2015 Season Preview: Arizona Cardinals

When the Arizona Cardinals hired Bruce Arians as their Head Coach following the 2012 season, they hit the jackpot. Over the last three seasons, Arians has been named the NFL Coach of the Year twice (once with Indianapolis), and has turned Arizona into a consistent playoff contender. Following the 2014 season, Arians lost his defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to the head job with the Jets, and he was replaced by James Bettcher, who coached outside linebackers the last two years. While Bettcher is relatively inexperienced, he is highly thought of throughout the league. How the defense plays under Bettcher will determine how far the 2015 version of the Arizona Cardinals go. Quarterback 35 year old Carson Palmer is a perfect fit for Bruce Arians offense. Last year, he was only able to play in six games because of injury, but he won each of those six games and threw for 1626 yards and 11 touchdowns in those games. Keeping Palmer healthy is imperative. Behind Palmer, the Cardinals have one of the better backup quarterbacks in the NFL in Drew Stanton. Stanton threw for over 1700 yards and 7 touchdowns before he went down with his own injury. Both Palmer and Stanton should be ready to go when camp begins, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Arizona limits Palmer’s play in the preseason. Wide Receiver and Tight End The starting three wide receivers are as good as any starting group in the league. Larry Fitzgerald may be in his 12th year and has slowed down some, but he can still run great routes and has excellent hands. Michael Floyd has great talent but just has to be more consistent with his overall game. The rookie star of the 2015 season, John Brown, is back for an encore, and with a year under his belt, he should be even better. He is an outstanding deep threat and opens things up for the others in the group. The depth behind those three is very inexperienced. A rookie to keep an eye on is J.J. Nelson. At 160 pounds (maybe), he isn’t about to fight off any corners, but he has great speed and could be a very reliable return guy. The tight end position is not settled. The Cardinals drafted Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas last year in the hopes that he could step in, but he disappointed. Niklas has talent, but his immaturity slows him down. This year, Arizona drafted Louisville’s Gerald Christian, and even though he went in the seventh round, he may get a lot of play time. Also in the group is Darren Fells, but as a former basketball player, he is still learning the game. Running Back The Cardinals don’t have a true bell cow type of running back. The starter is third year man Andre Ellington, who ran for 660 yards last year. Ellington shows some explosiveness and is a good receiver but Arizona needs more. More may come from rookie Davis Johnson from Northern Iowa. Johnson dominated FCS competition the last few years and had a strong Senior Bowl. He could become the starter by mid-season and has the physical traits to be a very good NFL back. Offensive Line Arizona is trying to build a dominant offensive line, and they may be close to achieving that goal. Last year, they signed Jared Veldeer away from the Raiders, and he gave the Cardinals their best tackle play in years. This year, Arizona drafted Florida’s D.J. Humphries in the first round, and he will give the Cardinals a right tackle with left tackle pass blocking traits. The backup will be last year’s starter Bobbie Massie, who is more than capable, and could also be used as trade bait during camp. At guard, the Cardinals signed former 49er Mike Iupati to play on the left side, and he will be a huge upgrade. On the right side, Arizona hopes that former first round pick Jonathan Cooper finally plays up to his talent level. The center job will be a training camp battle between Ted Larson and A.Q. Shipley. For depth, there is Earl Watford (a former starter), Jon Halapio, and Bradley Sowell. Defensive Line The line lost two key players during free agency. Darnell Dockett missed all of last year, but he was the Cardinals best inside defender. Dan Williams was a consistent presence versus the run. Now, the nose tackle position will be handled by the combo of Corey Peters, who was with Atlanta last year, and Ta’amu Alameda. Peters is the more athletic of the two and Alameda is able to stuff the run. At the end spots will be Calais Campbell, who is coming off his first Pro Bowl season, and Frosty Rucker, a reliable veteran. For depth, there is Cory Redding, Josh Mauro, and Ed Stinson. Rookie Rodney Gardner for Delaware State is interesting. He is very raw but has the tools to become very good after a development period. The Cardinal coaches really like him. Linebacker At the inside position will be Free agent Sean Weatherspoon, who came over from Atlanta, and Kevin Minter. Arizona hopes that Minter can take a step this year. The reserves are Lorenzo Alexander and Kenny Demens. Another player who may be in the mix is former starter Daryl Washington, who has been out because of a league suspension. He is waiting to hear from the league on his reinstatement. At the outside spots are Matt Shaughnessy and Alex Okafor. Shaughnessy can play down in pass rushing situations. Okafor is coming off an excellent season in which he had 8 sacks. Rookie second round draft choice Markus Golden will compete for play time, as will second year man Kareem Martin. Both have a lot of upside as does rookie Shaq Riddick from West Virginia. Secondary Arizona has to find a replacement for Antonio Cromartie, who went back to the Jets. Going into camp, the leader is Jerraud Powers who started 10 games a year ago. The other player in the mix is Justin Bethel, who has yet to show the consistency needed to be trusted as a starter. On the other side is Patrick Peterson, who wants to rebound from a subpar year by his standards. When he is on his game, Peterson is one of the top two or three corners in football. The safeties are Rashad Johnson and Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu gives Arizona a free safety with corner cover skills. The third safety is Tony Jefferson who had 10 starts a year ago and is capable of being a starter on many clubs. Deonne Buccanon is a specialist who plays a lot of snaps because of his ability to play linebacker in nickel. He’s like having another starter in the secondary. Outlook Arizona finished 11-5 last year and then lost in the playoffs to Carolina. With a team as deep at the Cardinals, you have to figure they will be back in the postseason in 2015. As good as they are, I just don’t think they have enough to overtake Seattle. While San Francisco used to be a force in the West, I see the Cardinals next biggest challenge in the division now coming from St. Louis, but that may still be a year away. Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe

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