Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Arizona Cardinals: 2017 Week 6 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-2) at Arizona Cardinals (2-3)

The Buccaneers lost last week 19-14 on Thursday Night to the New England Patriots, but they could have easily won the game and gone to 3-1. They had 26 first downs and 2 offensive touchdowns, while the Patriots had just 23 first downs and 1 offensive touchdown. The difference was that the Patriots made 4 field goals, while the Buccaneers missed 3, including two very makeable ones, either of which would have put the Buccaneers in position for a game winning field goal at the end of the game. The Patriots didn’t have Gronkowski in that game, but the Buccaneers were banged up on a short week too, missing safety TJ Ward and linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander, so it was an impressive performance for Tampa Bay all things considered.

Having played on Thursday Night, the Buccaneers got a long break between their week 5 game and this week 6 game and it couldn’t have come at a better time, given their injury situation. Alexander remains out, but both David and Ward are expected to return this week, which will be a big boost to this defense. With Doug Martin returning from suspension and showing some of his 2015 form, the Buccaneers are a team that could be about to go on a little bit of a run. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are 2-3, but both of their wins came in overtime against the 49ers and Colts, two of the worst teams in the NFL. Their 3 losses have come against the Lions, Cowboys, and Eagles, all of whom won by double digits. Last week was their biggest defeat, as they lost 34-7 in Philadelphia.

The Cardinals were a strong 13-3 team in 2015 and were much better than their 7-8-1 record in 2016, but they are not the same team anymore. They lost five starters on defense this off-season, including safeties Tony Jefferson and DJ Swearinger and defensive end Calais Campbell, who were among the best in the NFL at their position in 2016. In addition to those 3 talented starters, the Cardinals are also without left guard Mike Iupati, running back David Johnson, and outside linebacker Markus Golden, who are currently on injured reserve. They’re missing 6 key players from last season’s team and have one of the worst rosters in the NFL as a result.

This line moved from -2.5 in favor of Arizona to -1.5 in favor of Tampa Bay over the past week, likely as a result of Arizona’s big loss, the Buccaneers’ near victory, and the return of key players from injury for Tampa Bay. Normally I like to go against line movement like that, but it’s all between the field goals, so it’s pretty superficial line movement, given that about 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal. The Buccaneers really only need to win straight up here to cover, so, as long as this line is less than a field goal, Tampa Bay should be worth a small bet. I have this line calculated at -3 in favor of the Buccaneers, which is likely where it would be if Tampa Bay made a couple extra field goals last weekend and won. With a new kicker in place, Tampa Bay should be able to win this one by at least a field goal.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 24 Arizona Cardinals 20

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay -1.5

Confidence: Medium

Arizona Cardinals at Philadelphia Eagles: 2017 Week 5 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (2-2) at Philadelphia Eagles (3-1)

The Cardinals finished the 2015 season #1 in first down rate differential when they finished 13-3 and then they finished #1 in that metric again in 2016, despite going 7-8-1, as they could have easily won 10-12 games if not for numerous special teams errors in close games. They missed a game winning field goal against New England. They allowed a long punt return to set up the winning score against the Rams. They had a blocked punt and a number of missed field goals in the tie against the Seahawks. They allowed a kickoff return touchdown in a 6-point loss to the Vikings. And against Miami, in a 3-point loss, special teams cost them 7 points on 3 plays with a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a blocked extra point that was returned for 2 points. Had they made the playoffs, they would have been a difficult opponent.

However, this Cardinals team is not the same team as the past 2 seasons. They lost five defensive starters in free agency, including defensive end Calais Campbell, safety DJ Swearinger, and safety Tony Jefferson, all of whom were among the best players in the league at their position in 2016. On top of that, they’ve been ravaged by injuries, losing running back David Johnson, left guard Mike Iupati, and, most recently, outside linebacker Markus Golden for the season with injury, three other key contributors from 2016. They now have one of the least talented rosters in the league. They’re 2-2, but their only two wins have come in overtime against the 49ers and the Colts, two of the worst teams in the league.

The Eagles, meanwhile, are 3-1 with wins over the Redskins, Giants, and Chargers and they won the first down battle in their loss in Kansas City. They finished last year 7-9, but 6 of their 9 wins came by a touchdown or less. This season, they have Lane Johnson back (5-1 with him last season), an improved receiving corps, and a more confident Carson Wentz under center. They could easily finish with 10-12 wins and win the NFC East, as they have one of the more talented rosters in the league.

However, I can’t take them with much confidence as 6.5 point favorites for two reasons. For one, they’re banged up as well in this one, as top cornerback Ronald Darby remains out after injured his ankle week 1, while stud defensive tackle Fletcher Cox will miss his 2nd straight game with injury. I still have this line at 10.5, but the Eagles have to play again on Thursday Night 4 games after this one, which puts them in a tough spot. Favorites are just 58-90 ATS before Thursday Night Football since 2008. They should be the right side, but this I’d need the line to go down to 5.5 to think about betting on them. They’re a smart survivor pick though.

Philadelphia Eagles 23 Arizona Cardinals 14

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia -6.5

Confidence: Low

San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals: 2017 Week 4 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (0-3) at Arizona Cardinals (1-2)

The Cardinals finished the 2015 season #1 in first down rate differential when they finished 13-3 and then they finished #1 in that metric again in 2016, despite going 7-8-1, as they could have easily won 10-12 games if not for numerous special teams errors in close games. However, this Cardinals team is not the same team as the past 2 seasons. They lost five defensive starters in free agency, including defensive end Calais Campbell, safety DJ Swearinger, and safety Tony Jefferson, all of whom were among the best players in the league at this position in 2016. On top of that, they’ve been ravaged by injuries, most importantly a wrist injury to David Johnson that has him sidelined indefinitely.

As a result, the Cardinals are just 1-2, with their one win coming in overtime against the lowly Colts. The good news is they have arguably their easiest game of the season this week with the 49ers coming to town. After starting the season with back-to-back games on the road and then a home game against the Cowboys, this is a welcome sight for them. They’re also getting healthier, with middle linebacker Deone Bucannon set to make his season debut and left tackle DJ Humphries returning to the lineup for the first time since the first half week 1.

The Cardinals still have injury issues, with Johnson, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, and left guard Mike Iupati out indefinitely, but the 49ers have injuries too, with safety Eric Reid and middle linebacker Reuben Foster out and running back Carlos Hyde limited at best with a hip injury. Given the state of these two rosters right now, I have this line calculated at -9, suggesting these two teams are about 6 points apart. We’re getting some line value with the Cardinals as 6.5 point home favorites, but there isn’t quite enough here for me to be confident in Arizona covering.

Arizona Cardinals 24 San Francisco 49ers 16

Pick against the spread: Arizona -6.5

Confidence: Low

Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals: 2017 Week 3 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (1-1) at Arizona Cardinals (1-1)

The Cardinals are not the same team they were a year ago, when they ranked 1st in first down rate differential. They lost five starters on defense, including stud defensive end Calais Campbell and talented safeties Tony Jefferson and DJ Swearinger, and they have had a rough time with injuries early in the season. Left tackle DJ Humphries, left guard Mike Iupati, and feature back David Johnson got hurt in the opener, while middle linebacker Deone Bucannon has yet to make his season debut.

However, the Cowboys are not the same team as they were last season either. They are weaker on both lines with guard Ronald Leary and right tackle Doug Free gone and defensive tackle David Irving suspended for the first 4 games of the season. More importantly, quarterback Dak Prescott is showing signs of a sophomore slump. The Cowboys get a much easier defense this week after facing the Giants and Broncos in their first 2 games, but they didn’t have nearly that much trouble with even top level defenses last season and, on the other side of the ball, they are coming off of a terrible performance against a middling at best offense. I only have these two teams about 3 points apart, so we’re getting some line value with the Cardinals at +3.5

That being said, I wouldn’t bet on the Cardinals for two reasons. For one, the Cowboys travel about as well as any team in the league. Since 2010, they are 30-29 at home, outscoring opponents by an average of 1.80 points per game, as opposed to 30-27 on the road, where are outscored by an average of 0.68 points per game, meaning they are only at a disadvantage of about 1.5 points in road games, as opposed to the usual 3 points. That eats into the line value we get with the Cardinals. The Cardinals are also in a tough opener in a week 3 home opener, as teams are 26-53 ATS in week 3 home opener since 1989. After two games in the Eastern Time Zone, the Cardinals could be a bit sluggish back at home. They’re the pick for pick ‘em purposes, but aren’t worth betting on.

Dallas Cowboys 26 Arizona Cardinals 24

Pick against the spread: Arizona +3.5

Confidence: Low

Arizona Cardinals at Indianapolis Colts: 2017 Week 2 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (0-1) at Indianapolis Colts (0-1)

The Colts had an embarrassing week 1, losing 46-9 in Los Angeles to a Rams team that won 4 games last season. They only managed 10 first downs to the Rams’ 19 and moved the chains at a 13.97% worse rate than their opponents. It’s clear this is not the same team without all of the players they are missing with injuries, most notably quarterback Andrew Luck, but also center Ryan Kelly, cornerback Vontae Davis, and safety Clayton Geathers. All four of those players will miss this week as well.

The Cardinals also had a nightmare week 1 too, though in a different way. They only lost by 12 in Detroit, but lost star running back David Johnson and left tackle DJ Humphries for an extended period of time with injury. The Cardinals jumped out to a 10-0 lead and led 17-9 in the third quarter, but were outscored 26-6 the rest of the way against an overrated Detroit team that is also missing it’s left tackle and won just one game by more than a touchdown in 2016. The injuries, especially the injury to Johnson, were a big factor in the Cardinals’ declining performance throughout the game.

Johnson and Humphries are not the only Cardinals who will be out this week, as left guard Mike Iupati, tight end Jermaine Gresham, and wide receiver John Brown are also expected to miss this game after playing week 1, while middle linebacker Deone Bucannon remains out after off-season surgery. The Cardinals probably get defensive end Robert Nkemdiche back this week, but he’s hardly the reinforcements they need. The Cardinals also lost 5 defensive starters in free agency this off-season, including stud defensive end Calais Campbell and talented safeties DJ Swearinger and Tony Jefferson, so this team is a far cry from their 2016 version.

Despite both of these teams’ rough first weeks, this line has shifted from 3.5 in favor of the Cardinals to 7 since the early line last week, the biggest line movement in any game from last week to this week. Missing as much as they currently are, the Cardinals shouldn’t be favored by a touchdown on the road against anyone, but the casual betting public sees the Colts as unbettable right now, which is why the public money keeps pouring in on the Cardinals despite the line movement. The public always loses money in the long run, so I’m always weary of heavy public favorites like this. I don’t think the casual public understands how bad the Cardinals are right now given all of their injuries.

The casual public is also likely underestimating the effect of the Colts’ quarterback change from Scott Tolzien to Jacoby Brissett. Brissett has only been with the team for a couple weeks, acquired from the Patriots before final cuts, but he’s undoubtedly more talented than Scott Tolzien (who now has 9 career interceptions to just 2 career touchdowns) and he should be a significant upgrade, even on a limited playbook. He also gives them dual threat ability as a passer and runner than Tolzien did not give them and should do a much better job of getting the ball to what is still an above average receiving corps.

The Colts are also in a good bounce back spot after that horrible defeat, while the Cardinals could overlook the Colts with a much tougher game next week at home against Dallas on Monday Night Football. Teams are 53-28 ATS since 2002 off of a loss of 35+ or more (16-8 ATS since 2012), as teams tend to be overlooked, undervalued, and embarrassed after a huge loss. You can definitely argue the Colts will be all three of those things this week. Meanwhile, road favorites like the Cardinals are just 17-32 ATS since 2012 before being home underdogs, which the Cardinals are expected to be next week against the Cowboys. With a major tougher game on deck, the Cardinals might not have been completely focused in preparation throughout the week and that could show on the field. I’m not super excited about betting on the Colts, but we’re getting too much value here to not make a small bet.

Arizona Cardinals 20 Indianapolis Colts 17

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis +7

Confidence: Medium

Arizona Cardinals at Detroit Lions: 2017 Week 1 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (0-0) at Detroit Lions (0-0)

The Lions made the playoffs last season, but they were arguably the worst team in the league to qualify for the post-season. Their 9-7 record was tied for worst among playoff teams and all 9 wins came against non-playoff teams, making them the only post-season qualifier to not defeat another post-season qualifier. Despite those wins coming against weak opponents, the Lions still only won one game by more than a touchdown all season. They finished 28th in first down rate differential, worst among playoff teams, and only made the post-season because they pulled out some close victories against bad teams. In the post-season, they were predictably destroyed in Seattle by the Seahawks in a 26-6 loss.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, did not make the playoffs, but were a much better team, even going into Seattle late in the season and winning straight up as massive underdogs. They finished 7-8-1, but their special teams swung more than a few games. They missed a game winning field goal against New England. They allowed a long punt return to set up the winning score against the Rams. They had a blocked punt and a number of missed field goals in the tie against the Seahawks. They allowed a kickoff return touchdown in a 6-point loss to the Vikings. And against Miami, in a 3-point loss, special teams cost them 7 points on 3 plays with a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a blocked extra point that was returned for 2 points.

They could have been 12-4 if not for those screw ups and they finished the season #1 in first down rate differential, for the 2nd season in a row. On top of that, their +56 point differential was 7th in the NFL and best among non-playoff teams. They should have better luck in close games in 2017, but they also had a tough off-season. They lost 5 starters on defense, including defensive end Calais Campbell and safeties Tony Jefferson and DJ Swearinger, all of whom were among the best in the league at their position in 2016. They also enter the season without linebacker Deone Bucannon and possibly without left guard Mike Iupati thanks to injury.

They did a good job of finding cheap replacements this off-season, but they are still significantly less talented than last season and they are one of the oldest teams in the league. They may end up winning more games than last season, but they are unlikely to be as effective overall and could be very vulnerable defensive early in the season without Bucannon. The Lions are also without a key player, with left tackle Taylor Decker set to miss the start of the season after having shoulder injury, and the Cardinals should be the right side, but we aren’t getting a ton of line value with them as 2 point road favorites.

Arizona Cardinals 27 Detroit Lions 24

Pick against the spread: Arizona -2

Confidence: Low

Arizona Cardinals 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Cardinals fell to 7-8-1 in 2016, after winning 13 games the previous season, but they were much better than their record suggested. In fact, they finished 1st in first down rate differential for the second straight season, though they did drop from+8.45% to +5.92%. The problem was their special teams swung more than a few games. They missed a game winning field goal against New England. They allowed a long punt return to set up the winning score against the Rams. They had a blocked punt and a number of missed field goals in the tie against the Seahawks. They allowed a kickoff return touchdown in a 6-point loss to the Vikings. And against Miami, in a 3-point loss, special teams cost them 7 points on 3 plays with a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a blocked extra point that was returned for 2 points. They could have been 12-4 if not for those screw ups. They should have better luck this season.

The area in which they had the biggest decline last season was their passing game  After completing 62.8% of their passes for an average of 8.50 YPA, 35 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in 2015, they completed just 59.3% of their passes for an average of 6.85 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions in 2016. Their receiving corps was not nearly as good (more on them later), but there’s no denying that Carson Palmer declined in a big way. Palmer’s QB rating fell 17.4 points and he fell from 4th to 17th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

The decline shouldn’t have been a huge surprise, as 2015 was easily the best season of his career. His QB rating was his highest in a full season in his career by over 10 points. On top of that, 2016 was his age 37 season. Palmer has always been a solid quarterback and has finished above average among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 8 straight seasons, but he is now going into his age 38 season, so he could easily be in his final season in the league and a big decline is certainly possible.

Many thought they would take a quarterback early in the draft, but they didn’t draft one at all. Adding a developmental quarterback would have made sense, not only given Palmer’s age, but also given the fact that their veteran backups Drew Stanton and Blaine Gabbert are among the worst in the league and have always struggled when forced to start in their careers. Stanton has a 66.3 QB rating in 13 career starts, while Gabbert has a 71.5 QB rating in 40 career starts. If Palmer does end up struggling at his advanced age, the Cardinals won’t really have another option. They need him to hold it together for at least one more season.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

As mentioned, the Cardinals’ receiving corps got a lot worse in 2016, after they had one of the best receiving corps in the league in 2015. In 2015, Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown were one of four wide receiver duos to both finish with over 1000 yards and ended the season ranked 8th and 27th respectively among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Michael Floyd, meanwhile, finished 25th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and had 52 catches for 849 yards and 6 touchdowns on the season, despite playing only 652 snaps as the 3rd receiver. In 2016, however, Floyd managed just 33 catches for 446 yards and 4 touchdowns and was cut after week 14 when he was arrested for DUI. Brown, meanwhile, was limited to 39 catches for 517 yards and 2 touchdowns on 594 snaps by a mysterious sickle cell disease that limited his explosiveness and his snap count.

The only one who repeated his strong 2015 season was Larry Fitzgerald, who has been one of the best receivers in the league over the last decade plus. Fitzgerald finished last season 10th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, just 2 spots lower than his 2015 rank. His slash line fell from 109/1215/9 to 107/1023/6, but most of that was as a result of the overall decline of the passing game. Going into his 14th season in the league, Fitzgerald has 1125 career catches (3rd all-time) for 14,389 receiving yards (9th all-time) and 104 receiving touchdowns (8th all-time) in 202 career games, despite not always having great quarterback play, and has finished in the top-10 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 6 of the past 10 seasons. The only concern is he’s going into his age 34 season and is far from a guarantee to continue playing at a high level. He is also rumored to be considering retiring after this season.

John Brown is reportedly back to 100% after the illness he dealt with last season, which could be huge for this offense. He had a strong season in 2015, in just his 2nd season in the league, and could easily bounce back in his age 27 season in 2017. Going into the final season of his rookie deal, Brown could cash in as a free agent this off-season if he proves himself again. With Brown and Floyd struggling, JJ Nelson actually finished 2nd on the team in receiving yards by a wide receiver last season, catching 34 passes for 568 yards and 6 touchdowns. A 2015 5th round pick, Nelson is a one dimensional speedster at 5-10 160 and finished below average on 472 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2016, but is one of the fastest players in the league. He will compete with 3rd round rookie Chad Williams for the #3 receiver job to start 2017.

The #3 receiver has a pretty big role in this offense because they don’t throw to tight ends often. Jermaine Gresham returns for his 3rd season as the Cardinals’ starting tight end. He was used more in the passing game last season out of desperation because Brown and Floyd were not themselves, almost doubling his target total from the previous season (61 vs. 32). However, he didn’t really produce, averaging just 6.41 yards per target on 61 targets. The 6-5 260 pound Gresham is a capable blocker, but has finished below average in 5 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus and is coming off of one of his worst overall seasons, finishing 59th out of 63 eligible tight ends in 2016. He has averaged just 31.8 yards per game in 105 career games, despite starting 93 of them. He won’t be much of a factor in the passing game again this season.

Darren Fells only played 371 snaps as the #2 tight end last season. He signed in Detroit as a free agent this off-season, so Troy Niklas will take over his old role. Niklas was a 2nd round pick in 2014, but his career hasn’t gotten off the ground because of injuries, as he has just 8 catches in 26 career games in 3 seasons in the league. Niklas will get one last chance in the final year of his rookie deal, but he’s unlikely to do much with it, though he still has upside going into only his age 25 season. The 6-6 270 pounder at least has the frame to be a strong blocker, which is about the most the Cardinals can hope for out of him. This team really lacks a good 3rd option in the receiving corps.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Despite the decreased production from the passing game, the Cardinals still finished 6th in first down rate at 38.31%. That’s a significant decrease from their league leading 40.73% rate in 2015, but they were still one of the best in the league in that metric. Their offensive MVP was definitely running back David Johnson, whose breakout 2016 season offset some of the issues they had in the passing game. Not only did he have a strong season on the ground, rushing for 1239 yards and 16 touchdowns on 293 carries (4.23 YPC), but he was also their 2nd leading receiver by a wide margin, catching 80 passes for 879 yards and another 4 touchdowns. Johnson finished the season 1st in the league in yards from scrimmage and in total touchdowns. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked overall back and their 1st ranked back in receiving grade.

A 3rd round pick in 2015, Johnson flashed some of this ability as a rookie when he started the final 5 games of the regular season and then 2 playoff games, rushing for 537 yards and 5 scores on 120 carries in those 7 games (4.48 YPC) and adding 32 catches for 327 yards and 1 touchdown through the air. Going into his age 26 season, Johnson should be able to keep up his high level of play in 2017. Johnson looks like a modern day version of Marshall Faulk with his all-around ability. The 6-1 224 pounder has good size, speed, and runs routes like a receiver. They’ll need him in a big way in the passing game again, given that they lack another good 3rd option.

Johnson will carry the load again for the Cardinals, but, if he were to get injured, the Cardinals would use a committee of Kerwynn Williams, TJ Logan, and Andre Ellington. Williams is a bottom of the roster special teamer who has averaged 5.56 yards per carry on 98 career carries in 3 seasons in the league. Logan is an undersized (5-9 195) 5th round rookie. Ellington is the most experienced of the trio, with a 4.26 career YPC average on 398 carries and 112 catches in 4 seasons in the league, but he is always an injury risk and has never proven capable of carrying the load at 5-9 199. The Cardinals briefly tried him at wide receiver this off-season before moving him back to running back. He might be their primary change of pace back, but wouldn’t become an every down back even if Johnson were to get hurt.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The offensive line is another area where the Cardinals took a step back in 2016. Injuries were a big part of it, as left tackle Jared Veldheer missed the final 8 games of the season with a torn triceps and right guard Evan Mathis missed the final 12 games of the season with an ankle injury. Both were big losses, but Mathis’ was probably the bigger one because he was a top-3 guard on Pro Football Focus in each of the previous 5 seasons prior to 2016 and replacement Earl Watford struggled mightily in his absence, finishing dead last among guards on Pro Football Focus in 11 starts.

Watford is in Jacksonville now, but Mathis retired ahead of his age 36 season this off-season, so the Cardinals might not get much better play at the position this season. Evan Boehm, a 2016 4th round pick who was underwhelming in 2 starts last season, is penciled in as the starter, but he will face competition from 2016 5th round pick Cole Toner, who played just 10 snaps as a rookie, and Dorian Johnson, who was a 4th round pick this year. Their only veteran option is Tony Bergstrom, a 2012 3rd round pick who has made just 4 starts in 5 seasons in the league and is already going into his age 31 season. Regardless of who starts, this figures to be a position of weakness in 2017.

Veldheer returns from injury, but the Cardinals are planning on keeping DJ Humphries at left tackle and playing Veldheer at right tackle. Humphries was their 1st round pick in 2015 and was about a league average starter in 13 starts last season, first at right tackle then at left tackle, after not playing a single snap as a rookie in 2015. Veldheer would probably be the better option at left tackle because he has finished in the top-17 among offensive tackles in each of his last 4 healthy seasons and hasn’t played right tackle since college, but he is going into his age 30 season and has lost 2 of the last 4 seasons to torn triceps injuries. Humphries, meanwhile, has tremendous upside and is still only going into his age 24 season, so the arrow is definitely pointing up for him. The Cardinals could also flip their tackles at any time if this arrangement doesn’t seem to be working out. Owed a non-guaranteed 7 million in the final year of a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal, Veldheer could be entering his final season in Arizona if he doesn’t have a strong season.

Veldheer is one of two well-paid veteran linemen on this offensive line. The other is left guard Mike Iupati, who is going into the 3rd year of a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal. Originally a 2010 1st round pick by the 49ers, Iupati has started 103 games in 7 seasons in the league and has finished above average in all 7 seasons, including 5 seasons in the top-14 among guards on Pro Football Focus. He fell to 33rd among guards last season, which is a bit of a concern, as he’s now going into his age 30 season. He should still be at least a solid guard for them for another couple seasons though.

Rounding out the offensive line at center is veteran AQ Shipley. Shipley is already going into his age 31 season, but last season was his first as a full-time starter. His 16 starts at center last season were more than he had at center in the rest of his career (13). Shipley struggled mightily at left guard in 2013 with the Ravens, but has finished above average in all 4 seasons in which he’s made starts at center and he finished 14th among centers in 2016. His age is a bit of a concern, but he should be a solid center once again in 2017. This offensive line should be solid if they can be healthier this season.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

While the Cardinals’ offense took a bit of a step backwards from 2015 to 2016, their defense was remarkably consistent. In 2015, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 32.28% rate, 9th best in the NFL, and, in 2016, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 32.39% rate, 5th best in the NFL. Unfortunately, they lost 4 defensive starters in free agency this off-season, including a few very talented players, so they could take a big step back defensively this season. That and Carson Palmer’s age are likely to prevent them from bouncing back to 2015 form.

Their biggest defensive loss was defensive end Calais Campbell, who has quietly been their best defensive player for about a decade. Drafted in the 2nd round in 2008, Campbell played 9 seasons with the Cardinals and finished in the top-8 among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 6 straight seasons. Last season was arguably the best season of his career, as he finished 1st among 3-4 defensive ends, but he signed a 4-year, 60 million dollar deal with the Jaguars this off-season, leaving a very big hole on their defensive line.

The Cardinals have an obvious internal replacement in Robert Nkemdiche, their first round pick in 2016, but he played just 83 snaps as a rookie because the Cardinals were not confident in him. With Campbell gone, they won’t have any choice but to play him, so they will obviously be hoping for a huge 2nd year leap from a naturally very talented player. The Cardinals called out his conditioning and he reportedly has responded well this off-season, so a solid 2nd season in the league for him is certainly a possibility. He’ll be an obvious downgrade from Campbell though.

Nkemdiche will probably work in a rotation at defensive end with the three players who rotated opposite Campbell last season, Frostee Rucker (304 snaps), Josh Mauro (388 snaps), and Rodney Gunter (243 snaps). Nkemdiche probably won’t play the 828 snaps that Campbell did last season, so those three will all likely have bigger roles in 2017, even though all three finished well below average. Rucker is the veteran of the bunch, going into his 11th season in the league, but he’s only finished above average twice in 10 seasons in the league and is unlikely to be any better now, going into his age 34 season. At this point in his career, he doesn’t offer much beyond veteran leadership. Meanwhile, Mauro is a 2014 undrafted free agent who the Cardinals signed off the Steelers’ practice squad in 2014, while Gunter is a 2015 4th round pick. Neither has ever finished above average.

Nose tackle Corey Peters finished 2nd on the defensive line in snaps played last season with 497 and was also their 2nd best defensive lineman, finishing just above average overall. He’s only finished above average twice in 6 healthy seasons in the league though and already has two torn achilles on his resume. He’s best as a run stuffer, but he has some experience as an interior pass rusher and could be counted on for a larger role and more sub package snaps with Campbell now in Jacksonville. This defensive line is much worse without Campbell and needs a breakout year from Nkemdiche to even be respectable.

Grade: C-

Linebackers

One defensive starter they didn’t lose as a free agent this off-season was Chandler Jones, who was franchise tagged and eventually signed to a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar long-term deal. The Cardinals traded a 2nd round pick to the Patriots for Jones last off-season and he responded with the best season of his career, finishing 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus, so there was no chance the Cardinals were going to let him go, even with other key players hitting free agency.

When they traded for him, they essentially committed to him long-term over Campbell because Campbell likely would have been tagged and re-signed if not for that trade and they didn’t have the money to keep both. Campbell has had a more impressive career, but Jones is significantly younger, still only going into his age 27 season. The 2012 1st round pick is a one-year wonder in terms of being the top level player he was last season, but has finished above average in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, including a 2014 season in which he finished 11th among 3-4 outside linebackers. He should continue being at least a solid edge defender going forward and is the Cardinals’ best pass rusher.

Opposite him, Markus Golden had a breakout year, giving the Cardinals a pair of edge rushers with 10+ sacks. A 2015 2nd round pick, Golden was solid on 518 snaps as a rookie, but finished his second season in the league 12th among 3-4 outside linebackers. He’s only really been a starter for one year, so he will need to prove it again in 2017, but he looks like one of the best young edge rushers in the league. The Cardinals also signed veteran Jarvis Jones in free agency and he’ll be the primary reserve. A bust as a 2013 1st round pick, Jones had just 6 career sacks in 4 seasons in the league, but is a solid run stopper and will have an early down role. He won’t take any sub package snaps away from Jones and Golden though, as those two are too good at getting to the quarterback to take off the field in passing situations.

The Cardinals did lose middle linebacker Kevin Minter in free agency, but, although he had a solid contract year, he’s easily the most replaceable of the 4 defensive starters they lost in free agency. There’s a reason he had to settle for just a 1-year, 4.25 million dollar deal from the Bengals in free agency. The Cardinals also replaced him very quickly, using the 13th overall pick on Temple’s Haason Reddick. A great edge rusher at Temple, but undersized, Reddick shot up draft boards when he showed he could play off-ball linebacker at the Senior Bowl and figures to be pretty much an every down middle linebacker for the Cardinals.

The Cardinals may move him around the formation some because of his versatility and he’ll probably get about 100 or so shots at rushing the quarterback between blitzes and snaps where he lines up outside, but his best pro position is going to be middle linebacker, given his 6-1 237 frame. He’s drawn comparisons to Jamie Collins because of his ability to rush the passer, cover backs and tight ends, and stop the run as a sideline-to-sideline linebacker. He has excellent upside and could be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

He should start opposite another former first round pick Deone Bucannon, who went 27th overall in 2014. I say “should” because Bucannon had off-season ankle surgery and is a questionable for the start of the season. He could begin the year on the reserve/PUP list, which would cost him the first 6 games of the season at least. If he misses any time, he’d be a big loss, as he’s played at a high level over the past two seasons, since converting from safety to middle linebacker, finishing 15th among middle linebackers in 2015 and 27th in 2016. Undersized at 6-1 211, Bucannon was a trendsetter for box safeties moving to linebacker. Many teams now use box safeties in at least hybrid roles.

In his absence, the Cardinals would start Karlos Dansby, a 13-year veteran who is now on his 3rd stint with the Cardinals. Originally a 2nd round pick by the Cardinals in 2004, Dansby has also played for the Dolphins, Browns, and Bengals. He’s finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 9 of the last 10 seasons, but he is going into his age 36 season, so he’s a major question mark going forward. When Bucannon is healthy, Dansby will be a pure reserve. This is still a talented linebacking corps, but much depends on Bucannon’s health.

Grade: A-

Secondary

Along with Campbell and Minter, the Cardinals also lost starting safeties Tony Jefferson and DJ Swearinger in free agency. Both will be big losses, as they finished 5th and 9th respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus on 931 and 839 snaps respectively. To replace them, the Cardinals signed veteran Antoine Bethea and drafted Washington’s Budda Baker in the 2nd round. They also have Tyrann Mathieu and Tyvon Branch back healthy after they were limited to 10 games and 6 games respectively by injury last season. Mathieu is expected to start at one safety spot in base packages with Bethea, Baker, and Branch competing at that other spot.

Mathieu is healthy now, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy throughout his career. A 3rd round pick in 2013, Mathieu burst onto the scene as a rookie, finishing 3rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus as a hybrid cornerback/safety. However, his rookie season was cut short when he tore his ACL week 14 and missed the rest of the season. In 2014, he was limited to 438 nondescript snaps as he was eased back from the injury. In 2015, he seemed to be all the way back, when he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd highest ranked defensive back, but he again tore his ACL week 15 and missed the rest of the season.

He returned for week 1 of 2016, but he missed another 6 games with a shoulder injury and looked nowhere near 100% all season. He’s only going into his age 25 season, so he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy in 2017, but the 5-9 185 pounder is undersized for how physical he plays and may just be a permanent injury risk. The Cardinals bet a lot of money on him, guaranteeing him 40 million dollars on a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar extension even after his 2nd ACL tear last off-season. They’re obviously hoping he can return to form and stay healthy. He covers the slot in sub packages and plays safety in base packages, often playing around the line of scrimmage.

Like Mathieu, Tyvon Branch can also cover the slot in sub packages, and, unfortunately, like Mathieu, he has major problems staying healthy. He’s finished above average in 5 of his last 6 seasons, but has missed 37 of 64 games with injury over the past 4 seasons and hasn’t played more than 428 snaps in a season since 2012. Going into his age 31 season, it’s unclear if he can make it through an entire season anymore. Budda Baker, who the Cardinals traded up to 36 to get, was selected as insurance for both Mathieu and Branch and could see significant snaps as a rookie. Like Mathieu and Branch, he can cover the slot and play safety. The downside with Baker is that he is just 5-10 195 and received just a 3rd round grade from Pro Football Focus before the draft.

Antoine Bethea is the lone true safety in the mix. He’s also easily the most durable safety they have, as he has played all 16 games in 8 of the last 9 seasons and once went 5 seasons without appearing on the injury report once. The problem is he’s in his age 33 season and has finished below average on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 5 seasons, including 67th out of 90 eligible safeties in 2016. The Cardinals are deep at safety, but there should be opportunity for everyone to have a role this season because they like to use 3 and 4 safety sets in nickel and dime packages and because their 2 best safeties are very injury prone.

The Cardinals depth at safety is especially beneficial because they don’t have much depth at the cornerback position. They do have one side locked down though, because Patrick Peterson is one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Peterson has finished in the top-16 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 5 seasons, maxing out at #5 in 2015 and finishing 14th last season. The only season he struggled was in 2014, when he dealt with complications from undiagnosed diabetes all season, issues that have since been resolved. The 5th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Peterson has been as advertised, making all 96 starts in 6 seasons in the league, and is still only going into his age 27 season.

Their safety depth will help them in sub packages, but they still need someone to play outside every down outside Peterson and cover opponent’s #2 receivers. That position was their achilles heel last season and they didn’t do much to upgrade it this off-season. It looks like they will turn back to Justin Bethel to start the season, although he’s far from locked into the job. Solely a special teamer for the first 3 seasons of his career, Bethel has been unimpressive on 703 snaps over the past 2 seasons and lost his starting job early last season to Marcus Cooper, who finished 100th among 111 eligible cornerbacks in 13 starts. Bethel’s main competition is Brandon Williams, who struggled mightily on 241 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2016. Harlan Miller, a 2016 6th round pick who flashed on 140 snaps as a rookie, and Jonathan Ford, a 6th round rookie, could also be in the mix. It’s a major flaw in a secondary that will need to stay healthy.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Cardinals could have easily been an 11 or 12 win team last season and they won 13 games the season before, but their window might have closed. They lost way too much talent on defense this off-season and too many of their key players are either injury risks or getting up there in age. This team still has good talent on offense and could still make the playoffs, but they could also end up at 6-10 or worse if older players show their age or injury risks can’t stay on the field. 

Final update: The Cardinals would likely be a playoff team in the AFC, but could have a tough time making it in the superior NFC. This team has potential, but they’re an older team and they lost a lot on defense this off-season.

Prediction: 8-8, 2nd in NFC West