The Arizona Cardinals will likely need to score a lot of points this season.
For the last few years, the Cardinals have been reliant on their outstanding defense to set the tone for the team as a whole. Entering this season, that defense has taken too many significant hits to sustain that level of excellence.
Defensive end John Abraham is healthy and with the team, but he is also 36 years old and was late reporting to camp. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett will miss the whole season after tearing his ACL in practice, per Josh Weinfuss of ESPN.com. Neither starting linebacker from last season—Daryl Washington (suspension) or Karlos Dansby(left in free agency)—will play a snap for the Cardinals this season.
Safety/cornerback hybrid Tyrann Mathieu proved to be a key member of the defense during his rookie season, but he is returning from a torn ACL. Mathieu should be ready to go for the first week of the season, but you can never be certain of how a player will return from a serious knee injury.
Rookie additions Deone Bucannon and Kareem Martin will likely see the field quite a bit, but their talent won't necessarily translate into effective play immediately. Furthermore, underwhelming veteran free-agent additions Antonio Cromartie and Larry Foote are set to start. Cromartie is talented, but he is in the twilight of his career and is coming off arguably the worst season of his career.
To compensate for those losses, the Cardinals will expect quarterback Carson Palmer and his cast of receiving options to carry the franchise to the playoffs this season.
If the Cardinals had to rely on their quarterback and receivers to reach the playoffs at any point since Kurt Warner retired, their outlook would be as bleak as any other team's in the NFL. However, while Palmer isn't an above-average starter at this stage of his career, he does have an exceptional supporting cast of weapons.
With Darren Sproles' physical decline taking a toll on his explosiveness, the mantle of "Best Receiving Back in the NFL'" is up for grabs.
Jamaal Charles is the clear favorite. Charies is the focal point of the Kansas City Chiefs offense and proved to be an astoundingly dangerous weapon out of the backfield last season. The one knock on Charles was how often he dropped the football.
If Charles is the favorite, Andre Ellington is likely the dark horse to overtake him in 2014.
Ellington has similar drop issues to Charles, but he importantly also has similar explosion and versatility. As a rookie last season, he played sparingly but still managed 39 receptions for 371 yards and one touchdown. The Cardinals are expecting to make the 25-year-old a greater part of their rushing attack, but his bigger impact should still come as a receiver.
The Cardinals don't have another back with a receiving skill set on their roster. They have two between-the-tackle runners in Jonathan Dwyer and Stepfan Taylor. That should keep Ellington on the field when the offense spreads the field out.
It's relatively easy to find a running back who can execute screen passes from the backfield and catch the ball behind the line of scrimmage. It's also relatively simple to find a back who can make a defender miss in space in these situations.
Screens and throws into the flat essentially act as extended handoffs. What makes a receiving running back special is the ability to line up out wide and make plays down the field.
Why is this important? Because very few teams in the NFL can match up to five dangerous receiving targets. When your running back, the one skill position player who isn't expected to be a dangerous receiver, can win his matchup out wide, the offense has more flexibility and becomes more dangerous.
Ellington can comfortably run routes against safeties and linebackers. He understands how to catch the ball at its earliest point and doesn't let it go into his chest too often. He plays with a reckless abandon when it comes to working between bigger players over the middle of the field.
Having a player like Ellington in the backfield of your offense gives you a different dimension to what most other offenses can boast. He turns easy throws into big plays and stretches the defense as far as it can be stretched.
Bruce Arians has never made tight ends a focal point of his passing attack.
As the selection of Troy Niklas in the second round of the 2014 draft highlights, Arians prefers that his tight ends are strong blockers who can act as pass-catchers rather than the other way around. At a time when the receiving tight end is becoming a focal point of most offensive identities, Arians is sticking to his dated approach.
Ironically, Arians inherited a talented receiving tight end when he became the head coach of the Cardinals before the start of last season.
Trades in the NFL are essentially nonexistent and are especially rare at this time of the year. If there was a perfect trade candidate, though, it would be Rob Housler. Housler simply doesn't fit with Arians' philosophy. He is a 6'5", 250-pound athlete who does his best work running down the field rather than fighting with bigger players on the line of scrimmage.
Housler hasn't proven to be a special receiving option throughout his career. Much of his production and impact has been curtailed by the Cardinals' dysfunctional offense, though drops have also been a concern.
In spite of his lack of production and effectiveness to this point, Housler still has the physical ability to be a matchup problem. Because he is likely going to be the fifth or sixth option as a receiver on this offense, that talent becomes more valuable in the context of the offense as a whole.
Undoubtedly, the strength of this roster now lies at the wide receiver position.
Larry Fitzgerald has slowed a bit since his peak, but he will be just 31 years old at the start of the season. Michael Floyd is ascending to a level that could make him one of the best receivers in the league. Floyd improved more than anyone not named Dontari Poe from his first to his second year in the league.
Former first-round draft pick and bust Ted Ginn Jr. was signed in free agency to be the team's third receiver. Ginn sounds like an underwhelming signing, but he impressed as part of the Carolina Panthers offense in 2013. The Cardinals' philosophy is similar to the Panthers' and should play to Ginn's strengths.
Even though Ginn was signed to be the team's third receiver at the time, he has to fight for that spot.
Not only is he fighting off third-round rookie John Brown, he is also fighting off second-year player Jaron Brown, who made the roster as the fourth receiver last season. John has been the star of the offseason in Arizona. He has consistently impressed in practices and consistently made big plays when given opportunities in the preseason.
With Walter Powell and Brittan Golden as the sixth and seventh wide receivers, the Cardinals have as much depth at the position as any of the 31 other teams in the league.
Depth is very valuable, but if the Cardinals want to get the most out of their passing attack, they need Fitzgerald to be at his best. He had 82 receptions for 954 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. Respectable numbers, but not the kind of numbers you would expect from one of the best receivers in the league.
He did appear to be a step slower, as he dealt with a hamstring injury during the first half of the season before missing time with a concussion during the second half of the season.
In Arians' offense, Fitzgerald became more of a possession receiver than a big-play threat down the field. Much like Hines Ward did for Arians when he was the offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Fitzgerald split time between lining up outside and in the slot last year.
Of course, that didn't completely take away his ability to make big plays.
With Palmer, a quarterback who is an above-average deep thrower, replacing the incompetent passers Fitzgerald played with in 2012, the receiver was able to notch 11 20-plus-yard receptions and three 40-plus-yard receptions during the 2013 season.
Those numbers don't replicate the numbers he put up when Warner was his quarterback, but they are relatively impressive.
If you evaluate Fitzgerald individually and compare him to the other top receivers in the NFL right now, this is the area where you would suggest he needs to improve. However, when you look at him in relation to the rest of the receivers playing around him, you understand that he doesn't need to be significantly better working down the field.
Fitzgerald needs to be most effective working on intermediate routes and over the middle of the field. That is where he can use his precise route running, overwhelming strength and soft hands to make tough receptions and consistently move the chains.
While he is doing that, Floyd, Ellington, John, Jaron and Ginn can all create big plays down the field in different ways. Any plays from Fitzgerald will be seen as added benefits rather than necessities.
Floyd is the player the Cardinals will expect the most of. During his second season, he proved to be versatile in his routes, much more explosive working down the field and, most importantly, very strong at the catch point. When you throw in his athletic 6'2" frame and wide wingspan, Floyd becomes a very difficult assignment for any cornerback.
Floyd and Jones are similar in style at this stage, even though Jones is probably still a better player than him when fully healthy. White and Fitzgerald are also similar in style at this stage, while a healthy Fitzgerald is a better player than a fully healthy White.
If you look at the two sets of starters in a vacuum, the Falcons' pair is probably better, but not by a huge degree. They do also play with the better quarterback, but the Cardinals' duo is surrounded by more receiving options.
Congruency is very important within a group of wide receivers. Just like Jones and White, neither Floyd nor Fitzgerald have any glaring weaknesses. That means they can complement each other in different ways.
As a receiver, Ginn is limited to linear routes and attacking the deep section of the field. He can catch simple curl routes and shallow crosses, but he is primarily a field stretcher. John Brown in particular appears to offer the Cardinals more diversity.
The last time Arians had a rookie receiver like Brown, he was the offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It was the 2009 season, when Arians coached Mike Wallace for the first time. Wallace was the third receiver on Pittsburgh's depth chart, behind Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward. He had been selected in the third round of the draft and immediately became an impact player.
Wallace had the kind of speed that terrified defensive backs, but he was also willing to work the middle of the field to make receptions. Arians didn't ask him to run every possible route, but he also didn't just use him to stretch the field.
John Brown has shown during the preseason that he has the ability to fill that role.
Rookie mistakes will be inevitable for any rookie who immediately takes on a key role in the NFL. The Cardinals can deal with those while Brown learns on the job, so long as he is as productive as Wallace was when he was a rookie. Wallace finished his rookie season with 39 receptions for 756 yards and six touchdowns.
Crucially, he averaged 19.4 yards per reception. Fourteen of his 39 receptions went for at least 20 yards, and six went for at least 40 yards.
With John Brown's ability to get free deep down the field, Fitzgerald and Floyd can attack the intermediate. If Brown continues to prove his effectiveness on intermediate routes, the defense will never be able to predict what each individual player is doing on each occasion.
Defensive backs work in space. if they can close off part of the space, their jobs become much easier. That is why Darrelle Revis and Earl Thomas carry so much value on the teams they play on. Revis takes away one sideline, while Thomas takes away the middle of the field.
If you don't have receivers who complement each other effectively, you become incapable of attacking every level of the field on a given play.
Congruency with the Quarterback
Palmer is the clear starter in Arizona. Drew Stanton has played very well over the past two preseasons, and Logan Thomas impressed in his debut this year.
A huge amount of Palmer's success will rely on the quality of his offensive line. Last season, he made too many mistakes independent of his line, but he was also forced to make a lot of tougher plays because of his poor protection and lack of a consistent running game.
Arians should be able to use Ellington on screen passes and shorter throws to help alleviate the pressure on Palmer, while Brown can also be an option on those kinds of plays.
Because Palmer is now 34 years old, his arm is fading. Last year, there were signs of that during the second half of the season, but he did make some big throws down the field in Week 17. Having Floyd and Fitzgerald with a quarterback who can accurately push the ball down the field on difficult throws should allow the passing offense to be very productive.