What's New for the Arizona Cardinals in 2013?

Shaun Church@@NFLChurchContributor IAugust 31, 2013

What's New for the Arizona Cardinals in 2013?

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    The Arizona Cardinals experienced more change this offseason than most NFL franchises. In fact, it is quite possible that no team went through as much change.

    With change comes new expectations and hope for a quick turnaround. After sitting through a 5-11 season and witnessing one of the worst offenses in league history in 2012, fans are eager to see the new product on the field.

    Over half the roster is new, and a handful of the new coaches have been around the NFL since Super Bowl I (that’s not a typo).

    Pass-rushing specialist Tom Pratt, 78, even coached in that game with the Kansas City Chiefs and has coached Hall of Famers Warren Sapp, Derrick Thomas, Buck Buchanan and Curley Culp.

    With age come wisdom and experience, however, and hopefully that will help this young Cardinals team succeed.

    Here is what’s new for the Cardinals in 2013.

New Sheriff and His Deputy

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    New general manager Steve Keim has almost completely turned over the roster since being promoted in January. It took him nine days to find his head coach, Bruce Arians.

    Arians, who was recognized as the AP NFL Coach of the Year in 2012 for his fill-in role with the Indianapolis Colts, has ushered in a new attitude in the locker room that will hopefully translate to the playing field.

    Players appear to have bought into his philosophies, and though it could take some time to reap the benefits of the Arians way, the team could still make some noise this season.

    The talent is there to do so thanks to Keim.

Fresh Faces on Defense

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    Keim brought in many new players to help a defense that struggled to stop the run a year ago. Despite the unit faring well in many categories, it was among the worst teams in the league in opposing rushing yards per attempt (4.33, ranked 22nd).

    Added to the front seven via free agency were Lorenzo Alexander, Karlos Dansby, Matt Shaughnessy and Jasper Brinkley.

    All have a history of being above-average run defenders and most are pushing for starting spots.

    John Abraham was added late to help with the pass rush and his 122 career sacks lead all active players.

    At the draft, Arizona added Kevin Minter to the front seven. Because of the four-game suspension to Daryl Washington, Minter could see a lot of early playing time, and possibly a start or two—his range in coverage gives him an edge over Brinkley and should be the reason he starts in Washington’s absence.

    The secondary also received a notable upgrade in safety/cornerback Tyrann Mathieu. It didn’t look like an obvious upgrade at the time of the draft, but Mathieu has been the best young defender on the team this offseason.

    From making plays at practice to helping create turnovers during preseason games, the third-rounder has proven to be a great addition so far.

    Corners Antoine Cason, Jerraud Powers and Javier Arenas all are new, as is starting strong safety Yeremiah Bell.

    While Bell replaces a probable Hall of Famer in Adrian Wilson and is a drop-off talent-wise, he brings his 10 years of NFL knowledge to a young secondary trying to improve on what the last group of players built—a stingy defense that allows chunks of yards at times but shores up in the red zone.

Todd Bowles Replaces Ray Horton

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    Being charged with replacing Ray Horton is no small task. In a short time, Horton turned a below-average defense into one that was on the verge of being a top unit last year.

    If not for the shaky run defense, it would have been up there with the best defenses in the league.

    The new additions on defense have already made an impact. The top two running backs on each of the first three teams Arizona faced this preseason averaged 3.32 yards per carry against the Cardinalsa full yard less than the team allowed last season.

    Preseason or not, improvement has been shown thus far. That is promising.

Tweaks to the 3-4

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    Under Horton, the defense put pressure on opposing quarterbacks from anywhere at any time. Washington’s nine sacks led all inside linebackers a year ago and were three more than the closest ILB on the list (Lawrence Timmons had six).

    Horton’s defensive line used a two-gap strategy that ended up being controversial because of defensive end Darnell Dockett’s selfish attitude toward it. He felt it took away from what he was able to do as an individual.

    While that is true, the end game is what’s important.

    Winning football games is what playing in the NFL is all about. It’s a team sport through and through, and teams don’t win Super Bowls because of one player’s individual performance—especially not a 3-4 defensive end.

    Bowles is keeping the base 3-4 look (for now), but rather than having a traditional two-gap look from the line, he will allow defenders to one-gap and get pressure on opposing quarterbacks on their own.

    Does that mean Dockett and Calais Campbell will be able to run free in pursuit of signal-callers any time they want? Of course not. It’s still a 3-4 scheme, and the main principle of the 3-4 is to have the defensive line take up as many offensive linemen as it can to free a path for linebackers to get to the quarterback.

    But Dockett is happy with Bowles’ scheme, and apparently, that’s all that matters. Keep No. 90 happy and everyone can be happy.

Fresh Faces on Offense

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    Four of 11 offensive starters for Week 1 in St. Louis were not on the roster in 2012. Another, left tackle Levi Brown, was injured at this time last year and beginning of a long rehab process.

    The most important position on the entire roster was upgraded shortly after Arians’ arrival when the team traded for quarterback Carson Palmer.

    There have already been returns on that investment. Palmer is quieter in the pocket and delivers a better ball to his receivers than the calamity at the position over the past three years.

    Running back Rashard Mendenhall signed as a free agent and will start behind Palmer. He had a rough go of it at camp, missing some time with tendonitis of the knee, but he was good in the preseason games in which he played—13 carries for 79 yards (6.08 yards per carry) against Dallas and San Diego.

    Right tackle Eric Winston was a late addition to the roster, signing the day before training camp began. It took him a week to supplant Bobby Massie at RT and, as expected, he has played very well.

    Former Arizona State guard Paul Fanaika will start at right guard in place of Daryn Colledge, who moved back to left guard to replace the injured Jonathan Cooper.

    Based on how he had performed, there was chatter that Fanaika would start over Colledge once the veteran returned from his leg injury.

    That ultimately did not happen, as Colledge stepped into the starting lineup on his first day back. But it did make moving Colledge back to the left and starting Fanaika on the right a bit easier once Cooper went down.

Vertical Passing Attack

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    Arians brought with him an offense that can be referred to as a “six-gun” scheme. That is, he wants his quarterback to take six shots downfield per game in order to gain chunks of yards at a time.

    That philosophy was in action all through the preseason.

    Palmer, who still has the ability to sling it all over the field successfully, threw beyond 20 yards on seven of 44 preseason attemptsa 15.9 percent deep-ball rate. Compare that to last year’s quarterbacks, who threw deep just 9.5 percent of the time, and you get an idea of Arians’ impact.

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Palmer completed three of those passes for 79 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

    Six deep shots per game amount to 96 deep shots over a 16-game season. Doing so that often will likely place Palmer in the top five in the league in that category, if not closer to No. 1.

    Since 2008, only two quarterbacks have gone deep 96 or more times in a season: Andrew Luck threw 101 deep balls in 2012 (under Arians, mind you) and Eli Manning did so 109 times in 2011.

    In fact, only two other quarterbacks have thrown deep over 90 times in a season within that time frame: Joe Flacco last season (92) and Peyton Manning in 2010 (also 92).

Key Offseason Departures

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    Among the departures this offseason are safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes. Both are still good players, and while Wilson found an immediate home in New England with the Patriots, Rhodes is still out there without work.

    Kevin Kolb signed in Buffalo and instantly hurt himself signing the contract (no, but seriously, he may be forced to retire due to his most recent concussion).

    John Skelton signed with Cincinnati to be Andy Dalton’s backup and Brian Hoyer found his way to Cleveland to back up Brandon Weeden.

    Running back Beanie Wells was cut shortly after the season ended and has yet to sign with an NFL team. LaRod Stephens-Howling signed in Pittsburgh and appears to be the No. 4 back in the Steelers' stable. With three big backs ahead of him, though, he could earn some playing time in Todd Haley’s offense.

    It’s hard to consider tight end Todd Heap a “key departure” because he did very little while here. He spent a lot of his time on the sidelines with various injuries, totaling 32 receptions for 377 yards and a touchdown in two years.

Impact Rookies

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    Cooper, Keim’s first pick as GM, has been placed on season-ending injured reserve and will not return in 2013. He was the starting left guard and had played extremely well up to the injury.

    Minter has a shot to be an impact player immediately with Washington missing a month of games. Not only does he stuff the run well and run sideline to sideline better than many thought he would, he is solid on special teams as well.

    It would not be surprising to see Minter start next to Dansby while Washington serves his suspension.

    Mathieu may end up being a Rookie of the Year candidate if he plays the regular season as he did the preseason. He is an impressive athlete to watch play and should be a cog in Bowles’ defense all season.

    Anywhere he plays, be it at nickel corner, on the outside or at free safety, Mathieu finds a way to make an impact.

    Outside linebacker Alex Okafor could see some early action, but he needs to develop as a cover linebacker to become a full-time player. Pass-rushing is his specialty, and he could be in a regular rotation for Bowles this season.

    Running back Stepfan Taylor was a good surprise this offseason. After getting a late start because of Stanford’s outdated quarters system, he settled in nicely as the No. 2 back due to injury concerns with Mendenhall and Ryan Williams.

    Arians and Co. can rely on Taylor should another injury occur this season.