The St. Louis Rams will welcome Arizona into town on Sunday afternoon, and they will have to contend with a team that, from top to bottom, is better than the 2012 team that finished 5-11.
That does not mean the Cardinals are a deep team. It is closer to the opposite, in fact. Some positions have solid depth throughout, but others are top heavy and leave something to be desired on the back end.
Here is an in-depth look at Arizona’s depth chart for Week 1 against the Rams.
Running back Ryan Williams is back to the No. 2 spot behind Rashard Mendenhall. Williams played well in Denver on his way to roster redemption after missing two weeks of camp with knee soreness.
The third-year back carried nine times for 25 yards and a touchdown in about a quarter of play before head coach Bruce Arians sat him, apparently seeing plenty of Williams to know he was good to go.
Also, the fact that Jim Dray is listed as the No. 2 tight end tells us something about how the offense will run early in the season. The team has yet to bring in a tight end (Bradley Sowell playing some TE in college does not mean he should do it in Arizona), but rather than going with perhaps a better receiving option in Kory Sperry, Arians will roll with Dray, who was rated as the best run-blocking non-lineman on the team this preseason according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Dray showed the ability to move people around in the run game, which makes personnel decisions easier when calling plays in the huddle.
He will move all over the field, most likely being used as an H-back—that is, playing on the line as a traditional tight end, playing some fullback as a run blocker and generally being placed in motion most of the time.
With the addition of enormous defensive lineman Alameda Ta’amu via the waiver wire, the defensive line now has two massive run-stopping nose tackles.
Dan Williams will obviously start and play the bulk of the nose-tackle snaps, but Ta’amu—who stands 6’2” and tips the scale at 348 pounds—could help out early to counter heavy looks from opposing offenses. Short-yardage and goal-line situations will be how the Pittsburgh Steelers’ fourth-round pick in 2012 earns more playing time.
Outside linebacker John Abraham listed third at weak-side linebacker behind two good run defenders is not an indication that he will ride the pine all season. The Cardinals signed the 10-year veteran to rush the passer, and he will play plenty.
But most of his playing time could come as a nickel linebacker. Base formations could feature a combination of Lorenzo Alexander and Matt Shaughnessy.
Two quick things to note with the special teams depth chart. Firstly, Tyrann Mathieu listed as the third punt returner means he will play a lot on defense and likely will not be featured as a returner—not now, at least.
Secondly, Javier Arenas as the kick returner is not an overwhelming thought for opposing special-teams units. He has yet to return a kick for a touchdown in his three NFL seasons, and his longest return is just 35 yards (done twice). With the likelihood that running back Andre Ellington does not play much on Sundays, sending him out as the returner appears to be a better option.
At least Ellington has returned a kick for touchdown in his playing career (2010 with Clemson). Arenas has never taken one to the house, not in the NFL and not in college.
But there is a first time for everything, right?