Will a humbled Tyrann Mathieu earn the Cardinals starting free safety spot?
These guys can play.
With the additions of offensive guard Jonathan Cooper, inside linebacker Kevin Minter and now-free safety Tyrann Mathieu, general manager Steve Keim made one of the bigger splashes of all new GMs picking in their inaugural draft.
Day 3 additions of now-outside linebacker Alex Okafor and running backs Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington prove Keim means business when drafting. What was left off the list of Cardinals’ draftees proves he is the perfect man for the job.
Keim did not draft a quarterback.
He told Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com he still believes in “drafting a quarterback every year,” but he said this year presented a different situation:
The difference is that our two draft choices came through free agency with Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton. So we didn’t feel like that was a necessary move that we needed to make. Quite frankly, the way the board shook out, the quarterback at no point was the top player on our board. So it made the decision [to pass on them] quite easy.
Taking into consideration every move this offseason, here is an initial depth chart for your Arizona Cardinals.
Starter: Carson Palmer
Backup: Drew Stanton
Third String: Brian Hoyer
Again, no quarterback was drafted by Keim and head coach Bruce Arians. This was a very good move considering the draft class and the talent they wound up with in place of a signal-caller.
Carson Palmer will start for Arizona in 2013. He proved last season he still has it at age 32, and now at 33 he is expected to help turn around a franchise four years removed from a Super Bowl appearance with the last “washed-up” quarterback the franchise took in.
The situation is a bit different this time around, as the pieces are in place for Palmer’s team to succeed right now. The Cardinals will be underdogs the entire season, especially playing in the suddenly stout NFC West. But they are on the right track.
Starter: Rashard Mendenhall
Backup: Ryan Williams
Third String: Stepfan Taylor
Fourth String: Andre Ellington
Fullback: Anthony Sherman
With Rashard Mendenhall on a one-year deal, Keim and Arians needed some insurance in case the former Pittsburgh Steelers RB doesn’t pan out in 2013. What they got were two great college backs on Day 3 of the draft in Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington.
They complement each other so well, in fact, that if Mendenhall and Ryan Williams both wash out in Arizona due to injury or another reason, they could take over as No. 1 and No. 2 on the depth chart next season, and no one would worry about the Cardinals’ rushing attack.
The more I think about Taylor in Arizona, the more I realize he is perfect for Arians’ system. He is a between-the-tackles runner with great vision and lateral agility. Not much burst, but watching him show patience behind linemen as they pave the way is a sight to behold.
If Mendenhall and Williams do stay healthy and succeed, there will be decisions to make in the near future on what to do with so much talent.
Anthony Sherman may be asked to play several different roles in Arians’ offense. He does not have much use for a true fullback, so we may see Sherman line up as an H-back on occasion and as a tight end used for blocking.
Starter 1: Larry Fitzgerald
Starter 2: Michael Floyd
Slot 1: Andre Roberts
Slot 2: Ryan Swope
Wide Receiver 5: LaRon Byrd
The receiving corps was vastly upgraded with just one pick during the final day of the draft. Sixth-round pick Ryan Swope presents tremendous value so late in the process that I literally jumped out of my seat when the pick was announced.
He is one pick every Cardinals fan should be stoked about, because some believe him to be the next Wes Welker-type receiver who shreds defenses from the slot for many years.
He is not flashy, and he does not celebrate every first down he makes. He shows up to work on game day, and when the clock runs out, he has left everything he has on the field.
That is the kind of guy Bruce Arians wants on his football team. That is the kind of guy Larry Fitzgerald is.
It’s a beautiful thing, this receiving corps. Palmer will have a field day throwing to them every Sunday. When compared to what he had at the tail end of his days in Cincinnati and during his time in Oakland, these guys represent the Dream Team of the NFL.
Starter: Rob Housler
Backup: Jeff King
Third String: Jim Dray
Fourth String: D.C. Jefferson
Arizona’s entire fanbase is hoping this is the year Rob Housler breaks out. He is entering year three in the NFL, and he really has no excuse not to have a big year. Palmer likes finding his tight ends over the middle on dump-offs and down the seam to stretch the defense deep, and Housler can do all of that.
Last season, Palmer turned unknown tight end Brandon Meyers into the leading receiver on the team. In three seasons before 2012, Meyers caught 32 passes for 250 yards and zero touchdowns.
Last year? How about 79 receptions for 806 yards and four scores?
Palmer has that effect on his tight end. It is that which leads me to believe Housler will become the second tight end in franchise history to surpass 1,000 yards receiving for a season. The only man to do it was St. Louis Cardinals great and 1994 Hall of Fame inductee Jackie Smith.
In 1967, Smith caught 56 passes for 1,205 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 21.52 yards per reception—a single-season NFL record for tight ends with at least 50 receptions during the respective year.
Does Housler have that in him? In Arians’ offense, I’m not so sure that is out of the question.
Rookie seventh-round pick D.C. Jefferson may develop into a below-average receiving tight end at some point. But he can block, and that is worth something in this league.
Left Tackle: Levi Brown* and Nate Potter
Right Tackle: Bobby Massie* and Nate Potter
Levi Brown should be ready for camp in August (wherever that will be), and that means the left tackle spot is once again his. Whether he is elite remains to be seen, but if you ask Arians his opinion of the six-year veteran, he may drop the “E” word on you.
On the other side, Bobby Massie endured one of the worst starts to a rookie season imaginable. He allowed 13 sacks over the first eight games of 2012 before fixing his issues through diligent film study and extra work after practice.
The result? Zero sacks allowed over the back half of his rookie season. The crazy fact is that his 13 sacks allowed led the NFL last year, but he is one of only two right tackles to start every game and not allow a sack during the final eight games of the season—the other being Atlanta Falcons veteran Tyson Clabo (per ProFootballFocus; subscription required).
Nate Potter is an interesting piece this season. He started the final seven games of the season at left tackle for Arizona and provided some stability to the blind side. I saw a picture of him that was posted on Twitter last week (which I cannot seem to find now), and he looked beefier than he was as a rookie.
Brown is the starter for now, but if Potter shows up to camp and starts throwing pass-rushers around the field at practice and during preseason games, we may have a little left tackle controversy on our hands.
Left Guard: Daryn Colledge* and Earl Watford
Right Guard: Jonathan Cooper* and Chilo Rachal
Carrying four guards on a week-to-week basis is pretty customary in the NFL. Carrying two rookies is not as usual, but after the garbage the unit produced last season, big change is in order.
Keeping Adam Snyder on the roster makes some sense because of his versatility, but his play at any position is putrid enough to warrant his release from the team.
Chilo Rachal is only slightly better than Snyder and just as versatile, as he has played every position on the line but center in the NFL, so he can serve as the all-offensive line veteran in 2013.
Also gone is second-year pro and former fifth-round pick, Senio Kelemete.
Starter: Lyle Sendlein
Backup: Jonathan Cooper
The mainstay and leader of Arizona’s offensive line, Lyle Sendlein should be ready to go for camp after suffering a season-ending knee injury toward the end of last season. Though no reports say he will be ready, this video from AZCardinals.com in which he talks about being excited to get into the weight room suggests he is just fine—there is no mention of his knee at all during the short interview.
Don’t scoff at the choice to have Cooper as Sendlein’s backup. He played a bit of center in college and can do so in a pinch. Should that happen, Rachal would step in at right guard for him.
Starter: Dan Williams
Backups: David Carter and Ricky Lumpkin
After three full seasons in the NFL, Dan Williams has become a force in the run game. According to PFF (subscription required), he was the eighth-highest rated defensive tackle at run defense a year ago, ranking ahead of guys like Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour, Ryan Pickett, Ndamukong Suh and Dontari Poe.
David Carter was solid in a limited role last year, and he can be better if given more opportunity.
I believe the way free agency and the draft went, there may be a change back to a 4-3 defense in the future—perhaps a hybrid, much like the New England Patriots run. If that is the case, Williams and Carter would be the two defensive tackles, and they would be a very good tandem. Not much in the way of pass-rushing, but not many running backs escape their grasp.
Right DE: Calais Campbell* and Matt Shaughnessy
Left DE: Darnell Dockett* and Frostee Rucker
Calais Campbell is the prize of the Arizona defensive line. He does it all, from stuffing the run as the backside end to getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. He will break through one of these years and finally earn a Pro Bowl selection. Until then, he is the best non-Pro Bowl defensive lineman each year.
Crusty veteran Darnell Dockett could be in a slightly different role this season. Under Ray Horton’s watchful eye, Dockett’s place on the defense changed from being a primary pass-rusher to a space-eater to allow his linebackers free shots at the quarterback.
That never sat well with Nine-Oh.
If he can return to his previous self under direction of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the defense will be better for it.
Strong ILB: Daryl Washington* and Jasper Brinkley
Weak ILB: Kevin Minter* and Reggie Walker
In case you are wondering, “Strong” and “Weak” inside linebacker simply refers to where each player lines up. Strong-side players line up to the side with the primary tight end, and weak-side players line up on the other side. Simple as that.
Anyway, Daryl Washington will serve a four-game suspension to start the season. This depth chart will not recognize that, as his removal from games is not performance-based. Once his suspension is up, he will be right back where he belongs.
And finally, yes, I predict rookie Kevin Minter will overtake free-agent signee Jasper Brinkley on the depth chart by the time games matter. There are few reasons why Minter would not be a Day 1 starter, and on-field performance will have nothing to do with it.
Right OLB: Sam Acho* and Lorenzo Alexander
Left OLB: Alex Okafor* and O’Brien Schofield
The constant here is Sam Acho. He returns for his second full season as the starting ROLB, but this is a big year for him. He must improve over a disappointing sophomore NFL season in which he recorded only four sacks while starting all 16 games.
Yet another rookie starting, Alex Okafor provides great value from where he was drafted. Originally projected to be as high as a late-first round pick, the Cardinals took him with the sixth pick in Round 4 (No. 103 overall).
He played a lot of defensive end at the University of Texas, and he reunites with Acho, who also was a Longhorn.
Okafor has been compared to Acho—even I made the connection months ago—in the way he plays. He is big and strong, and he uses power to get to opposing quarterbacks. Not a speed-rusher exactly, Okafor does possess enough quickness to beat tackles around the edge occasionally.
O’Brien Schofield is rehabbing after surgery to repair torn ligaments in his ankle that ended his season prematurely. But he was underperforming as well, and Okafor has better potential as a pass-rusher than Schofield. Both, coincidentally, are fourth-round picks. As is Acho.
Insanely, Acho and Okafor—former teammates at Texas and similar players—were both drafted No. 103 overall by Arizona, just two years apart.
Starter 1: Patrick Peterson
Starter 2: Antoine Cason
Nickel: Jerraud Powers
Dime: Jamell Fleming
Quarters: Justin Bethel
Last year’s third-round pick, Jamell Fleming, started his rookie season having earned a lot of playing time. In fact, at New England because of the spread offense Tom Brady and Co. run, Fleming played 80 of 82 plays on defense.
Justin Bethel earned his spot on last year’s roster as a rookie sixth-round pick by excelling on special teams. He was placed at safety during the regular season and played just 13 snaps on defense (subscription required). According to Bethel via his Twitter account, he will make the move and play cornerback in year two. He will add athleticism to the group over guys like William Gay and Mike Adams.
Strong Safety: Rashad Johnson* and Tony Jefferson
Free Safety: Tyrann Mathieu* and Yeremiah Bell
Yes, I believe Tyrann Mathieu will earn the starting free safety spot by Week 1. All signs point to him being a changed man who is ready to play football, and if he plays like I think he can, there will be no way for Bowles to keep him off the field.
His football instincts are impeccable, his knowledge of the game is unmatched, and his athletic ability wraps all that up into a perfect package called Mathieu.
Veteran safety Rashad Johnson has the daunting task of attempting to fill the Hall of Fame-sized hole left by Adrian Wilson. Good luck, sir. You’ll need it.
Johnson played well last season spelling Wilson as Horton moved to a younger, more athletic secondary that excluded his most tenured defender. But without the leadership and guidance of A-Dub, this is a whole new ballgame for Johnson.
The Cardinals signed Tony Jefferson as an undrafted free agent, and he has a great chance to make the initial roster. I’m not sure how he did not end up being drafted, but everything happens for a reason, and Jefferson has vowed to make believers out of those who passed on him.
Kicker: Jay Feely
Punter: Dave Zastudil
Long Snapper: Mike Leach
These guys have all been around a long time, and they all were very good in 2012. It will be time to replace them at some point, but that time has not yet arrived.