Americans across the country are rejoicing, football is back.
2014 should a very intriguing year for the Arizona Cardinals. Year one of the Bruce Arians Era saw the Redbirds exceed expectations with a 10-6 record, falling just short of the playoffs. Year number two has plenty of optimism (a solid draft class, big free agent signings and a better understanding of the offense), but also plenty of questions. Here’s a list what I deemed the most important topics as the Cardinals begin Training Camp in Glendale.
1 – No D-Wash, No Dansby, No Defense?
There’s no doubting, the reason why the Cardinals shocked the NFL world last year was solely because of the defense. Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby both contributed to that in a big way. Dansby and Washington accounted for 20.6% of the Cardinals tackles, while Dansby also lead the team in interceptions (4) and was second behind John Abraham in sacks (6.5).
Obviously, the Cardinals will have to find a way to replace that production. Veteran Larry Foote was signed in the offseason, but he missed all of last season due to injury. Same goes for Lorenzo Alexander. The spotlight will be on Kevin Minter this training camp. Minter was molded to be the starter, but probably not this quickly. Minter will have to prove himself immediately to help ease the loss of Washington and Dasby. His process will be key to the Cardinals success in 2014.
Another key could be first round pick Deone Bucannon. Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim was not shy, comparing Bucannon to former Cardinal Adrian Wilson. If Bucannon does fit that mold, that could help take the load off Minter and others. The pass rush will have to come from somewhere. Don’t be surprised if Bucannon takes the lead.
2 – At Least We Don’t Have to Worry About Left Tackle
For the first time in eternity since I have covered this team, left tackle will not be a key position battle for the Cardinals this camp.
Jared Veldheer might be the most important free agent signing in the Arizona/Phoenix Era of this franchise. Protecting the quarterback’s blindside has always been an issue with this team, but with Jonathan Cooper returning to left guard after last season’s leg injury, Carson Palmer should feel a little more comfortable in the pocket.
The right side, however, is another issue. Both spots are up for grabs, with Paul Fanaika, Earl Watford and Ted Larsen battling at guard and Bobby Massie, Bradley Sowell and Nate potter at tackle. Continuity will be huge factor in the improvement up front. Remember, this is still a unit that gave up 41 sacks in 2013.
3 – Can Palmer Be Better Than ‘Just Good Enough’?
Speaking of Palmer, the Cardinals playoff hopes rest on his shoulders.
At this time last year, Palmer stressed patience and talked openly about how tough it was to learn Bruce Arians’ offense. And the results showed. The Cardinals were 4-4 in their first eight games, with Palmer throwing 8 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. After the bye, the Cardinals looked more in sync offensively. Arizona finished the season 6-2 and Palmer started to resemble his old self (16 touchdowns, 9 interceptions).
This summer, Palmer spoke a different tune, praising the offense during OTAs and mini-camps. Time will tell if those high remarks will be accurate, but there is no doubting this. Palmer must be better than “just good enough.” He, and the offense as a whole, will be expected to score more points to pick up the slack for the defense.
4 – The Dreaded NFC West
Division games are always important in the NFL. Even more so for a team that’s knocking on the door to reach the playoffs. You can easily point to the Cardinals record in the NFC West (2-4) as a reason why 10 wins wasn’t good enough to reach the postseason last year.
But this is nothing news. The Cardinals are 8-16 in the NFC West since 2009. Arizona’s playoff hopes come down to those six games against the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams. A 3-3 record would be impressive, and could be what the Cardinals need to play in January. And yet, a .500 record might not be good. That’s just life in the NFC West.
5 – Larry’s Last Hurrah?
I doubt most Cardinals fans are even entertaining this idea, but there is a very realistic chance that this could be Larry Fitzgerald’s final season in the desert.
Fitzgerald is under contract until the 2018 season after restructuring his deal last year. However, his cap hit increases to $23.6M next year, with his base salary raising from $8M to $15M. Fitz as always stated that he wants to retire in Arizona, but he also knows his window to return to the Super Bowl is starting to close.
If the Cardinals are not in the playoff hunt in November or the December, the Fitz trade talks will begin to pick up steam. Which would make for a very interesting offseason in 2015.