Ken Whisenhunt (left) coached his last game with the Cardinals.
The Arizona Cardinals' offseason will be one of the most important and difficult in recent years. The rest of the NFC West is vastly improved and the Cardinals run the risk of falling far behind the rest of the division.
The Cardinals will have many key personnel decisions to be made for the roster. Arizona has deficiencies at quarterback, running back and the offensive line that will need to be addressed.
Add to that the other changes that are coming from the coaching ranks and this will be a long offseason. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves were both fired from their positions yesterday. The rest of the offensive coordinators were also given their walking papers so there are several coaching openings that need to be filled within the organization. Without having a general manager nor a coach, personnel decisions may wait a while.
There's a lot of work to be done, so start the slide show and see the blueprint for success that the Cardinals need to follow to improve in 2013.
Whisenhunt was fired with one year left on his contract.
Ken Whisenhunt was fired from his job Monday morning as the NFL coaching carousel was put into motion on "Black Monday." Whisenhunt was 45-51 in the regular season with a 4-2 playoff record in six years.
The Cardinals' 4-0 start did not carry much weight for the case to keep Whisenhunt. Arizona dropped nine straight and 11 of its final 12 games to finish 5-11. A big losing streak like that doesn't bode well for a coach's future employment with that team.
With Whisenhunt out of the picture, two names emerged late Monday for possible replacements. Andy Reid, the head coach of the Eagles who was also fired Monday, is one candidate to interview with the Cardinals according to nj.com.
The other possible candidate for the coaching job (as of press time) is Mike McCoy, the offensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos. According to the Daily Camera, Arizona has permission to interview McCoy but Chicago does as well.
Don't forget about the internal candidate in defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Horton built Arizona into one of the better secondaries in the NFL but the defense got burned by the run for more than 2,000 yards this past season. Horton is also being courted for multiple head coaching jobs according to NBC Sports.
This decision will go a long way to see who gets the job and as of right now, it's a tossup as to who will get the approval for the job.
Graves (right) was also fired on Black Monday.
The Cardinals also need a new general manager after Rod Graves was given the boot yesterday. Steve Keim has been with the organization for more than a decade and is a possible candidate to get the promotion to the general manager role.
There have not been any other names that have popped up yet for contenders for the GM position in Arizona but this is also going to be a key to the future success of Arizona.
Kolb (center) spent 10 games on injured reserve.
The Cardinals used four different starting quarterbacks in 2012 and managed only five wins.
The question for 2013 is who will Arizona start the season opener with under center?
Kevin Kolb's contract has him due the tidy sum of $11 million in 2013. Kolb wants to return for next season but will he restructure his contact to make it more cap-friendly?
Owner Michael Bidwell said he's not ready to give up on Kolb yet but how much longer can he keep a quarterback who's missed 17 of 32 games in the last two years with injuries?
If it is not Kolb, it would be hard to see John Skelton, Ryan Lindley or Brian Hoyer get the nod based on their performances this season.
Of course, that can all be blown up depending on who the new coach and general manager are. Either way, there's a lot of uncertainty. The team has not had a true starting quarterback since Kurt Warner's final season with the team.
Wells might not be back in 2013 with Arizona.
The Arizona Cardinals rushing attack limped along in 2012. They finished dead last in the league, gaining just 75.2 yards per game. For the fourth time in the last decade, Arizona has finished last in rushing. Besides the fact Arizona doesn't have a quarterback with an arm to distract from the problem, it's a chronic issue that has plagued the Cardinals for years.
But who will the starting running back be?
Beanie Wells said he wanted out of Arizona and was auditioning for the other 31 teams in the league, according to CBS Sports.com. He said that after the Chicago game and found himself getting benched for the finale against San Francisco.
After the game against San Francisco, Wells said he would like to be back in Arizona since he and his family live here, according to azcentral.com. Wells may have changed field on his stance but it doesn't change the fact he averaged 2.7 yards per carry on his 84 carries this season. Yes, Wells hit the end zone five times this season but he isn't putting up the kind of numbers that a lead running back should put up.
Wells has a club option for 2013 and it's uncertain if the Cardinals will pick him up.
If he doesn't take it, the lead job might fall to LaRod Stephens-Howling. The man nicknamed "Hyphen" was the leading rusher for the team with 357 yards and four touchdowns. Given his small size, it's hard to say if Stephens-Howling would be able to withstand the punishment of a full season of bashing between the tackles.
Stephens-Howling is a free agent and there's too much uncertainty to determine what his fate might be.
The other running back to keep in mind is Ryan Williams. Williams, a second round pick out of Virginia Tech in 2011, has been horribly snake-bit with injuries. He ruptured his patella tendon in the preseason in 2011 and missed the season. This year he injured his shoulder in the loss at St. Louis and went on IR after just five games.
Williams has the talent to have an impact at the running back spot but does he have the health?
William Powell had a couple okay games this season and the rest of the running backs are players with two years of experience so it's hard to say how they will turn out.
Of course, the answer could be none of the above depending on the coaching and GM situations.
The Cardinals' offensive line needs help.
The Cardinals' offensive line bears an odd, yet uncanny, resemblance to Swiss cheese. They have allowed 163 sacks over the last three seasons including an eye-popping 58 of them in 2012.
One of the worst-kept secrets in football is that Arizona needs offensive line help in a very big way. We all know how much of a difference a strong line can make and Arizona needs to build one quickly.
Arizona holds a high draft pick this year and the 2103 NFL Draft isn't top-heavy with skill players like the Draft Class of 2012 was. Perhaps Arizona could go after a lineman, or several, in this draft if their other needs are met in free agency.
Either way, the injuries hurt the team and the general inexperience did not do the offense any favors.
Williams is one of several Cardinals to be placed on season-ending IR in 2012.
The Cardinals lost a few key pieces to injuries in 2012 and they really impacted the team.
Running back Ryan Williams (shoulder) was one of the biggest losses for the season. He looked to be the starter while Wells was out with his turf toe problems and was running well before he got hurt. With Wells being listed on the Designated-to-Return Injured Reserve, no other Cardinal was able to get that status so once they went on IR, they weren't coming back.
Kevin Kolb was put on IR in December after not healing up well enough following his Week 6 injury suffered in the game against Buffalo.
The offensive line was also beaten up, badly.
Levi Brown was put on IR with a torn left triceps muscle suffered in the preseason finale against Denver. Starting center Lyle Sendlein was lost in week 11 with torn ligaments in his knee. His backup, Rich Ohrnberger, also wound up on IR so Arizona was down to Scott Wedige as its third-string center.
The loss of two starters on the offensive line was huge as it led to three rookies starting there for Arizona and all four quarterbacks scrambling for their lives this season.
The defense lost starting linebacker O'Brien Schofield for the season in Week 9 with torn ligaments in his left ankle.
Kolb is still the question mark of this group as the rest of the injuries suffered should be healed by the time camp opens in late July. It's hard to say if Kolb would be ready to go for the start of training camp or if he would even be on the roster at that point.
Paris Lenon (left) covers Randall Cobb of Green Bay in Week 9.
Also this off-season, Arizona needs to get a few free agents back with the team for the following season. The good news is there is a strong nucleus on defense but the offensive side of the ball has question marks.
Paris Lenon leads the group on defense of players that could be re-signed to give Arizona maximum benefit. Lenon, at age 35, is coming off of a season with 102 tackles, two sacks, a fumble recovery and an interception. He has been over 90 tackles five of his last six seasons and continues to produce. Another key about Lenon is that he hasn't missed a game in the three years he's been a Cardinal and has missed just one game in his 11-year career.
Defensive backs Rashad Johnson, Greg Toler and Michael Adams are all free agents as well. Johnson showed strong improvement over the season. Toler recorded 27 tackles in 11 games and a 102-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Lions. Adams was less of a factor with 14 tackles and three passes defended on the season. Who comes back depends on the front office decisions.
Offensively, LaRod Stephens-Howling is a free agent this offseason but isn't likely to command much value on the open market. More of his value is as kick returner and teams aren't likely to open the wallet for a specialist like that.
There are other free agents as well and we'll see them on the next slide.
Powell looks for a running lane against the Lions.
An ERFA is the term used for an exclusive rights free agent. What that means is these are players with two years of NFL experience and are not under contract at this point.
Arizona has the exclusive right to negotiate a contract with these players. If the Cards make an offer at the three-year veteran minimum salary, the player's options are to take the contract or quit the league. The approximate amount of a third-year veteran minimum salary is $630,000.
Arizona's ERFAs are: RB Javarris James, G Rich Ohrnberger, RB William Powell, RB Alfonso Smith, DL Ronald Talley and LB Brandon Williams. Powell could get an offer and the rest of the ERFAs are up in the air. These are mainly going to be depth players but they might get the occasional start based on injuries more often than poor play.
Brian Hoyer gets mauled by a 49er defender.
By now, it should be obvious what Arizona needs to improve to make the team better in 2013.
2. Running Back
3. Offensive Linemen
4. Head Coach
5. General Manager
6. Stronger second wide receiver to take pressure off of Larry Fitzgerald
With all of these key needs, how does Arizona solve them all?
Mike Wallace is one of the many free agents in 2013.
Last season, Arizona took a bold step in trying to get Peyton Manning to be the quarterback of the Cardinals. Manning came to the team's Tempe facility and the Cardinals made their best pitch to him.
Although he chose Denver instead, Arizona still won by showing that they are willing to go after the bigger-name free agents. That must continue in this offseason for the Cardinals to try and be better on the field in 2013.
At the skill positions names like Steven Jackson, Reggie Bush, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe, Greg Jennings, Wes Welker and Tony Gonzalez are all out there. There's also a good, long list of offensive linemen too so Arizona can find players to make pitches to in free agency.
Regardless of who they land, Arizona needs to make a splash in free agency. It would serve notice to the rest of the league that the 2012 season won't be good enough and it would also make the draft easier on the new front office staff.
Luke Joeckel of Texas A&M (right) would be a nice addition to the Arizona offensive line.
Arizona should be thinking offensive line when the draft comes around in late April and they should be looking at a pair of Texas A&M linemen in Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews.
Those two linemen were key in helping Johnny Manziel pass for 3419 yards with 24 touchdowns and rush for 1181 yards and 19 more scores in 2012. Manziel wound up being the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy and did so playing in the always-difficult SEC.
The only downside of those two Aggies is that both are underclassmen and may not make the leap to the draft and stay in school for another season.
Joeckel was the blindside protector and Matthews was the strong side tackle. Matthews is also the son of 19-year NFL veteran and Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews. See them in the Cotton Bowl this Friday and judge for yourself.
Taylor Lewan of Michigan is also a highly-regarded prospect who is also an underclassman.
The other options Arizona has are to make a trade, up or down, to impact their pick. With decisions to be made by underclassmen, leadership changes coming in Arizona and almost four months to the draft, it's too early to figure out what Arizona has to do with the number seven pick in the first round.
Arian Foster went undrafted. Imagine how many teams want a do-over on him.
While a lot of hype is made about the NFL Draft, there's also a second phase of the draft that goes on and it's digging through the undrafted free agents (UFA) to try and find a gem.
Gems have been found in the UFA ranks before and it will happen again.
Arian Foster of Houston went undrafted. So did Kurt Warner, Antonio Gates, Warren Moon, Priest Holmes and even kicker Adam Vinatieri.
Those players in the last couple sentences all went on to have wonderful careers and perhaps even an enshrinement in Canton at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Arizona needs to do its homework and find a diamond in the rough that can help out. It may not be to the level of Foster, Warner or Gates but with the issues on offense, any help could be appreciated.
It hasn't been all smiles for Larry Fitzgerald.
Regardless of the result, Arizona needs to learn one final lesson in the off-season and that lesson is work quickly.
The Cardinals need to be able to move quickly on their searches for a new head coach and general manager. They also need to have that same attitude on free agency as well so that other teams are hearing that Arizona wants their players and pay them nicely too.
Until the new leadership is installed, it's impossible to determine how to develop the players. An educated guess would be getting the backs more involved in the passing game, find ways to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and break through 20 points a game on the offensive side of the ball.
Only time will tell if the Cardinals followed the blue print or if they went out on their own.