Arizona Cardinals' 2014 State of the Union

Shaun ChurchContributor IJune 26, 2014

Arizona Cardinals' 2014 State of the Union

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    Left tackle Jared Veldheer with an offensive coach during OTAs.
    Left tackle Jared Veldheer with an offensive coach during OTAs.Associated Press

    At this time last offseason, the Arizona Cardinals' State of the Union may have been bleak. This season, however, there is much to be excited about as the team preps for training camp in late July.

    Despite losing its starting inside linebackers from a year ago, the defense should not drop off much, if at all. Three outside linebackers return from injury, the secondary improved via free agency and the draft, and one of the best defensive lines in the NFL remains intact and is set to wreak havoc on offenses.

    All that, coupled with the fact that the offense should be improved from the 2013 version—thanks in large part to added speed on the outside and more beef up front—and the team should be in for a solid 2014 season.

    The Cardinals still must play the games, of course, and some questions remain at certain positions. That is the purpose of this piece: to give you, the fans, a look at how the Cardinals improved, where they can afford to get better and which players could impress this season.

    Here is Arizona's 2014 State of the Union.

Most Improved on Offense: Carson Palmer’s Blind Side

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    This is a no-brainer pick. Going from Levi Brown and Bradley Sowell to Jared Veldheer, then from Daryn Colledge (who is no slouch) to Jonathan Cooper should do wonders for both the passing and running games in 2014.

    Brown and Sowell allowed a combined 11 sacks last season, while Veldheer allowed 10 from 2011 through his injury-shortened 2013 season. Let’s look at what the Cardinals had to endure at left tackle the past three seasons versus how Veldheer performed over the past three.

    Brown, Sowell, D’Anthony Batiste and Nate Potter:

    • 211 total pressures on 2,018 pass-blocking snaps
    • Pressure on 10.46 percent of pass-blocking snaps
    • Allowed a pressure once every 9.56 pass-blocking snaps

    Now check out Veldheer’s numbers:

    • 82 total pressures on 1,515 PBS
    • Pressure on 5.41 percent of PBS
    • Allowed a pressure once every 18.48 PBS

    Veldheer’s numbers were slightly better when blocking for Palmer. Here are Veldheer's stats in games that Palmer started for Oakland and finished:

    • 52 total pressures on 974 PBS
    • Pressure on 5.34 percent of PBS
    • Allowed a pressure once every 18.73 PBS

    Then there’s Cooper over Colledge. Other than having a more cap-friendly contract, Cooper is far more athletic than Colledge and should be a future Pro Bowler at left guard for the Cardinals. It should make for even more excitement when Cooper pulls to block for running back Andre Ellington; those two could form one of the more electric guard/running back duos in the game—up there with Evan Mathis and LeSean McCoy or even what Steve Hutchinson had before he retired with Adrian Peterson.

Least Improved on Offense: Running Back Depth

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Ellington, of course, will start for Bruce Arians this season. But what happens if he gets hurt and has to miss games? Is it unfathomable to think an injury could happen? Running backs get dinged up throughout the season; that’s nothing new.

    Remember when he injured his knee during a Thanksgiving Day practice last season and missed the game against the Eagles because of it?

    Plus, he added 10 pounds this offseason, according to Kent Somers of AZCentral.com. It’s hard to gauge how putting on weight will affect the joints of a smaller player—especially one who relies on cutting and juking as much as Ellington does.

    The Cardinals replaced the retired Rashard Mendenhall with another former Pittsburgh Steelers back, Jonathan Dwyer. He’s not an upgrade over Mendenhall, though he may be a touch quicker.

    And 2013 fifth-round pick Stepfan Taylor should compete with Dwyer for the primary backup role behind Ellington. That doesn’t do much in the way of confidence should Ellington succumb to the injury bug.

    General manager Steve Keim did not draft a running back or add one in free agency who could carry the proverbial load minus Ellington. It will be interesting to see what happens if No. 38 goes down; hopefully, Arizona fans don’t have to see that day.

Most Improved on Defense: The No Fly Zone

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    That’s the secondary, in case you haven’t heard. It’s the moniker defensive back Tyrann Mathieu tweeted when the Cardinals signed cornerback Antonio Cromartie in March:

    NO FLY ZONE

    — Tyrann Mathieu (@Mathieu_Era) March 20, 2014

    Patrick Peterson on one side. Cromartie on the other. Mathieu in the slot. Then you have to deal with first-round pick Deone Bucannon at strong safety and the combination of Rashad Johnson and Tony Jefferson.

    "No Fly Zone," indeed, Tyrann.

    Some have recently wondered if Cromartie is the same player he was in 2012 after a down 2013 season in which he battled a hip injury. Frank Schwab of Yahoo Sports called him overrated:

    Unless Cromartie can recapture his 2012 season (which was legitimately good), all Arizona will be getting is the post-2007 Cromartie, which is a corner who makes a big play here or there but generally gives up plenty, too.

    OK. So Cromartie is just like every cornerback in the league, ever. “Makes some big plays but gives up some as well.” Yep. Every cornerback ever. Thanks for clearing that up, Schwab.

    And from the same report, Eric Edholm said Peterson is also overrated. You can read what he had to say by clicking the link above.

    The bottom line is this regarding the Arizona secondary: Cromartie, whether he is back to his 2012 days or not, is an upgrade over Jerraud Powers. Bucannon is an upgrade over Yeremiah Bell no matter which way you look at it.

    And perhaps above all, the unit is in Year 2 of playing in coordinator Todd Bowles’ scheme; the defensive backs know the ins and outs of the defense, which means the new players should catch on quicker. That, in turn, means there should be little-to-no drop-off in understanding early this season compared to late last season.

Least Improved on Defense: Inside Linebacker

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The inside linebacking corps took a big step back this offseason. Losing Karlos Dansby to the Cleveland Browns and Daryl Washington to yet another suspension could hurt if some guys don’t elevate their play.

    Former second-round pick Kevin Minter will start at one spot, while the other is up for grabs. Lorenzo Alexander, who has shifted from outside to inside linebacker this season, will battle free-agent signee Larry Foote for that other spot.

    But is losing Dansby and Washington that big of a deal? They were among the best in the league last year, but they had as much success as they had because of the men in front of them. The defensive line is given little credit for what the inside linebackers did in 2013, but the linemen are in many ways just as responsible as Dansby and Washington are for their domination.

    Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Dan Williams and Alameda Ta’amu combined to form a top defensive line that stifled opposing offenses, opening gaps that gave Dansby and Washington access to running backs and quarterbacks.

    It’s a fact that the Cardinals lost talent in losing Dansby and Washington. But the defense should be just fine without them because of the supporting cast around the inside linebackers. The defensive line, the edge-rushers and the "No Fly Zone" secondary will help make the unit better.

Most Impressive Newcomer: John Brown, Wide Receiver

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    John Brown (No. 12) could be a steal.
    John Brown (No. 12) could be a steal.Norm Hall/Getty Images

    You can never have too much speed on the field at one time. When the Cardinals signed Ted Ginn Jr., the thought was that they had just signed their “right now” replacement for Andre Roberts, who left to sign a free-agent contract with the Washington Redskins.

    Then Keim drafted former Pittsburg State wideout John Brown with the 91st overall pick, and now there’s a logjam in the slot.

    Too much speed? Again, you can’t have too much speed.

    There is, however, plenty of talent to make training camp fun to watch. For now, Ginn is the No. 3 receiver. But it may not be long before Brown impresses enough to overtake him on the depth chart.

    He is a spitting on-field image of Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton—Jess Root of Revenge of the Birds laid out their measurables side by side if you want to check it out. Bruce Arians was in Indy when general manager Ryan Grigson gave him Hilton with the 92nd pick in the 2012 NFL draft.

    Upon arriving in Arizona the next year, Arians decided he wanted a Hilton of his own. Keim did not get the coach his Hilton last draft, but he did not mess around with waiting too long this go-round.

    Brown, thought of by some as a reach at No. 91 overall, could be one of the steals of the 2014 draft before long. All it will take is a season or two of taking the top off defenses, the way Hilton has for the Colts throughout his first two seasons.

Player with Most to Prove: Bobby Massie, Right Tackle

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The discussion surrounding the right side of Arizona’s offensive line has been that it is the weak link in what typically is a porous unit as a whole. Third-year fourth-round pick Bobby Massie is the team’s starting right tackle...for now.

    How long he remains with the first-team offense is up to him. He had the chance last offseason to build upon a solid finish to his rookie season of 2012.

    That year, he was one of two 16-game starters at right tackle not to allow a sack over the final eight games—the other was former Atlanta Falcons Pro Bowler Tyson Clabo, whom the Cardinals had in for a visit recently and would presumably be the go-to free-agent signee, should Arians again lose faith in Massie.

    But Arians was not impressed with the former Ole Miss Rebel, so Keim signed free agent Eric Winston to a one-year deal.

    Massie is in the same boat once again this offseason. He has an opportunity right now to be Arizona’s starting right tackle. Should he fail, Keim is ready with a backup plan to make Massie a backup once again—only this time, he could lose his roster spot altogether if he does not succeed.

     

    All stats provided by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).