Defense will be the strength of the Arizona Cardinals in 2012.
Training camp for the Arizona Cardinals is under two months away, and today we will grade the strength of every positional unit as they currently stand.
Some units will be better simply because of key players returning from injury. Some will be better because of young players benefiting from a full offseason during which they will be able to work on schemes and playbooks. Others will be better because of key additions through the draft and free agency.
Are there any positions that regressed from 2011? Follow along as we find out.
Both Kevin Kolb and John Skelton are in the middle of their first official offseason of work with the team.
Kolb didn’t arrive until the lift of the lockout last year, and Skelton had no offseason or training camp repetitions with the first or second team during his rookie year due to Derek Anderson and Matt Leinart greedily hogging them all.
Last year, of course, was the lockout’s fault.
There are no excuses in 2012, however. The time is now for both quarterbacks to perform at a high level. No more happy feet in the pocket. No more forced throws into triple coverage. No more mental mistakes due to lack of progression knowledge.
The two combined to throw 20 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions in 2011. Those numbers cannot be duplicated this season for Arizona to succeed. The main reason Arizona was victorious in seven of its final nine games last season was because of the defense and its dominance. Ray Horton’s crew will need some help to remain in the running for the NFC West title.
Beanie Wells rushed for a career-high 1,047 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2011 without much help from the other backs.
Ryan Williams returns following knee surgery to repair a ruptured patella tendon, and some say his knee could be better than ever.
LaRod Stephens-Howling displayed a big-play ability that has been missing from the Cardinals’ offense.
The three-pronged attack of Wells, Williams and The Hyphen could be a dominant force that defenses struggle to contain. They all possess different abilities, making the things at which they excel more valuable.
Williams’ return makes the offense more dynamic than it was a year ago.
Whether it’s the power of Wells, the speed and elusiveness of Stephens-Howling or the combination of all those things with Williams, Arizona will be able to attack defenses with a little bit of everything through the run game in 2012.
The incumbent, Larry Fitzgerald, has a new piece of clay to mold. The clay, Michael Floyd, has loads of potential and an incredible work ethic.
This can only end well for Arizona.
Fitzgerald is known for his incredible work ethic and “never done” attitude, and has known Floyd since the rookie was in high school. They already have a great chemistry, so Floyd’s transition into the league will be much easier with his buddy Fitz by his side.
Andre Roberts and Early Doucet will mainly play the slot while Fitz and Floyd start on the outside.
Roberts was last year’s No. 2 for Arizona, and though he produced career-high numbers during his second season, the team was not impressed enough to stick with him on the outside. Despite being on the field for 388 more plays than Doucet, he finished third on the team with 51 catches, right behind Doucet’s 54.
Doucet should be the No. 3, but they may share the spot this season in their own competition to see who deserves the spot next year.
The physicality and athleticism Floyd adds to the mix really helps the corps of receivers in Arizona. They will be able to do so much more in the passing game because of him. He is such a good blocker that Arizona can utilize Doucet’s athleticism with more bubble screens and end-around plays with Fitz and Floyd lined up on the same side of the ball, blocking for him.
There was not much production from the tight ends in 2011.
The Cardinals signed Todd Heap in hopes that he would help the offense become more dangerous and consistent; however, injuries derailed his first season back in his home state.
Third-round draft pick Rob Housler came in with high expectations, but he could not hold onto the ball. His six drops were second among rookie tight ends to only Lance Kendricks of St. Louis, who dropped nine passes.
It was so bad that Jeff King, brought in to be a “blocking tight end,” led the group in receiving and was the most constant threat in the passing game.
There is much hope, however, that this season will be much better for the unit than last. And that all revolves around Housler.
“He was very raw [last year], very athletic,” Heap said. “He’s got a lot of intangibles you want. You make your biggest leap from the first year to the second year, and that’s what we are working on with him.”
Expect Levi Brown to have the best year of his career protecting the passer.
Levi Brown is coming off an up-and-down year. On one hand, he gave up 11 sacks and 40 QB hurries; on the other hand, he allowed only one sack and eight hurries over the final six weeks of the season.
The momentum he rides into 2012 is promising. He needs to continue his upswing for Arizona to have a chance against some of the teams with nasty pass-rushers it faces.
Trent Cole. Mario Williams. Jared Allen. John Abraham. Julius Peppers.
And I haven’t even gotten to the division rivals.
On the right side, rookie Bobby Massie will compete with veteran Jeremy Bridges for the starting spot. Bridges was statistically better than any other tackle on the roster last year; however, that isn’t saying much.
There will certainly be opportunity for Massie to overtake the starting job by Week 1, and as I wrote in late May, he could be a decade-long solution at right tackle.
Left guard Daryn Colledge played well last year. He started all 16 games during his first year with Arizona, allowing three sacks and 24 QB pressures.
Adam Snyder signed a five-year, $17.5 million deal via free agency to join the Cardinals this offseason and will start at right guard.
In an interview with Arizona Cardinals sideline reporter Paul Calvisi, offensive coordinator Mike Miller was asked what impressed him the most about Snyder.
“I think initially, his size. He’s strong; he’s powerful. He’s a guy that’s played all five spots [on the line], so you know he’s a smart guy,” Miller said. “And ultimately what we like are tough guys, and he plays with that meanness, that mindset that we like—especially up front.”
A mean streak is great to have, and with what is already established on the offensive line, Snyder will fit right in. That’s not to say the line has been anything but bad; however, they are all nasty up front, and they don’t back down from anyone.
For an undrafted free agent out of the University of Texas, Lyle Sendlein has been a great player for Arizona. A native of Phoenix, Sendlein has been a fan favorite since arriving as a backup in 2007.
Since becoming the everyday starter during his second season (2008), Sendlein has allowed just seven total sacks and has given up an average of 19 total QB pressures per year.
He is one of the more underrated centers in the league, and has been a team captain since 2010.
Arizona has traditionally kept only one center on the roster during Ken Whisenhunt’s tenure as head coach. That won’t change this year. Sendlein is as solid as they come in the NFL, and has remained healthy thus far—he’s missed only one offensive snap since becoming the full-time starter.
That’s 4,536 of a possible 4,537 offensive snaps. With the immense physicality involved in what he does for a living, that stat is incredible.
Darnell Dockett has been in Arizona since 2004, and until last year he was considered the best defensive lineman on the team. That title now belongs to newly re-signed Calais Campbell, but Dockett still has his moments.
Campbell led all 3-4 defensive ends with nine sacks and led all defensive linemen with 10 batted passes.
Dockett is in the twilight of his career, but he still has the ability to play at a high level. Under defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s scheme, his role is more of a space-eater than pass-rusher in order to free up the linebackers.
But he is okay with that role-change. He said last September during an interview with Kent Somers of AZCentral.com that he is embracing the change and will eventually be the Dockett of old.
“Now, I’m in there like a rookie,” Dockett said. “Notes, thinking, asking questions on the field, even asking questions during the game. I’m learning it. I’m definitely learning it. The faster I learn it…I will be the player everybody expects me to be.”
Rookie David Carter and veteran Nick Eason (who has lost some weight) filled in for Williams and did a formidable job.
The success of the linebackers will hinge not only on the ends, Campbell and Dockett, but also on the team of Williams and Carter. They have big roles as space-eaters along the middle of the line.
Middle linebacker Daryl Washington is one of the fastest and most athletic at his position. He led all inside linebackers with five sacks last season, and that was largely because the tackles were doing their job.
That has to continue for the defense to keep up the momentum with which it finished 2011.
Most of the grades being given here will change by the end of the season, and none will improve more than will the outside linebackers.
Sam Acho started 10 games as a rookie in place of Joey Porter and collected seven sacks and forced four fumbles. He could be prepared to unleash a James Harrison-type pass-rush on the NFC West, meaning double-digit sack totals virtually every season.
O’Brien Schofield sat behind veteran Clark Haggans—whom Arizona just re-signed—for the better part of his first two campaigns. Toward the end of last season, however, he began to earn more playing time.
He has yet to start a game, but that will soon change as Schofield will be the Week 1 starter opposite Acho (barring injury).
Don’t discount the addition of Quinton Groves, either. Although he has been largely ineffective as a pass-rusher, he believes he simply was not in the right system.
“I was a pass rusher in college [at Auburn],” Groves said. “Two years in Jacksonville, wishy-washy, flip-flop, ‘Q do this, Q do that, Q don’t do that.’
“You don’t get 26 sacks in the SEC by mistake. I think the coaches here are going to help utilize my skills; that is, if I make the team.”
As stated earlier, Daryl Washington had a brilliant 2011 season.
107 tackles, five sacks and two interceptions, all while becoming the leader of the defense.
Aging veteran Paris Lenon will play next to him at the other ILB position, and though he is older and more experienced, he is not the leader. Washington is one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL, and soon enough he will be recognized for it.
Stewart Bradley has some work to do if he wants to remain with the team. He should grasp the complex playbook by now, and hopefully he can be the other guy when Lenon steps away from the game.
Quan Sturdivant is also there to work with and push Bradley. A sixth-round pick in 2011, Sturdivant spent his entire rookie season with the practice squad. He showed a lot of potential in college, but had some trouble of his own understanding the defense Horton brought with him from Pittsburgh.
The lack of an offseason really hurt his chances.
Corner was consistently a problem for Arizona last year.
Repeatedly blown assignments, a step too late getting to the receiver. But they did get better along with the entire defense as the season got older, and there are some new pieces with which Horton will work.
Greg Toler was just getting to know the defense when he suffered a torn ACL during a preseason game. His season was over. He should be ready to go by the start of training camp, and he says the mental side of the game is what he’s focused on, leaving one to believe his knee is just fine.
“I've just got to get back into it mentally,” Toler said. “One play at a time. I haven’t been out there in seven or eight months.”
Third-round draft pick Jamell Fleming could battle for a slot corner role early on, as either Toler or free-agent signee William Gay will start opposite Patrick Peterson. The loser of that battle would likely play the nickel spot.
Fleming has looked good so far in OTAs, but it’s early and unpadded work. Everyone will be able to see just what the Cardinals have in Fleming once camp starts in late July.
Kerry Rhodes couldn’t stay on the field last year, but Adrian Wilson enjoyed one of the best years he’s ever had.
Wilson is getting old, but until he shows signs of decreased production on a year-to-year basis, Arizona won’t have to worry about who to pencil in at strong safety. He played some of last season with a torn right biceps tendon, and he didn’t miss a beat.
He didn’t record a sack all year for the first time since the 2007 season, but he was great in all other aspects. Adrian Wilson is the best safety in the NFC. There’s not anyone close to him.
Rhodes is 100 percent for the first time since last offseason, and that will be big for Arizona’s secondary. His broken foot kept him out of nine games, but he was at his best in the two games following his return.
He had grasped the defense and was making plays, only to have the foot become an issue once more. Rhodes was forced to shut it down after he left the Week 16 game in Cincinnati.
These two safeties, when healthy, can be the best tandem in the NFL.
Kicker Jay Feely is a fan favorite. There are no glaring problems with his game.
Punter Dave Zastudil, however, has some issues. He brings the grade of the unit way down, and frankly should have been replaced following a sub-par first season with the Cardinals.
Zastudil did not excel at flipping field position. According to ProFootballFocus he ranked No. 15 at pinning the opposition inside the 20 and surrendered the seventh-highest return percentage.
The two struggled with chemistry on field goals to begin the season, as Zastudil is the holder for Feely, but they rebounded, helping the kicker convert on his final 11 FGs of the season.
They will have that going for them in 2012, and that’s a plus.