2017 Arizona Cardinals Team Preview
by Scoop Dougherty
After three straight seasons of ten or more wins, including playoff appearances in 2014 and 2015, the Arizona Cardinals slipped to a mediocre 7-8-1 record in 2016. Can they bounce back? This corner believes that will be difficult at best primarily due to two factors: the age of key players and offseason personnel losses, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Offensively, the desert dwellers have relied primarily on the talents of two aging stars in former Heisman winner Carson Palmer and future NFL Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. That is, up until last season. Last season saw the emergence of arguably the best all-around running back in the NFL (no offense to Pittsburgh’s LeVeon Bell) in David Johnson. Johnson led the league with 2118 all-purpose yards, including snaring 80 balls, second on the team to Fitzgerald’s 107 catches. Arizona’s head coach, Bruce Arians, has mentioned he wants Johnson to have 30 touches per game this season. While natural to want your best player to be your workhorse, that comes with risks of overload and injury. The Cardinals lack a dependable backup running back (only oft-injured Andre Ellington) and must develop one to give Johnson an occasional breather.
As for Palmer and Fitzgerald, their contributions will likely be a bit measured this season. Palmer regressed last season, throwing for 26 TD’s and completing 14 to the opposition. Some of that was due to age, some due to Arians’ fondness for throwing deep and having Palmer take five and seven-step drops behind a porous offensive line. The passing game must incorporate more short and intermediate routes. However, the Redbirds’ receiving corps is populated with more of deep ball practitioners (J.J. Nelson, John Brown) than not. That leaves the wizardly Fitzgerald (107 catches, 1023 yds, 6 tds last year) and Johnson out of the backfield as the short and intermediate options.
Arizona’s offensive line is strong on the outside (tackles D. J. Humphries and Jared Veldheer) but lacks consistent play at the guard position.
The Cardinals’ defense ranked second in the NFL last year behind only that of the Houston Texans and were the top ranked group in the NFC. Those lofty perches may prove to be difficult to replicate this season. Arizona lost five defensive starters in the offseason with two starting defensive backs and their best defensive lineman, Calais Campbell, now practicing their craft elsewhere. First round draft pick, Hassan Reddick of Temple, will add to an already ferocious pass rush (Markus Golden and Chandler Jones both had ten plus sacks in 2016).
Without Campbell, the Arizona run defense could be suspect, tending to make them exploitable by teams with a strong offensive line and ground game (see Dallas in Week 3). Despite the secondary losses, the Redbirds still have some returning talent in Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. These two will be aided by offseason acquisition Antoine Bethea and #2 draft pick Budda Baker from theWashington Huskies.
The Arizona special teams were only slightly better than awful last year. To improve upon that performance, they cut kicker Chris Catanzaro and signed grizzled vet Phil Dawson, he of 18 NFL seasons. They will also look for a more robust punter as last year’s entry, Matt Wie, only had a 37.5 yds per kick average.
The final curtain will more than likely fall on the stellar careers of Palmer and Fitzgerald at season’s end. Their performances this year and the performance of a revamped defense will go a long way to determine if the Cards repeat last season or return to the playoffs. There is a fine line between a 7 win season and a 10 or 11 win season.