The Diary of an Illinois Boston Fan

NFL Previews

After starting off their 2012 season at 4–0, the Cardinals finished that year a horrid 1–11 and fired the only head coach that took them to a super bowl, Ken Whisenhunt. The Cardinals offense had always been good under Whisenhunt but the front office decided it was time to make a change.

In 2013, the Cardinals decided to hire reigning Coach of the Year (won as an interim head coach) Bruce Arians and haven’t had a losing season since. In fact, they’ve only gotten better. After missing the playoffs in 2013 with a 10–6 record, they made it to the wild card round in 2014 and then the NFC Championship game last season. With each go their defense and offense seem to hit new levels and move them one more step forward to the Lombardi trophy. Is this year their year?

Projected Offensive Depth Chart:

QB: Carson Palmer

RB: David Johnson

OL: Jared Veldheer, Mike Iupati, AQ Shipley, Evan Mathis, DJ Humphries

WR: Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, John Brown

TE: Jermaine Gresham

Carson Palmer has had one of the weirder very good careers we’ve seen in the NFL. Drafted #1 overall by the Bengals, he quickly became the franchise player until a nasty knee injury cost him his best chance at a super bowl with the Bengals in 2005 and took away his confidence as the leader of his team. Even after making a last ditch comeback in 2009, Palmer’s time in Cincy came to a disastrous end when he forced his way out and forced both sides to move on. Most believed Palmer’s career was close to over, especially when the then downtrodden Raiders traded for him after Palmer initially claimed ready to retire. Palmer helped end the Raiders’ consecutive losing streak seasons but still missed the playoffs at 8–8 in 2011 and had a very forgettable 2012 year where most people finally stuck a fork in Palmer.

The only person that hadn’t was Bruce Arians, who believed he could turn Palmer into a star once more. Trading away only a 6th round pick, this was a no-lose situation for Arizona. In 2013, Palmer set career highs in passing yards while having a paltry 24 touchdowns and 22 interceptions, but it was clear that he was finally feeling comfortable in Arians’ system. After missing 6 games in 2014, Palmer came back with huge expectations in 2015 and beyond delivered by posting more career bests with 4,671 yards, 35 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions all at the age of 35…far past the usual prime of quarterbacks. He won his first career playoff game and fell very short against Carolina in the NFC Championship game when he finally started to look his age.

That’s where the story will be written. In 2016 the Cardinals will be as good as their quarterback. Are they going to get the time-defying savant from the first 11 games or will they get the more down to earth old man from the last 5? Even in the win against Green Bay in the divisional round, Palmer relied heavily on his playmakers abusing the bad defense from the Packers. His arm looked shaky at best and he looked very nervous in the pocket. Palmer seemed very reminiscent of 2014 Peyton Manning, falling apart as the season wore on, showing his true physical standards. You could argue that Arizona missed out on the super bowl because of him. This season he will be expected to bring home the title and go down in Cardinals history as their best QB ever, maybe even etching a Hall of Fame career out of it — but will his body let him? For a guy that needs to be able to air it out, I worry seriously about his ability to get the ball downfield

If Palmer has any hopes of succeeding, he’s going to have to defer more to the players getting the ball. While rookie breakout star David Johnson is set to start, don’t be fooled in thinking Chris Johnson is done. Last year I expected CJ2K to sign with the Cowboys and salvage the rest of his career behind that tremendous Dallas O-Line. It shocked me to see him sign with the Cardinals. That’s not to knock that offensive line. Quite the contrary, the Cardinals boast one of the best lines when healthy. Building in the unconventional way through free agency, they have created a surprisingly talented line that helped Chris Johnson earn 814 yards and 3 touchdowns before he went down with a fibula injury. Then they got to block for David Johnson on his way to 581 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns plus another 453 yards receiving with 4 touchdowns. David Johnson was expected to be an emergency situation runner with Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson playing ahead of him. He didn’t even earn his first start until December, but when he did he refused to give it up and now comes into this season as the starter behind an even better line with Evan Mathis joining the Cardinals and second year RT D.J. Humphries continuing to mature.

With Ellington coming back, the Cardinals will have a rich bounty of running backs that can run, catch, and maybe shift focus less deep down the field — instead giving them a chance to use more screens if Palmer loses some zip.

But if Arians is still committed to the long ball, then he gets to stake claim to the best receiving corps in the league. Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, John, Brown, Jaron Brown, and J.J. Nelson all could legitimately be starters on every other team. That’s how high the talent is…Jaron and J.J. didn’t even get more than 500 yards combined and I firmly believe this. John Brown and Fitzgerald both had over 1,000 yards, Michael Floyd missed out on it likely because he missed a game, all while all 3 ranked in the top 15 in catches over 40 yards. This offense is set to explode again with Arians’ unrelenting focus on getting long scores. It’s not very fair to other teams that Floyd and Fitz are also dynamite route runners and workers of the sidelines. Fitzgerald learned how to play receiver from Cris Carter and Randy Moss as a young boy and now passes his footwork techniques onto the young pass catching stars around him. I have no doubt in their production levels this year.

Projected Defensive Depth Chart:

DL: Calais Campbell, Corey Peters, Rodney Gunter

LB: Chandler Jones, Deonne Bucannon, Kevin Minter, Markus Golden

CB: Patrick Peterson, Brandon Williams

S: Tyrann Mathieu, DJ Swearingen

It’s really rare for a team to have a top 5 offense and a top 5 defense in the same season. It’s even rarer for that team to not make the super bowl. Yet the Cardinals ran right into the Carolina buzz saw last year. This year, it feels like the Cardinals could be even better defensively…meaning both offense and defense have the chance of improving.

After relying on the scrap heap to get sacks from the likes of Dwight Freeney, the Cardinals now have a legitimate pass rushing star in Chandler Jones thanks to a trade with the Patriots for a 2nd round pick and former first rounder Johnathan Stewart. From immediate impact it’s clear the Cardinals won that trade with Jones coming off of a 12.5 sack season and just now turning 26 years old. Jones hasn’t even fully fine tuned his pass rushing skills. He relies mostly on a power rush but started to work in a stop and go move that runs the offensive line man inside as he then turns it up inside to pressure the QB. It’s basically an inverted Freeney spin move and will become even more valuable with teams having to worry about Calais Campbell inside. Campbell is a hybrid DT/DE that often warrants double teams from opposing offenses, yet still finds ways to near double digit sacks. His brand of finesse space eating will allow Jones to either try for the pass rush or drop back into coverage, an area that Jones has struggled with most of his career but at least became serviceable last season.

Deonne Bucannon started off his career as a safety, however injuries to the line backing corps and an overcrowding in the safeties forced him into a new age LB/S mix player. Last season he became one of the more valuable players at his position because of his natural ability to cover and his high end tackling strength. With him being able to confuse opposing QBs as to whether he will drop back or stay put, he allowed his defensive line more time to get pressure and force more turnovers, leading to a second best 33 on the season for Arizona.

Like their counterparts up in Seattle, the biggest strength for Arizona looks to again be their secondary. Led by top 3 cornerback Patrick Peterson and top 3 safety Tyrann Mathieu, the Cardinals don’t usually have to worry about opposing passing games. Mathieu plays like a faster version of Bucannon and has a tremendous field vision, leading the league with 17 passes defensed in only 14 games. He also led all defensive backs with 80 total tackles and this year signed a 62.5 million dollar contract to continue his ferocious style of defense for the next 5 years.

Peterson may be the best pure corner in the league. Still under 30, Peterson has the best close out speed amongst all corners and routinely shows off the best hands when it comes to keeping receivers at bay by using a savvy repertoire of moves that make it look like he’s tangling up with opponents instead of having the plays called pass interference. Now in his 6th season, he’s forced offenses to avoid his side of the field or risk getting burnt if they take a shot at him. No matter the argument of who the best corner is, he is the undoubted leader of this defense.

Everything about this team screams for them to win the super bowl. I just severely worry about Palmer’s ability to stay upright. If he can keep going down the field then the Cardinals shouldn’t have any worries about getting a chance to hoist the championship.