O’Brien Schofield, OLB
He was a backup throughout his first two seasons, but now O’Brien Schofield (pictured to the left) will be the Cardinals’ full time starter at outside linebacker.
After showing he understood the defensive playbook enough to stop using a quarterback’s wristband with the plays written on it, he started earning more playing time. And it paid off, as he recorded two of his 4.5 sacks in consecutive plays against the Cleveland Browns—huge, game-changing sacks.
What to watch for: Watch for Schofield to be more vocal on defense and really begin to unleash his talent for getting to the quarterback. It’s what he did in college, and it’s why the Cardinals drafted him in the fourth round despite a knee injury before the draft.
Dan Williams, NT
Dan Williams struggled at times last season. It seemed to click for him, though, about midway through the season—most notably during the Week 11 game at San Francisco.
Then, with 8:04 remaining in the game, his season ended.
Williams had broken his left arm above the elbow and, without him, Arizona was forced to use rookie David Carter and defensive end Nick Eason in a platoon role to get the job done.
They did a commendable job in doing so, but having him back will be huge for the success of the defense.
What to watch for: Watch for Williams to provide an enormous run-stopping presence throughout camp and preseason games. That’s why Arizona made him a first-round pick in 2010, and that’s where he will succeed throughout his career.
He should pick up right where he left off before being carted off the Candlestick Park turf.
Patrick Peterson, CB
We’re going to look beyond Patrick Peterson’s four punt return touchdowns for a minute to highlight his rookie season as a cornerback.
If I had to use one phrase to sum up what we all saw from a cornerback standpoint from Peterson, it would be, “Tip of the iceberg.”
In a recent evaluation grading the offseason of each NFC team, ESPN Insider Matt Williamson had this to say of Peterson and the secondary:
Adding [William] Gay and [rookie Jamell] Fleming makes Arizona’s secondary deep—and the Cardinals can get away with average starting talent on the back end because Patrick Peterson is on the cusp of becoming the second-best cornerback in football behind Darrelle Revis.
What to watch for: Watch for Peterson to grow exponentially as a defensive back. His aggressive play against top wide receivers will make him one of the toughest receptions around, and toward the end of 2011 he started showing that flare.
The returns on special teams are fun and exciting, but he was drafted to play cornerback—and in 2012 he will become a great one.
Stewart Bradley, ILB
As highlighted earlier, Bradley restructured the big-time contract he signed as a free agent last offseason. He will make less money this season, but it may be his last if he cannot grasp the switch from a 4-3 middle linebacker to a 3-4 inside ‘backer.
Coaches did all they could last year to get him on the field, giving him pass-rushing snaps from the outside as well as on special teams. But he struggled to understand the new terminology and scheme.
What to watch for: Watch for signs of comfortability from Bradley this preseason. He needs to find a way onto the field this season, or he will not be on the roster next season.
Adrian Wilson, SS
Adrian Wilson played last season with a torn tendon in his biceps muscle, and it ended up being one of his best seasons on the field.
He is the leader of the defense and a team captain, and though he will be 33 midway through the season, he has not slowed down. With the exception of the 2010 season in which he played through a painful abdominal tear, he has actually gotten better in coverage as he has aged.
What to watch for: Barring another unforeseen injury, watch for Wilson to pick up where he left off in 2011, which means a destructive force in both run- and pass-coverage. With a full offseason and this being the second year of Horton’s aggressive scheme, look for Wilson to be more active against the run.
Having a healthy Kerry Rhodes able to roam centerfield will allow Wilson to focus more on that also.
LaRon Byrd, WR
LaRon Byrd went undrafted during the most recent draft. Don’t ask me how, because I fully expected someone to take a chance on him.
He was not very productive throughout his days as a Miami Hurricane, but his athleticism is undeniable. He’s 6’4”, 220 pounds and has been compared to a pretty good current NFL receiver already. You’ll find out whom later on in the slideshow.
What to watch for: Watch for Byrd to impress coaches—and probably even you—enough to make this team. He is a big, physical receiver who can go up and meet the ball at its highest point, and he is unafraid of running routes across the middle of the field. That will be a big factor in who is granted one of the final receiver spots available.
Kevin Kolb, QB
For Kevin Kolb to be successful this season, not only does he need to win the starting quarterback job (obviously), he needs to be a winner as well.
Kolb was outplayed by John Skelton last year. Though the overall stats were nearly identical, where they differed was in late-game situations—in crunch time when the team needed the quarterback to step up and go win one.
What to watch for: Watch to see if Kolb has a better understanding of Arizona’s passing tree and the progressions he needs to make through any given play. Too often last year—and this was probably due to the lack of playbook knowledge—Kolb locked in on one receiver: Larry Fitzgerald. While Skelton was under center, he did a better job distributing the ball around the field. Kolb must show he can do that.
More on this in a minute.
Michael Floyd, WR
This rookie has no chance of being left off the roster, unlike Byrd, but what he can do is earn a start for Week 1.
Besides making complete sense because of how much of a matchup problem the combination of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd can be, it’s just good business for the Cardinals to start Floyd from the get-go. He appears to be a fan favorite already despite not playing a single meaningful snap in the NFL.
After all, the fans are what keep the game going.
They pay the salaries by purchasing over-priced tickets. They drive the egos by wearing player jerseys. They are the “12th-man” on the field for the home team by being as loud as humanly possible.
What to watch for: All public popularity aside, watch to see how Floyd plays against corners who can match his speed and athleticism. He likely will play with the second team during the August 5 Hall of Fame Game against the New Orleans Saints just to get him acclimated to an NFL defense.
But as the regular season gets closer, watch for him to play with the first team and for the Cardinals to try some different packages with him on the field. He is the game-breaker Arizona has lacked since dealing Anquan Boldin, and they will try early and often to get him open down the field.
Beanie Wells/Ryan Williams, RB
A good running back’s knees are the most valuable thing to his franchise. Keeping them fresh—especially after an injury—is important for the offense and for the back alike.
Both Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams are good running backs, and both are coming off knee surgery and are hoping to be back to full health by the beginning of camp.
If both are ready for the season they should wreak havoc on opposing defenses. Their contrasting styles could be called the oft-used “Thunder and lightning,” but whatever you call it, it will be good.
What to watch for: Watch for how Wells and Williams are able to cut and juke on their surgically repaired knees and how fluid they are able to run. It is probably more of a concern for Wells, as he is upward of 230 pounds but runs as if he were 200.
That and, we have seen Williams making cuts and juking players already, at Cards’ Fan Fest in mid-June.