4 Bold (and Not so Bold) Predictions for the 2014 Arizona Cardinals

Shaun Church@@NFLChurchContributor IJune 11, 2014

4 Bold (and Not so Bold) Predictions for the 2014 Arizona Cardinals

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    Is there a star in the making this season for the Arizona Cardinals? Predicting stats, results and feats is an inexact science that can cause much debate...well, it’s not a science at all. But it is fun and helps pass the time until we have real football to discuss.

    Last season, Arizona’s offense was inconsistent, its defense was elite, and the special teams units had issues all year.

    This season, the Cardinals have the potential to do something that no Cardinals team has done since 1973 through 1975: win at least 10 games in back-to-back seasons.

    Back then, the NFL used a 14-game regular season. The Cardinals, then still residing in St. Louis, were led by innovative and uber-creative first-time NFL head coach Don Coryell, who is still revered around the league for his outside-the-box style of offense.

    Current head coach Bruce Arians is not the offensive innovator that Coryell was in his day, but like Coryell, Arians has his team ready to dominate heading into his second season with the franchise.

    What can we expect from the 2014 Cardinals? Let’s have some fun with this, shall we?

Bold: Andre Ellington Will Top 1,800 Yards from Scrimmage

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    How bold is it to predict second-year running back Andre Ellington will top 1,800 yards from scrimmage? Consider this: Since the NFL moved to a 16-game season in 1978, just 22 second-year running backs have done what Ellington is predicted to do here, including six Hall of Famers and at least two who eventually will be in Canton.

    The last back to do it was Houston Texans star Arian Foster in 2010, when he exploded for 1,616 yards rushing and another 604 yards receiving. The NFL’s yards-from-scrimmage record holder Chris Johnson did so during his second season with the Tennessee Titans, amassing 2,509 yards—2,006 on the ground and 503 through the air.

    Ellington will see an increased workload in 2014, and if he is anything like he was as a rookie last season, 1,800 yards may not be so bold after all.

    He averaged 6.52 yards every time he touched the ball, becoming the fourth rookie running back in franchise history to top 1,000 yards from scrimmage. If he is anywhere close to being that effective this season, he should have no problem topping 1,800 yards from scrimmage.

    He’s a dynamic player, and Arians appears to have every intention of making him a focal point of the offense this season. Let’s just sit back and enjoy every minute of it, because you know it will be entertaining.

Not so Bold: Carson Palmer Will Surpass 4,000 Yards Passing

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    Carson Palmer set a career high in 2013 with 4,274 yards passing. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to top 4,000 yards in a season with three different teams. Only five others have done it with two franchises—all of whom should end up in the Hall of Fame at some point.

    If not for his first seven games last season, Palmer may have been voted to the Pro Bowl for the third time in his career. Those games still happened, and he ended up with a career-high 22 interceptions as a result, but he led the team to a 10-6 record nonetheless.

    For him to surpass 4,000 yards once again and become the first quarterback in franchise history to do so in back-to-back seasons, he must play like he did during the final nine games of 2013 when he led the Cardinals to a 7-2 finish. From Weeks 8 through 17, he completed 65.7 percent of his passes (No. 7 in the NFL) for 281.4 yards per game (No. 5) and had a 96.5 passer rating (No. 10).

    If you string out that yards-per-game average over a full 16-game season, he would throw for 4,503 yards in 2014. He needs to average just 250 yards per game to top 4,000 again. Given the weapons that general manager Steve Keim put around Palmer, attaining 250 yards per game is definitely not a reach.

    If he’s closer to 281.4 yards per game or higher, we'd be talking about the single-season franchise record for yards passing, which is held by Kurt Warner, who set the record with 4,583 yards during the Super Bowl season of 2008.

    But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

(Very) Bold: Michael Floyd Will Join Isaac Bruce in Record Books

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    There comes a time in a future Hall of Fame receiver’s career when a young player surpasses him as his quarterback’s favorite target. It happened to Jerry Rice with Terrell Owens in 2000, it happened to Chris Carter with Randy Moss in 2001, and it could happen to Larry Fitzgerald with Michael Floyd this season.

    Fitzgerald failed to top 1,000 yards receiving for the second consecutive year in 2013. Meanwhile, Floyd broke out in his second season, hauling in 65 receptions for 1,041 yards and five touchdowns.

    You can blame hamstring injuries for Fitzgerald’s struggles last season, or you can put it on Floyd’s breakout season. Whichever way you look at it, the bottom line is Floyd was better than Fitzgerald was.

    Many expect Floyd to be a monster on the field this season, his quarterback included, according to Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com: “The way Mike Floyd is playing [during OTAs]," Palmer said, "just jumped at me...I have very high expectations for Mike this year.”

    Now, what’s this about former St. Louis Rams wideout Isaac Bruce?

    In 1995 Bruce was in his second season as a pro. That year he had 119 receptions for 1,781 yards and 13 touchdowns. What was special about that season (other than the ridiculous numbers)?

    It was the first time in NFL history a player within his first three years in the league had at least 90 receptions, 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns. That feat had been accomplished by just one receiver at the time—Rice, twice—and Bruce, Rice, the Detroit Lions’ Herman Moore and Hall of Fame wideout Michael Irvin all did it that season.

    Rules changes that year set in motion a change in the NFL that continues to this day, making the league more offense-friendly—especially in the passing game.

    Now, 11 total receivers have completed the feat above, but Bruce is still the only one to accomplish those numbers within his first three pro seasons.

    Watch Floyd join Bruce in the history books.

Not so Bold: Defense Will Remain a Top-10 Unit

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    Last season Arizona led the NFL in run defense, surrendering only 1,351 yards on the ground. It finished second behind the New York Jets, allowing 3.65 yards per carry. The run defense was the major reason it finished as a top-10 unit overall (sixth overall in yards, seventh in points allowed), because the secondary struggled at times defending the pass—against tight ends, especially.

    This season the Cardinals will be without both starting inside linebackers from that great defense. Karlos Dansby is in Cleveland with the Browns, and Daryl Washington is suspended for at least all of this season for yet another violation of the league’s substance abuse program.

    That would normally doom a defense, considering Dansby and Washington were the best players on the field for Arizona’s defense last year. But with the improvements to the secondary and the depth at defensive end and outside linebacker, the defense may be better this season, not worse—even without them.

    Cornerback Antonio Cromartie pairing up with Patrick Peterson on the outside, outside linebackers Sam Acho and Alex Okafor returning from injury and the addition of pure strong safety Deone Bucannon improved an already stout defense.

    Second-year linebacker Kevin Minter will start at one inside position. The other should be between Lorenzo Alexander, who moved from outside ‘backer this offseason, and new free-agent addition Larry Foote.

    Minter has enough veteran leadership around him on defense not to be the only leader out there. He is in a great position to learn on the job while letting his instincts keep him on the field; he’s a good run defender and closes space well enough to shoot the A-gaps on a blitz.

    Coordinator Todd Bowles will have his defense ready to dominate once again. In some instances in the league, the scheme makes the player, not the other way around. That was the case with Dansby in 2013, and it’s a lesson the Browns soon will learn.

    Minter and whoever starts next to him—though they may not be as productive—should be just fine in replacing Dansby and Washington this season. The stout defensive line and Bowles’ scheme will make sure of it.

Bold: John Abraham Will Record 15-Plus Sacks

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    Probably the only reason why veteran pass-rusher John Abraham did not record 15-plus sacks last season was because he was a part-time player for the first month of the season. It took three season-ending injuries for him to crack the starting lineup full time.

    And it’s a good thing he did.

    He ended up leading the team with 11.5 sacks, all of which came in an eight-game span between Weeks 7 and 15—which, as it turns out, is a franchise record for any eight-game span over the course of the same season.

    The 36-year-old still has it, and if he puts it together this year, he could have one of his best seasons to date. His career high for sacks in a season is 16.5, which he did in 2008 with the Atlanta Falcons. Could he surpass that? We’ll see.

    One thing is certain, though. He’s motivated, according to Vince Marotta of ArizonaSports.com:

    It’s going to be a fun year. Super Bowl in Arizona—49 is going to be a nice little number for us this year, so hopefully we can get there and be the first team to do it and win one, because I’m getting up in age. […]

    I’m shooting for at least 20 (sacks). I always shoot high. Shoot high, you might hit low, but at least you shoot high.

Not so Bold: Tyrann Mathieu Will Return to Form in 2014

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    Since tearing ligaments in his knee during a Week 14 victory over the Rams, defensive back Tyrann Mathieu has been working diligently to get back to form. He has to be anxious to get back for Week 1; whether that is doable remains to be seen, but he appears to be inching closer.

    The latest installment of the video series "Tenacious"—which is available at AZCardinals.com—shows Mathieu on the field and running. He is unable to cut just yet, but getting on the field is a big step up from where he was in December when he was on crutches.

    Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked him third among cornerbacks for the 2013 season, behind only Darrelle Revis and Brent Grimes and tied with Vontae Davis. It’s possible there will be some drop-off in play when he first returns, but Mathieu should be among the best defensive backs by season’s end.

    He will be a vital piece to the secondary for many years so long as he’s clean and healthy, but just when he will return to full health is a mystery. Hopefully, it’s sooner rather than later, because the Cardinals have a tough slate of games right out of the chute in 2014.

Bold: The Cardinals Will Win the Division in 2014...

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    Given the fact that they play in the best division in the NFL, to say the Cardinals will win the NFC West may come off as crazy. But also given the fact that they did the most to improve their team for this season, it’s really not that crazy.

    Yes, the subtraction of Dansby and Washington will hurt. But, as mentioned, the additions of some young talent via the draft and getting back those who were injured mean the rest of the defense improved. Therefore, Bowles’ defense will not drop off this season as much as you would assume—it may not drop off at all. It could even improve on its 2013 performance.

    We’ll call the defense a push for now and say it did not get better or worse this offseason.

    What we can say with certainty is that Arizona’s offense improved. Keim reunited Palmer with his left tackle from his days in Oakland, signing Jared Veldheer to a hefty five-year deal. Slot receiver Ted Ginn Jr. signed shortly thereafter, improving the receiving corps and replacing the departed Andre Roberts.

    Next to Veldheer resides a top-10 pick in left guard Jonathan Cooper. The two could end up being one of the best left-side tandems in the league before long.

    Then, there is Ellington and all his potential. Even if he doesn’t reach 1,800 yards from scrimmage as predicted, he should be a force to be reckoned with due to his versatility. He can split out wide and line up in the backfield. In two-back sets, he can start out in the backfield and come in motion out wide and vice versa.

    Creating mismatches is the objective this season regarding Ellington. Arians will make sure the second-year player becomes a lethal weapon.

    Put all that together, and you have a formula to win the toughest division in football.

Not so Bold: …But They Will Not Host Super Bowl XLIX

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    It’s not a stretch to say Arizona will not play in the Super Bowl after this season. Some of the best teams ever didn’t reach the Super Bowl. Things happen in the postseason.

    Cardinals fans understand that.

    The 2008 team led by Warner had no business making it to the Super Bowl. Historically, Arizona is one of the worst road teams in the NFL. In the Super Bowl era, the Cardinals have the third-worst road record in the league at 125-247-4 (.338).

    Even that season, they were 3-5 on the road. They just happened to get hot at the right time and outscore teams en route to nearly winning the Big Game.

    Could this Cardinals team win the division and make a run? Sure. But it’s not realistic to expect a Super Bowl. Every team has “Super Bowl or bust” as the motto before the season starts.

    That’s not reality. While it may work for some franchises—and the Cardinals could very well face that reality for all we know—it’s not good practice to be delusional about it.

    The Arizona Cardinals will not host Super Bowl XLIX.