (the run blocking should be better too because the offensive line is improved) and they could easily be a lot better.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

One area of the Cardinals’ offense that remains strong is the receiving corps as the Cardinals have one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. Floyd broke out in his 2nd year in the league in 2013, as the 13th overall pick in 2012 caught 65 passes for 1041 yards and 5 touchdowns on 107 targets (60.7%) and 569 routes run, an average of 1.83 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked wide receiver last season. He’s still a one year wonder as an NFL player, after struggling as a rookie, but rookie receivers tend to struggle anyway and he’s got a ton of talent. He could be even better in his 3rd year in the league.

While Floyd’s career is on the up, Larry Fitzgerald’s career is on the way down, as he heads into his age 31 season. Fitzgerald has gone under 1000 yards receiving in each of the last 2 seasons. His 71/798/4 line in 2012 was understandable because he had supremely terrible quarterback play, but even with better quarterback play, he only caught 82 passes for 954 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013. That’s obviously still very solid, but this is the guy who averaged 94 catches for 1309 yards and 10 touchdowns per 16 games from 2005-2011, even though he never really had great quarterback play, except for those couple Warner years.

Now in his 30s, he’s simply not the same player any more. He’s still really good, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked wide receiver last season (though just 25th in pass catching grade), catching 63.6% of his passes for an average of 1.59 yards per route run, but he’s not worth the absurd 16 million dollar non-guaranteed salary he’s owed in 2014, so this could easily be his last year with the team. Until then, he’ll continue to be a talented wide receiver and complement for Michael Floyd. Because the Cardinals have both of them, opposing defenses can’t lock on to one receiver.

Andre Roberts was the 3rd receiver last season and graded out below average. The Cardinals let him walk in free agency and replaced him with Ted Ginn, who graded out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus last season, catching 36 passes for 556 yards and 5 touchdowns on 62 targets (58.1%) and 350 routes run, an average of 1.59 yards per route run. However, the Cardinals are getting a one year wonder as last season was the best season of his career, as the bust of a 2007 1st round pick graded out below average in each of his first 6 seasons in the league. He has obvious value in the return game though.

The Cardinals also used 2nd and 3rd round picks on their receiving corps. Wide receiver John Brown was drafted in the 3rd round and reports about him have been promising this off-season. He could push Ginn for the #3 wide receiver role. More likely, he won’t see significant action until 2015 and beyond when Fitzgerald is gone. Rookie wide receivers rarely do much. Meanwhile, the Cardinals drafted Troy Niklas in the 2nd round. He could be their starting tight end this season.

The 6-6 270 pound Niklas is head coach Bruce Arians’ type of tight end because of his size and blocking ability. He’s raw as a pass catcher, but he could still see immediate snaps as a rookie. Arians’ offenses don’t feature the tight end as a pass catcher much anyway. He’s a little behind veterans John Carlson and Jake Ballard right now because he broke his hand and missed some off-season practice, but he’s good to go for training camp so he could overtake them before the start of the season.

Carlson is a marginal player who has graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, but he hasn’t played more than 505 snaps since 2010, when he graded out below average, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 56th ranked tight end out of 63 eligible on 801 snaps that season. He’s played a combined 760 snaps over the past 3 seasons because he missed all of 2011 with injury and then he was a backup in 2012 and 2013 in Minnesota. Now going into his age 30 season, he’s probably best off in that role as a solid backup tight end.

Jake Ballard was Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked tight end in 2011, but he tore his ACL in the Super Bowl that year and has played 176 snaps over the other 3 seasons of his career combined. The 2010 undrafted free agent has only graded out above average in one of his four seasons in the NFL.  Rob Housler is also in the mix, but the 6-5 250 pounder isn’t nearly the blocker that Arians is looking for. The 2011 3rd round pick has graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league and could be on the outside looking in at final cuts, if the Cardinals are unable to trade him before then. I expect the trio of Niklas, Carlson, and Ballard to split snaps at the position with Niklas likely leading the way in snaps played.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

I mentioned that the Cardinals have a lot of issues defensively compared to last season. One of those issues is not Calais Campbell, who should remain one of the more dominant defensive linemen in the game. The 2008 2nd round pick has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 5 seasons as a starter, dating back to 2009. He’s graded out in the top-3 among 3-4 defensive ends in each of the last 3 seasons, the only player at his position who can say that. He’s one of the best players in the NFL.

Darnell Dockett is the starter opposite him though and you can’t say the same thing about him. He’s graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in 6 of the last 7 seasons, including 26th out of 28 eligible 3-4 defensive ends in 2008, 31st out of 39 eligible in 2009, 34th of out 42 eligible in 2010, and dead last eligible in 2012. Last season, when he graded out 30th out of 45 eligible, it was actually one of his better seasons in the league recently. Now he goes into his age 33 season and he could easily struggle mightily again. The veteran is highly overrated. The Cardinals drafted Kareem Martin in the 3rd round to be his long-term solution and he should steal some snaps from Dockett as a rookie.

Dan Williams, meanwhile, is the nose tackle. The 2010 1st round pick hasn’t lived up to his expectations at all, as he’s never played more than 428 snaps in a season in 4 years in the league. However, he’s graded out above average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league and he’s pretty settled into his role as a two-down run stuffing nose tackle. The 6-2 327 pounder will continue to serve in that role this season, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked defensive tackle on 291 snaps last season, including 12th in pure run stopping grade, despite the limited playing time.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

John Abraham was signed by the Cardinals to a 2-year, 4.6 million dollar deal last off-season in late July and he turned out to be one of the biggest steals of the off-season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker last season. Despite his advanced age, this should not have been a surprise as the active all-time leader in sacks (9th all-time) and potential future Hall-of-Famer graded out in the top-4 among 4-3 defensive ends in every season from Pro Football Focus’ origin in 2007 and 2012. This issue is now he’s going into his age 36 season and he got arrested for DUI for the 2nd time in his career this off-season and could be facing a short suspension. His abilities could fall off the cliff this season, after he already showed some decline last season (as compared to 2007-2012).

That would be really bad for the Cardinals because they don’t have any edge rush other than him. Matt Shaughnessy is the starter opposite him. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 42 eligible last season, including 40th in pure pass rush grade. This isn’t anything new as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 56th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 62 eligible in 2012, including 59th in pure pass rush grade. He should only be a base package player, setting the edge against the run, but they don’t really have another option to be the sub package edge rusher.

The candidates to push Shaughnessy for that role include Sam Acho and Alex Okafor, a pair of former Texas Longhorns who went in the 4th round of recent drafts. Okafor (2013) has yet to play a snap in the NFL after missing his entire rookie year with injury, while Acho (2011) was limited to 104 snaps in 3 games by injuries last season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 34 eligible in 2012 and 25th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 28 eligible in 2011. Neither is much of a better option than Shaughnessy.

Middle linebacker is where the Cardinals lost the most this off-season as Karlos Dansby signed with the Browns and Daryl Washington was handed a yearlong suspension for a variety of violations of league rules. Dansby was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked middle linebacker last season, while Washington was 20th after missing the first 4 games of the season with a different suspension. A special athlete, Washington excelled in coverage, grading out 6th in that aspect at his position.

The duo expected to start in their absence is a serious downgrade. Kevin Minter was a 2013 2nd round pick, but he played just 1 snap as a rookie, so he’s completely unproven. He’s expected to be an every down player. Jasper Brinkley, meanwhile, is expected to be a two-down player and only play in base packages. He flashed on 210 snaps last season, excelling as a run stopper, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked middle linebacker out of 53 eligible in 2012 in the only season in his career in which he’s seen significant action. He wasn’t terrible against the run, which is more relevant to his current role, but he was 2nd worst at his position in coverage grade, which is something he’s not going to be able to escape. Rookie safety Deone Bucannon, the Cardinals’ first round pick, will come down and play linebacker in nickel packages. The 6-1 211 pounder is a powerful hitter for a safety.

Grade: C

Secondary

Bucannon will primarily play at safety at base packages. Ideally, Tyrann Mathieu will play at the other safety spot.  However, Mathieu tore his ACL week 14 and his status for the start of the season is in doubt. He could be put on the PUP list and be forced to miss the first 6 games of the season. Even when he returns, he could be less than 100% and completely behind the 8-ball after missing the entire off-season of practice and the first 6 weeks of the season. Last season, the 3rd round rookie graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked cornerback, splitting time as a slot cornerback and a safety. This year, with more depth at cornerback, the Cardinals want him to play full-time at safety, provided he’s on the field.

The 3rd safety role is going to be very important for the Cardinals this season, considering Mathieu could easily miss time and considering Bucannon will only play safety part-time. Rashad Johnson and Tony Jefferson will compete for that role. Johnson graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked safety on 643 snaps last season, in the best season of the marginal player’s 5-year career. Jefferson, meanwhile, flashed on 202 snaps as an undrafted rookie last season. Johnson is probably the favorite. Whoever loses this battle will be the 4th safety and play a part-time role in games that Mathieu misses.

At cornerback, Patrick Peterson remains as one of the young, healthy building blocks of this season. He got an absurd 5-year, 70 million dollar extension this off-season two years before the end of his rookie deal (the Cardinals picked up his 5th year option for 2015 earlier on the off-season). He’s not worth that money yet, but he’s only going into his age 24 season and he’s been very impressive over the past 2 seasons, after struggling as a rookie.

He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked cornerback in 2012 and 14th ranked cornerback in 2013. That is actually even more impressive than it sounds considering how inconsistent cornerback play has been over the past few seasons. Only Richard Sherman, Jason McCourty, and Chris Harris have also graded out in the top-16 in each of the last 2 seasons. He’s a very good cornerback right now who could easily become the great cornerback he’s being paid like over the next few seasons.

The Cardinals signed Antonio Cromartie to a cheap one-year deal (3.25 million) to start opposite Peterson this season. The reason they were able to get him so cheap is because Cromartie is coming off of an awful season. A league average cornerback from 2009-2011, Cromartie had a dominant 2012 campaign, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked overall cornerback, allowing just 46.0% completion, 5th best at his position.

However, Cromartie was awful in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th worst cornerback, 2nd worst in terms of coverage grade. He was torched with regularity, allowing 19.1 yards per completion, 2nd highest in the NFL. It’s possible his rapid decline last season was largely due to a hip injury and if he’s healthy in 2014, he could be a lot better. He’s only going into his age 30 season though so there are no guarantees.

With Cromartie coming in, Jerraud Powers, who started 16 games for the Cardinals last season at cornerback, will be moving to the 3rd cornerback role. It’s still a big role for the Cardinals because they use sub packages often and having a starting caliber cornerback as their 3rd cornerback is a good luxury to have, provided Cromartie can keep it together as the starter. Powers graded out about average last season and graded out above average in 2 of 4 seasons from his rookie year in 2009 to 2012. He has 58 games of starting experience and he averages out as an average cornerback. He also has a fair amount of slot experience. It’s still a defense that won’t be as good as last season though.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Cardinals’ offense could be better this season as a result of the addition of Jared Veldheer, the return of Jonathan Cooper from injury, and a larger role for Andre Ellington. However, Carson Palmer is going into his age 35 season and could torpedo the whole thing if his abilities fall off a cliff. Either way, their offense isn’t going to be good enough to make up for a defense that’s significantly inferior to last season’s.

John Abraham and Darnell Dockett are going into their age 36 and age 33 seasons respectively. Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington are gone. Tyrann Mathieu is coming off of a torn ACL. The odds makers have them at 7.5 wins in terms of over/under and I bet everyone is pounding the over. That seems like a trap. Teams that have big win improvements like the Cardinals had last season (5-11 to 10-6) tend to decline by an average of about half the total the following year, which would put them right at that 7.5 number.

Given that they play in the toughest division in football, they could easily go under that number. Their schedule was tough last season, but it could be even tougher this season. They still have to play the 49ers, Seahawks, and Rams in 6 games (2-4 last season), but their non-divisional schedule (8-2 last season) might actually be tougher this season. They swap out the horrible AFC South (4-0) and the NFC South (3-1) for the AFC West (three playoff teams last season) and the NFC East and instead of playing two last place teams like they did last season, they’ll face two third place teams. It’s not a whole lot tougher, but I don’t see this inferior team going 8-2 against that schedule again and I think 2-4 is very reasonable in the division again (at best) because Seattle and San Francisco are both better than them. I’ll have an official win prediction for them after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 6-10 3rd in NFC West

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