This article is part of our Team Previews series.
Fortune wasn't on Arizona's side last season, as field-goal whiffs, a dip in turnover differential and key injuries resulted in the first losing record (7-8-1) of the Bruce Arians era. With blue chippers across the roster, the Cards are poised to reach the playoffs for the third time in four years.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
JOHNSON LEADS THE CHARGE
When the topic of David Johnson arises, superlatives abound. First and foremost, he has a nose for the end zone, scoring 33 times in two seasons to date. Within his first two contests as a pro in 2015, he set a high standard, becoming the first player in NFL history to tally a TD as a kick returner, receiver and rusher. He was blocked from regular touches, though, until first Andre Ellington and then Chris Johnson suffered significant injuries. After the elder Johnson was lost for that season in Week 12, David Johnson has been a regular in the Cardinals offense in the interim, both on the ground and through the air. The latter realm is where he separates himself from the NFL's stable of running backs. Although he ended last year seventh in the league with 1,239 rushing yards, Johnson tacked on 879 receiving yards – 263 more than the next RB (Le'Veon Bell). Unlike a typical player at his position, Johnson bucked norms, splitting out wide, working out of the slot and running wheel routes. That versatility helped him top all running backs in average depth of target at 4.6 yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus, who gave Johnson the No. 1 receiver grade (92.6) in 2016, regardless of position. Following coach Bruce Arians' commitment to up Johnson's touch count, the possibility exists for even more accolades.
CAN THE RECEIVING CORPS REESTABLISH ITSELF?
On its face, the Cardinals' passing attack was again among the NFL's most potent last season, finishing in the top 10 for the second consecutive year. In fact, since coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer teamed up in 2013, wideouts have produced four 1,000-yard seasons – Michael Floyd in 2013, John Brown in 2015 and Larry Fitzgerald in 2015 and 2016. At this point in his career, Fitzgerald runs many of his routes out of the slot, earning 87 of his 150 targets in 2016 as a Y receiver. Despite tumbling to a career-low 9.6 yards per catch, he managed a league-high 107 receptions, which was made possible by disappointing performances elsewhere in the corps. Floyd's term was one of fits and starts en route to career worsts in catches (33), targets (70) and yards (446) before his DUI arrest and subsequent release in mid-December. Meanwhile, Brown was held back by a preseason concussion and subsequent Week 7 discovery of a sickle-cell trait, sapping him of his field-stretching ability. After offseason surgery to remove a cyst from his spine, he's hopeful that a revitalization will happen, but J.J. Nelson's own burner status could balance out their downfield looks. Rounding out the WR contingent are Jaron Brown (who is recovering from a torn ACL) and 2017 third-round pick Chad Williams.
PASS RUSH REVIVAL
Rarely does an NFL trade have such positive ramifications, but the offseason acquisition of Chandler Jones revitalized a stagnant pass rush. Outside of David Johnson running roughshod over the competition in 2016, the Cardinals could reliably hang their hat on pressuring opposing quarterbacks, as evidenced by a league-leading 48 sacks. Among their collection, Jones tallied 11, marking his third double-digit offering in the last four seasons. With the fifth-most sacks (41) in the league during that span, he parlayed the best grade of his career from Pro Football Focus (87.4) into a mammoth five-year contract. Moreover, Jones' presence had a clear trickle-down effect within the front seven. In his second season, fellow edge rusher Markus Golden burst onto the scene with 12.5 sacks, making the Cardinals one of two teams to feature two players with 10-plus (also, the Seahawks). Moving forward, the defense will be without Calais Campbell, a stalwart member of the front for nearly a decade, after the Florida native landed in Jacksonville via free agency. In preparation for Campbell's departure, GM Steve Keim has used his last two first-round picks on DT Robert Nkemdiche (2016) and LB Haason Reddick (2017) to service the inside pass rush, but it remains to be seen if the revamped unit can uphold the standard set from a year ago.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: David Johnson
On the heels of leading the NFL in touches, yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns in 2016, Johnson has established himself as one of the triumvirate of premier RBs currently active. His combination of rushing instincts and pass-catching chops all but ensure another productive campaign as the engine that drives the Cardinals offense.
RISING: J.J. Nelson
Boasting none of the perceived health concerns of John Brown, Nelson has reeled off 19.3 yards per catch and nine TDs in two seasons. Further understanding of the offense could help Nelson complement Larry Fitzgerald.
FALLING: Andre Ellington
Ellington attempted a move from RB to WR due to David Johnson's emergence as a bell-cow back, but those plans were nixed in the middle of the offseason program. Now, Ellington could be a roster casualty with a subpar camp.
SLEEPER: John Brown
If Brown's woes from last season have been alleviated by an offseason procedure on his spine, he may recapture his form from 2014-15, when he recorded 8.3 yards per target and made 12 end-zone visits.
KEY JOB BATTLE – FOURTH RECEIVER
In three of coach Bruce Arians' four years as the Cardinals coach, at least five receivers have earned 50-plus targets. Six fit the bill last season, and with Michael Floyd out of the picture, looks will be available behind Larry Fitzgerald, David Johnson and John Brown. After the trio, J.J. Nelson will continue to fulfill his destiny as a field stretcher, while veterans Jaron Brown and Jermaine Gresham can be expected to pick up a fair number of snaps on a weekly basis. The Browns are coming off injury-plagued seasons, though, which they'll aim to avoid in the fall. If one or both are unable to do so, 2017 third-round pick Chad Williams will have an opportunity to work his way into the offense.
KARLOS DANSBY – LB (from Bengals)
Tackle maven arrives in Arizona for third tour of duty.
ANTOINE BETHEA – S (from 49ers)
Veteran safety effectively replaces the departed Tony Jefferson.
PHIL DAWSON – K (from Bengals)
The 18-year pro takes over for the unreliable Chandler Catanzaro.
Haason Reddick – LB (Rd. 1, No. 13 – Temple)
Diverse skill set should translate to ample snaps for the rookie.
BUDDA BAKER – S (Rd. 2, No. 36 – Washington)
Potential Tyrann Mathieu clone shores up depth on back end of defense.
Chad Williams – WR (Rd. 3, No. 98 – Grambling State)
Height/speed combo adds another dimension to the receiving corps.
Calais Campbell – DE (to Jaguars)
After nine years with Cards, the two-time All-Pro takes talent to Jags.
Tony Jefferson – S (to Ravens)
Turns a breakout campaign into bounty from Baltimore.
THE INJURY FRONT
Carson Palmer, QB – The veteran signal-caller is always a candidate to miss some action, having logged one DNP last season due to a concussion and 10 total in 2014, most of them due to a torn ACL.
Jaron Brown, WR – Despite tearing his ACL in Week 7 last season, Brown progressed to running full speed during individual drills in the offseason program. If healthy, he'll help cover the void left behind by the departed Michael Floyd.
Deone Bucannon, S – After opting for ankle surgery in May due to a lingering concern, Bucannon's Week 1 availability isn't guaranteed. Whenever he takes the field, tackles will again be aplenty from his dollar linebacker position.