Burning Questions for the Arizona Cardinals' 2013-14 Season
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Midway through training camp, the Arizona Cardinals were healthy and ready to go into the regular season with some momentum on their side (as much momentum as can be generated from a preseason).
After a 24-7 loss to the San Diego Chargers in which rookie offensive guard Jonathan Cooper left with a broken leg, however, things all of a sudden don’t look as shiny.
Daryn Colledge will move back to left guard in Cooper’s absence, and Paul Fanaika will start on the right side after a solid camp, according to Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com. But in addition to that of the offensive line, there are still many burning questions heading into the regular season.
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Can the O-Line Hold Up While Cooper Heals?
The rookie guard will miss 10 to 12 weeks while his surgically repaired leg heals, and Colledge will fill in for him. Fanaika was a pleasant surprise throughout camp and even started at right guard in Green Bay while Colledge nursed an injury.
The interior line performed extraordinarily well in three preseason games, with Cooper allowing the only pressure among the starters. Fanaika allowed one sack and three pressures in three games, according to ProFootballFocus (subscription required), but all that came against backups.
One emerging problem is the left tackle position. Both Levi Brown and Nate Potter struggled in preseason action, with Brown having issues with penalties and Potter allowing too many sacks.
Brown is the starter, but if he continues his penalty tirade, coach Bruce Arians should think about benching him.
Will Ryan Williams Make It Through Week 1 Injury-Free?
There is no denying Ryan Williams’ talent. If healthy (and unafraid), the kid can flat out run the ball. But that, of course, is the major question: Can Williams stay healthy?
If he can, there is a chance he saves his NFL career.
Entering his third pro season, Williams has played in just five regular-season games. On the field, he should still be considered a rookie. That’s a good thing and a bad thing.
Having been on the shelf for so much of his career, he should be ready to explode with anticipation for Week 1. If he does it right, he could be the back of the future in Arizona.
But he also could be one minor injury away from Arians losing patience with him and cutting him loose.
Who Will Step Up as No. 4 Receiver?
Michael Floyd appears to have a handle on the No. 2 wide receiver spot, with Andre Roberts playing mostly from the slot as the No. 3. But that fourth receiver position is up for grabs, and there could be multiple players in that role during the season.
That includes players currently on the roster, but it could include a free agent down the road if no one steps up.
Three young receivers—Kerry Taylor, Jaron Brown and Charles Hawkins—all could have the first shots at nailing down the job, as they were competitive throughout camp and all shined at times during preseason games.
Who will emerge as the go-to No. 4 guy? The sooner it happens, the better.
Can Rob Housler Catch a Football?
He had only three balls thrown his way in three preseason games, but tight end Rob Housler dropped two of them—including a would-be touchdown pass from quarterback Carson Palmer against the Chargers.
After a solid camp in which he displayed consistent hands throughout, Housler’s preseason was a disappointment because of his stone hands.
We can only hope that was a phase he is about to grow out of, as real games are fast approaching, and the tight end depth is a major issue for the team.
Lesser competition or not, Jim Dray was the best and most complete Cardinals tight end this preseason. His run blocking was spectacular, and though he caught only two passes for 20 yards, he did not drop any. The seventh-round pick could be a sleeper target for Palmer should Housler continue to struggle in the hands department.
How Will the Vertical Passing Attack Fare?
In three preseason games, Palmer completed three of seven deep passes for 79 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 124.4 passer rating.
Seven attempts of 20-plus yards out of 44 total attempts puts the vertical passing game at 15.9 percent of his throws. That ranked fifth among starting quarterbacks behind Ben Roethlisberger (24.2 percent), Matt Ryan (20.9), Sam Bradford (19.4) and Eli Manning (19.0), and it should be about where he is all season.
It is a good sign that two of his three completions went for touchdowns (his only two of the preseason). More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that he hit each of his top three targets with a deep ball. Roberts and Floyd each caught touchdowns, while Fitzgerald caught a deep in-route against the Dallas Cowboys that covered 25 yards.
Palmer puts the football in a spot where only his receiver can get it most of the time, a sign that if the receivers do what they need to, the ball will be there more often than not.
From Where Will the Pass Rush Come?
Pass-rushing specialist John Abraham was added at the start of camp to provide the defense with a proven edge-rusher. He did not play much this preseason, but he doesn’t need seasoning to be successful at his craft.
You know what you’ll get from him; this question is about the others.
Sam Acho is good in coverage, but can he be the pass-rusher opposite Abraham the team needs? Lorenzo Alexander is not a pass-rusher but is more of a run-stopping specialist and cover linebacker.
Rookie Alex Okafor rushed on 29 of 32 passing snaps he saw through three preseason games, according to PFF. That could lead one to believe he will be used primarily as a pass-rusher while he learns more about playing outside linebacker—remember, he is switching from defensive end to OLB.
Then, you have the defensive linemen. Defensive end Calais Campbell is a good bet for eight-plus sacks this season. He has averaged nearly seven sacks the past four seasons, and his pass-rushing responsibilities will increase this season.
More time spent focusing on getting to the quarterback should lead to better production from Campbell.
Can Tyrann Mathieu Avoid the ‘Rookie Wall’?
He does a good enough job of avoiding blockers when rushing the passer, but having been out of football for a full year before picking it up again, could Tyrann Mathieu be on his way to late-season fatigue issues?
The “rookie wall” is not as common in the NFL as it is in other sports, like MLB and the NBA. But given Mathieu’s situation, this could be an exception.
He was spectacular this offseason and earned a lot of playing time with the starting defense because of it. Could early regular-season playing time affect his late-season performance?
Is Jerraud Powers Really the No. 2 Cornerback?
Jerraud Powers is coordinator Todd Bowles’ No. 2 cornerback heading into the season. The only problem with that, of course, is that Powers has struggled to cover receivers this preseason and generally was beaten by everyone he covered.
He made a couple plays, intercepting Kyle Orton and stripping Dez Bryant after initially being beaten, but overall, he was the worst-rated corner on the team during the preseason, according to PFF.
Meanwhile, his main competition, Antoine Cason, is left out in the cold because of this.
While Cason was burned for a 50-yard completion during the team’s first warm-up game against the Packers, he played well the remainder of the way, allowing two receptions for 14 yards on five targets this preseason.
There could be a switch at some point this season if things continue for Powers the way they have so far—and if Powers does what he’s done the past three seasons, which is end up on the injured reserve list midway through the campaign.
Can Jasper Brinkley Cover in Space?
We know Daryl Washington is suspended the first month of the season. That means Jasper Brinkley likely will start in St. Louis for Week 1.
But should he? Brinkley is not good in open spaces, and that is something of which Washington is a master.
Brinkley is best close to the line of scrimmage in tight spaces. He is strong and can dispose of an offensive lineman quickly in order to get to the running back—that’s not the issue.
The issue lies that opening Sunday, when Brinkley is matched up with St. Louis Rams tight end Jared Cook in coverage. The Cardinals should want zero part of that problem.
Can Jay Feely Rebound from a Shaky Preseason?
Normally, the preseason doesn’t mean much. Just getting out the other end of it healthy is winning enough. But Cardinals kicker Jay Feely struggled making kicks both at practice and in games.
He hit five of seven field-goal attempts in game action, missing horribly from 53 yards and shanking a 30-yarder.
The team brought in Dan Carpenter as competition for Feely, but that lasted all of a week. Carpenter had a field goal blocked last Saturday against the Cowboys, and he promptly was released the following Monday.
Feely’s job should not be considered safe because of this fact; it’s just that Carpenter was not good enough competition, apparently.