Many things have gone right for the Arizona Cardinals to start the 2012 season. Despite starting quarterback John Skelton going down with an ankle injury on opening day, the team has gotten off to its best start since 1974.
An offense that ranks near the bottom of the league in every category notwithstanding, Arizona sits atop the NFC West in complete defiance of every preseason naysayer who did not see this coming—but really, who did see this coming?
Consecutive victories over the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles has the NFL’s power rankers clamoring to find a spot in their respective Top 10s, all the while finding a reason to not include them in talks among the league’s elite.
Regardless of power-ranking position and all the hoopla that comes with a 3-0 start, three players have stood above all others.
They are as follows.
Arizona traded up during the 2010 NFL draft to select inside linebacker Daryl Washington in the second round. They sent their second and third-round picks to New England in order to move up 11 spots from 58 to 47, and the move has proven well worth it.
Washington recorded the fourth-most tackles through two seasons in Arizona franchise history (158) and the most sacks over that time (six) for his position.
Through three games this season, Washington leads the team with 29 tackles and three sacks—the latter stat is tied with Cleveland Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson for the most at the position.
The third-year defender out of TCU has a knack for making big plays at big moments. We'll go to the game film to see an example of that.
During the Week 2 victory at New England, the Patriots had just taken the lead early in the third quarter and had the ball back, attempting to gain momentum. On a 2nd-and-6 play—an off-tackle hand-off from Tom Brady to running back Stevan Ridley—with field position on the line, Washington did this:
NFL Hall of Fame safety and FOX color analyst John Lynch’s immediate reaction to the play was an accurate description of not only the play, but also Washington’s entire body of work:
This would make Dick Butkus proud; this is middle-linebacker play at its best. Downhill, and then deliver a blow and take him backwards. That’s textbook linebacking from Daryl Washington—a really good one in Arizona.
A resident Pro Bowler, Larry Fitzgerald has been doing it since his rookie season of 2004. He is the Cardinals all-time leader in receptions (707) and receiving touchdowns (74), and is second in receiving yards per game (77.1).
Through two games, Fitzgerald had only five receptions for 67 yards and no touchdowns. Then the Philadelphia Eagles came to town, a team Fitzgerald has punished in the past.
Sunday was no different.
Fitz caught nine passes for 114 yards and a touchdown, en route to his 33rd career 100-yard performance.
Larry's touchdown catch from Sunday is below and commentated by Cardinals' Spanish Radio Network announcer Gabriel Trujillo.
There's nothing he can do to make fans love him even more, unless a game-winning catch in the Super Bowl is in the future. But has he been the best player this season for Arizona?
The fifth overall pick of the 2011 draft, Patrick Peterson was brought in to help Arizona solidify its secondary, which had been terrible for years. His rookie season—other than an NFL record-tying four punt returns for touchdown—was mediocre in the broad scheme of things.
His pass-coverage skills were called into question on more than one occasion by fans, especially after he was torched in the first two weeks of the season. In those first two games, Peterson allowed 12 receptions for 176 yards, an 85.7 completion percentage, one touchdown and a 142.6 QB rating (via ProFootballFocus).
His sophomore season has been a 180-degree turnaround. Through three games, he has allowed just six receptions for 52 yards, a 35.3 completion percentage, no touchdowns, one interception and a 19.7 rating. PFF tweeted out additional stats for Peterson so far in 2012:
Patrick Peterson stat: Has given up just 0.38 yards per snap in coverage, the lowest # of any CB with 100 coverage snaps— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) September 25, 2012
Peterson has the fifth-lowest completion percentage against and the fifth lowest QB rating among cornerbacks this season, and he is on his way to becoming the best corner in football. With New York Jets star CB Darrelle Revis out for the year with a torn ACL (per ESPN.com), he may make that jump sooner than later.
Patrick Peterson is on his way to being one of the best defenders in football. He’s a young star with all the potential in the world. Larry Fitzgerald has been the face of the Arizona Cardinals franchise for the better part of a decade.
Daryl Washington, however, is the best player on one of the best young defenses in the NFL, and he is the best player on the team right now. At just 25 years old, he has room to improve, and as he does, he may become the league’s best inside linebacker—if not its best overall defender.
We’ll let time decide that.