STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Cardinals shocked everyone but perhaps themselves by emerging victorious in seven of their final nine games en route to a 10-6 record in 2013. As a resident of the NFC West, though, a postseason berth was blocked by eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle (13-3) and San Francisco (12-4), while New Orleans (11-5) nabbed the final wild-card spot. The regular season itself included a complete overhaul of the offense under the direction of first-year coach Bruce Arians, whose schemes helped elevate 2012's basement-dwelling attack to 12th in the league. Subsequently, with a semblance of support on the other side, a playmaking defense held the opposition to 20.2 points on a league-best 84.4 yards rushing per contest. In total, Arizona improved its lot by five wins, good for the third-greatest leap behind Kansas City (nine) and Philadelphia (six).
Much of the credit for the turnaround can be credited to the offseason pickup of Carson Palmer
, who represented the organization's first competent quarterback since Kurt Warner
called it a career in 2009. Despite a shoddy offensive line − Palmer was sacked 41 times − he overcame a nine-game interception streak to commence his stint with the Cardinals, throwing 12 touchdowns vs. seven picks during the rest of the campaign. In the process, he revitalized Larry Fitzgerald
, who gathered in double-digit scores for the first time in four seasons and aided in second-year wideout Michael Floyd
's breakout. Palmer and company were complemented by a ground game that had nowhere to go but up. Riding another free-agent addition, Rashard Mendenhall
, and rookie Andre Ellington
, Arizona cracked the century mark five times during the aforementioned nine-game finish, rushing for 110.7 yards per outing. Although Mendenhall vultured goal-line opportunities, Ellington was the X-factor of the offense, ripping off the fifth-most plays (11) of 20-plus yards among the league's running backs. By shoring up an additional need with the signing of left tackle Jared Veldheer
and regaining the services of 2013 first-rounder, guard Jonathan Cooper
, the elevation of Ellington to No. 1 back following Mendenhall's retirement should pay immediate dividends.
On the other side of the coin, the defense's reconstruction yielded fruit in one particular aspect. Already loaded with reputable IDP candidates, a familiar face, Karlos Dansby
, arrived to cure what ailed the Cardinals in 2012: a bottom-five effort (137 yards per contest) vs. the run. The acquisition solidified the front seven, but both Dansby and Daryl Washington
won't be around due to free agency and a suspension, respectively, thereby allowing Kevin Minter
every opportunity to fill one of the openings at inside linebacker. Meanwhile, GM Steve Keim retooled the secondary, upgrading Patrick Peterson
's running mate at cornerback with the signing of Antonio Cromartie, while selecting safety Deone Bucannon
in May's NFL Draft. The rookie will supply insurance in case Tyrann Mathieu
's recovering left knee hasn't healed fully by Week 1.
Ted Ginn - WR, Panthers
The free-agent pickup will provide wideout depth and an established return force.
Antonio Cromartie - CB, Jets
Working opposite Patrick Peterson
, he should receive ample passes to defend.
Jared Veldheer - OT, Raiders
Fortifies Carson Palmer
's blind side, allowing more freedom in the passing game.
Deone Bucannon - S, Washington State
(Round 1, 27th Overall)
A tackling machine, the rookie is poised to complement a playmaking secondary.
John Brown - WR, Pittsburg State
(Round 3, 91st Overall)
Blessed with 4.34 speed, he'll challenge for return reps with Ginn.
Karlos Dansby - LB, Browns
The IDP maven's snaps will be handled by 2013 second-rounder Kevin Minter
Rashard Mendenhall - RB, Retired
Opted for retirement, leaving the ground attack to Andre Ellington
and Stepfan Taylor
Andre Roberts - WR, Redskins
His role shouldn't change much behind Pierre Garcon
and DeSean Jackson
ANDRE THE GIANT
In order to revive a floundering backfield last offseason, the Cardinals tossed the requisite three darts with the hope that one would hit bullseye. Free agency was mined, unearthing Rashard Mendenhall
, and, after evaluating prospective draftees, fifth- and sixth-round picks were invested on Stepfan Taylor
and Andre Ellington
, respectively. The latter's stock plummeted after injuring his hamstring at the combine, when Ellington clocked 4.61 in the 40-yard dash, far below his noted wheels when healthy. After garnering a season-low one touch in the opener, Ellington nudged into the running back equation behind Mendenhall, displaying spectacular pass-catching chops. Ellington's true breakout occurred in Week 8, when his 154-yard explosion in place of an inactive Mendenhall included an electric 80-yard touchdown scamper. Thereafter, Ellington averaged 29.4 snaps per outing across seven appearances, but the uptick in usage didn't exactly result in eye-popping production: 75 carries for 319 yards and one touchdown, while hauling in 17 receptions (on 24 targets) for 173 yards. No matter, coach Bruce Arians has indicated a preference to get Ellington a lofty 25 to 30 touches per contest with Mendenhall out of the picture, depending upon his usage in the passing game in a given week. That sort of workload will be difficult to achieve, of course, considering LeSean McCoy
's league-leading 22.9 touches weekly from 2013, along with the presence of Taylor and newcomer Jonathan Dwyer
in the team's backfield.
WHAT'S LEFT IN PALMER'S TANK?
Of utmost importance to the success (or failure) of the team's offense is the health of quarterback Carson Palmer
, formerly of the Raiders, who has missed time in his 11-year career due to knee, elbow and rib concerns. Following his offseason trade to new climes, he largely avoided the injury bug but was unable to effectively implement a pass-heavy system off the bat, posting a 10:14 TD:INT before the Cardinals'conveniently-placed Week 9 bye. After surpassing 200 yards through the air just five times prior to the respite, Palmer failed to do so just once afterward, while flinging multiple touchdowns on five occasions. Although the steady and unremarkable signal caller contributed his most prolific campaign in terms of yards (4,274) and highest completion percentage (63.3) since 2007, he sputtered to a below-league-average touchdown percentage (4.2) on his way to heaving nearly as many interceptions (22) as he did scores (24). Fortunately, as the director of an offense that dropped back 59.3 percent of the time, which should extend into the upcoming season, he'll be the beneficiary of increased familiarity with primary targets Larry Fitzgerald
, Michael Floyd
and Andre Ellington
, with a handful of new toys (receiver Ted Ginn
, tight end Troy Niklas
and wideout John Brown
) to manage.
Rising: Andre Ellington, who is the unquestioned No. 1 back following Rashard Mendenhall's retirement, will line up all over the field as a multifaceted threat.
Declining: Rob Housler's status as the top returning pass-catching tight end is threatened by the arrival of free-agent addition John Carlson and draftee Troy Niklas.
Sleeper: Mismatches created by the duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd should result in some openings for Ted Ginn.
Supersleeper: Stepfan Taylor's ascension up the depth chart all but guarantees him touches in an offense that boasted a two-pronged running back tandem last season.
Kevin Minter - LB
Opportunity knocks at inside linebacker, following Karlos Dansby's departure and the suspension of Daryl Washington.
Patrick Peterson - CB
Quarterbacks may throw his direction with a viable cornerback, Antonio Cromartie, opposite him.
John Abraham - LB
Aiming for the ninth campaign of his career with double-digit sacks.
RotoWire Rank: 6