Arizona Cardinals: What to Watch for at OTAs

Shaun Church@@NFLChurchContributor IMay 19, 2013

Arizona Cardinals: What to Watch for at OTAs

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    The first week of voluntary organized team activities has come and gone at Arizona Cardinals camp, and already there have been players to impress head coach Bruce Arians.

    He ended OTAs last week with a passionate speech in which he urged his players to “build a résumé” by showing up and working hard at the practices. He also called upon them to “state your case to be a Cardinal," according to AZCardinals.com.

    Players young and old have stood out early on, and more should begin to shine over the next couple weeks.

    Here is what to watch for as the Cardinals continue OTA practices, which run May 21-23 and June 3-6.

Palmer-to-Fitzgerald Connection

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    Carson Palmer is the type of quarterback Larry Fitzgerald has missed since Kurt Warner retired. Yes, everyone said that about Kevin Kolb when he was traded to the Cardinals.

    But this time, it is different. Everything feels different about Palmer's arrival versus when Kolb got to Arizona.

    And, for the most part, everything is different.

    The high turnover this offseason has given Fitzgerald a fresh start without changing jerseys. He has the chance to get back to his All-Pro days, when he averaged 98 receptions for over 1,300 yards and a dozen touchdowns per season with Warner as the primary starter.

    Palmer-to-Fitzgerald should be etched into the minds of every Cardinals fan by season's end as the two combine for what should be plenty of fireworks in 2013. Larry is the best receiver Palmer has ever worked with, and it appears they will get along just fine.

    From Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com:

    He’s working as hard in practice as he was in games. He’s a perfectionist, he wants to do things right every single time. He and I will get along great because I am the same way.

    Buckle up, Cards fans. This could be a fun ride.

Running Back Roulette

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    Rashard Mendenhall was supposed to be penned in as Arians’ three-down starter this season. That is why he signed on to join his former offensive coordinator from their days in Pittsburgh.

    But he does understand the business of the NFL, according to Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com, and it seems he will be playing this situation in a different, more mature manner.

    If I was a coach and I was a GM and I had a running back that had a near career-ending injury and another running back who is coming off an ACL and hadn’t quite been the same since that injury, I’d take some backs.

    “Some backs,” of course, referring to Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington being drafted by his team on Day 3 of the NFL draft—both have a chance to earn playing time early.

    Arians likes using young players, and the Cardinals certainly have plenty of them to go around this season. What was considered a two-horse race for Arians’ bell cow back could be a four-horse race before long.

    Ryan Williams will have something to say about the race, no doubt. He has three-down potential, as does Taylor. Ellington is iffy for now, as he seems like a scatback type who would need to grow up a bit physically before being ready for every-down action.

Race for No. 2 Receiver

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    Speaking of positional races, receivers Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts appear to be having quite the battle for the second outside receiver spot.

    Kent Somers of AZCentral.com said Floyd “looks impressive” and appeared more confident than last year. He also noted Floyd had taken more No. 2-receiver snaps than Roberts had to this point, though he did point out the latter was impressive in his own right.

    This will be among the best positional battles to watch throughout not only OTAs, but into camp and preseason as well. It could extend into the season depending on matchups and if one of them gets hot.

    That being said, both will play a significant amount of snaps from different spots on the field. While Roberts may be a better fit for the slot given his skill set, putting both Floyd and Fitzgerald on one side with Roberts and Housler on the other side presents a very real problem for defenses.

    With Floyd and Housler—or Fitzgerald and Housler—in the slot, the mismatches created will be saliva-inducing for Palmer.

LaRon Byrd’s Neck

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    He suffered a neck spasm on the first day of OTAs, but the injury was not enough to keep LaRon Byrd out of practice long.

    According to Somers, Arians said Byrd “is fine and returned to work” later in the week. That is good news, but it is impossible to say whether he is out of the woods just yet.

    Neck spasms can be caused by many different things, from a shoulder issue to overexertion to stress. It even can be caused by spinal stenosis, the same condition that has given Jarvis Jones issues in the past—this would be an absolute worst-case scenario for Byrd.

    The training staff will surely keep a close eye on Byrd during the remaining OTAs and into training camp in July. He has the potential to become a solid receiver for Arians and the Cardinals’ offense; losing him for some time due to further neck problems would be a disaster for all parties.

Left Guard or Right?

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    It has been pointed out multiple times and is common knowledge by now, but rookie first-round pick Jonathan Cooper has been lining up at left guard during OTAs.

    Starting left guard Daryn Colledge has never started a game at right guard, so the move seems curious if it’s for anything more than to see how he does on the other side with the future in mind.

    Cooper is the better athlete of the two, and with so much talent residing on the right side of NFC West defensive lines, it might be better for Cooper to help Levi Brown. I can’t imagine Justin and Aldon Smith wreaking much havoc with their patented “Justin-holds-the-guard-while-Aldon-stunts-around-them” move if Cooper is the guard in that equation.

    It will be interesting to see where they continue to line up the deeper into OTAs we get.

Bobby Massie: Secret Superstar?

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    ProFootballFocus has a series in which they predict players who could enjoy a breakout season in 2013. Cardinals right tackle Bobby Massie just so happened to make that list, and he reportedly noticed, according to Urban.

    Oh yeah, I saw that. It doesn’t mean nothing to me, because the same people that wrote that were the same people that were talking bad about me (early last year). […] Last year was my rookie year. I’m not using it as an excuse, but sometimes it takes some players longer to get adjusted than others. It took me eight or nine games to get everything down, and as Pro Football Focus said, I was one of the top three tackles in the league [to end the season].

    I have written on multiple occasions since the end of the season that Massie was one of two right tackles to start all 16 games at right tackle and not allow a sack over the final eight games of 2012 (can anyone recall the other?).

    PFF believes he can become one of the best right tackles in the league this season. That would be great news for the offense and for the team as a whole if he does.

Inside Linebackers Galore

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    Pro Bowl linebacker Daryl Washington will be suspended the first month of the 2013 season. Just what that means for the starting defense is still uncertain, but it is worth noting that Karlos Dansby and Jasper Brinkley ran with the first team during last week’s OTAs, according to Kent Somers of AZCentral.com.

    Washington ran with rookie Kevin Minter on the second-team defense.

    This could be the start of rotation work to get all linebackers familiar with one another on the field. Or, it could be a sneak peek at Bowles’ Week 1 starting lineup.

    We will know more the closer we get to real football.

    It was thought that Brinkley signed to be a starter at inside linebacker—originally next to Washington—but with the addition of Minter and Dansby, there could be a great debate upcoming (once Washington is reinstated, that is.

    Dansby knows how Todd Bowles coaches, so that could give him the inside track to start. But Washington is one of the NFL’s best young linebackers and cannot simply be left off the field when eligible. And Minter is one of the best inside linebackers coming into the league, so he could end up in consideration for a starting spot at some point.

    Someone will end up sitting, and no matter who it is, he is a good football player.

Cornerback Depth

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    There is, indeed, a lot of depth at the cornerback position as of now. General manager Steve Keim added Jerraud Powers and Antoine Cason via free agency and traded fullback Anthony Sherman to the Kansas City Chiefs for CB Javier Arenas.

    Arenas has far more experience from the slot than any corner on the roster, so he may be on the fast track to earning the nickel role.

    As for the starting spot opposite Patrick Peterson, that will be between Powers and Cason. Powers has been the No. 2 thus far during OTA work, and that could mean Cason falls all the way to a dime role early on.

    A three-year starter with the San Diego Chargers, Cason likely would take issue with that. And who can blame him? Sure, teams run a lot of four-receiver sets. But not nearly as often as two- and three-receiver sets. His playing time would drop drastically if left to cover No. 4 receivers.

    Then, there is Jamell Fleming—the second-year corner who earned a bunch of playing time early during his rookie season but was all but benched for good midway through the year. His development also comes into play when deciding who plays where.

    In truth, his development could lead to a preseason trade much like the one last year that saw A.J. Jefferson leave for Minnesota in exchange for a conditional pick (sixth round).

    This group is deep, but it is far from set at any position.

Tyrann Mathieu’s Progression

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    Changing positions can be difficult on a player, but doing so after a year out of football has to add to the level of difficulty.

    Third-round pick Tyrann Mathieu will move from cornerback to free safety in Bowles’ defense. He is tasked with helping replace Kerry Rhodes, but his performance on the field will not be enough.

    Mathieu must stay clean and sober.

    Having beat addiction myself (nothing serious), I know it can be done. It’s a hell of a ride, but with family, friends and football to keep him company, he has all the tools needed to leave the past in the past.

    On the field, Mathieu also possesses all the tools to be an early-impact player. His natural ball instincts are second to none, and though he is not the ideal height nor weight for the safety position, his quickness and athleticism make him a prime candidate to play well as a rookie.